President Donald Trump might be ready to sit out the battle against climate change, but fashion isn’t.
In the wake of Trump’s decision last week to start the four-year process withdrawing America from the United Nation’s climate accord, executives and brands from across the industry said they would continue the eco fight, cutting CO2 emissions in their own businesses.
And even if profit-minded corporate impulse did have companies sympathizing with the White House or simply wanting to ignore the issue, it seems unlikely that increasingly environmentally aware consumers would let brands off the hook.
“Brands cannot afford to be blasé about something as socially significant and emotionally charged as climate change,” said Catherine Sadler, chief executive officer of Sadler + Brand and former chief marketer at Banana Republic. “To do so, in my opinion, is to risk not only the planet’s health — but their own.”
Sadler said brands have become “keenly aware of the importance of social responsibility as a core component of their brand proposition — in large part due to shifting consumer attitudes.”
Companies have also been embracing at least some eco-minded moves that double as cost-saving measures or serve up better quality to customers (and they just might be able to see beyond their own financial statements and find themselves in a position to better the world).
Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s chief executive officer Doug McMillon said he was “disappointed” by Trump’s move and underscored the importance that countries work collaboratively to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
While tech darling Elon Musk and Disney chief Bob Iger resigned their roles on Trump’s advisory council over the climate accord, McMillon is staying on to stay in contact. A spokesman said: “We feel it is important to engage with the advisory committee and that’s why Doug will continue to be involved. We see the advisory board as an opportunity to work with a well-respected group of business leaders to positively influence our country.”
Under Armour Inc.’s founder and ceo Kevin Plank, who has caught social media flack in the past for his supportive words for Trump, broke with the president over the climate deal, noting the U.S. had “signed a contract with all of our closest allies.”
“I believe in keeping one’s word and doing everything possible to execute on our commitments,” he said. “Climate change is real and must be taken seriously by our business community, our customers, our neighbors and our elected officials….As a business leader concerned with creating American jobs, I disagree with the decision to exit the Paris [climate] Accord.”
Trump promised during the campaign to leave the pact and the White House pointed to a study that found meeting its requirements would “cost the U.S. economy nearly $3 trillion over the next several decades.”
By following through on the pledge, and there are plenty of promises the president has reneged on, Trump appears to be catering to his political base, a constituency that is smaller than, for instance, Wal-Mart’s customer base, making it easy for the likes of McMillon to choose sides.
And many brands, especially those popular in the generally more Democratic leaning urban areas, can court consumers by opposing Trump.
Matthew Kahn, economics professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on climate change policy, said companies “might double down on the sustainability to have their brand look hip and progressive.”
“If you can develop a reputation that you’re a progressive company, you can increase market share, so if I were a company that wanted to look hip, maybe thumb my nose at a ‘square’ president, it could mean even more sustainability efforts,” Kahn said.
Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of sustainability at George Washington University, said college students are “very focused on climate change and for them it’s not an abstract discussion.”
She predicted businesses would keep up their efforts in the areas of sustainability and that states and cities would pick up some slack from the federal government.
“If you want to be a business leader with a successful operation, you realize this country is out of step, but you as a business don’t want to be out of step,” she said. “Businesses will continue to do what they’re doing.”
The issue of sustainability, which was at the fringes of the industry even a decade ago, is now firmly part of the conversation in fashion.
Susan Keane, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program, said “there’s a mental shift going on” in the industry and that interest in sustainability is now commonplace.
And fashion can go it alone. The industry doesn’t need the U.S. to be part of the global framework to make a difference.
“Where they can really make a giant impact is if they have supply chain policies where they choose to purchase their orders from factories where they adopt energy-efficient manufacturing techniques,” Keane said.
Brands, she said, have the power to get factories to “whip into shape” and be more efficient.
“I do think [fashion companies are] slowly but surely embracing this idea,” Keane said. “First of all, they’re noticing it doesn’t cripple the business, on the contrary, while saving energy, it also improves the bottom line.”
She also noted, “There’s a big connection between vendors who operate in a very efficient, professional and modern way and vendors who give good quality and good price.”
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