What went wrong when it came to sustainability in 2021?
Several long-tail sustainability issues resurfaced this year, and fashion brands got reprimanded for their perpetuation of overproduction, lack of supply chain due diligence and other dodgy practices (think bag slashing and children’s clothes laden in toxic chemicals).
Caught Up in Cotton Controversy
Previously tripped up in trade wars, multinational fashion companies found themselves navigating choppy waters pitted between ever-conscious consumers, the Chinese government — and cotton.
Of course, the issue was much graver than cotton and instead a moral witch hunt for rooting out forced labor.
With increased attention on the Xinjiang cotton crisis — where at least 83 global brands were implicated in forced labor claims of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur people in the Xinjiang region in China — January started off with a bang. Following a dozen withhold release orders (product seizure) issued in 2020, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency attempted to clamp down on the escalating human rights atrocities by banning all cotton and tomato products coming from the Xinjiang region on Jan. 13, 2021.
That was one pivotal stroke, but the attention lies in the remediation since.
Many brands issued statements disavowing forced labor or setting up “zero-tolerance” approaches (as in the case of Inditex and Fast Retailing Group) while others deepened their stances in sourcing Xinjiang cotton.
Cotton misinformation reports surfaced in the aftermath from independent consultants and nonprofits, like the Transformers Foundation, hoping to spur continued education on the environmental and social considerations in cotton.
The issue is ongoing.
Still, forced labor was a file all its own last year and if not in Xinjiang, then in Leicester.
Boohoo also topped headlines this year on continued developments to allegations of forced labor in the Leicester apparel-producing region where the company makes half of its products. The U.K. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee drilled down on Boohoo chairman Mahmud Kamani with a series of recommendations to clean up Boohoo’s act.
With the backdrop of the United Nation’s code red for humanity climate report, activism was a reigning theme this year among youth groups on global stages like the U.N. climate summit (or COP26 held in Glasgow) and among industry folk (Read Year in Review: Sustainable Fashion Strides for more on this).
Unionization attempts that rippled across the industry were one such cause for pause with Amazon a prime statue of how big tech dealt with mobilized labor.
In one case, union organizers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala. — dubbed BAmazon — fought tirelessly for the right to unionize (a potential impact for roughly 6,000 Amazon workers) with efforts coming to a head in March and ultimately being overturned. Organizers will get another square-off with their employer at a later time.
“This is resonating with people. I think it’s because of the moment we’re in,” Stuart Appelbaum president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which organized the BAmazon campaign under its mid-south council, said at the time. “The importance of this election transcends this one warehouse. It even transcends Amazon — it’s really about the future of work and what working conditions are going to be like for women and men in our new economy….People tell us over and over again; they feel like robots being managed by robots.”
When a tornado later swept through an Edwardsville, Ill., Amazon facility this month, killing six Amazon employees inside, criticisms arose as to the employer’s workplace handbook once again. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation on the employer, as is protocol.
Appelbaum enthused that win or lose, the attempt at unionization was already a “win” for sparking global solidarity and reigniting the value of labor unions.
Overproduction tracked high on the list of most talked-about, glaring issues this year as fashion’s supposed green recovery took a nosedive in the opposite direction.
Then came the scandal that gave wastefulness a face, spinning out from one viral video.
TikTok is notorious for catapulting brand missteps into a full-fledged PR disaster. Such was the case for Coach, which found its bags at the top of fashion’s growing trash pile in October following a viral TikTok from New York City-based influencer and waste consultant Anna Sacks (known as the “trash walker”).
Sacks unboxed a haul of slashed Coach product acquired from a Texas-based dumpster diver, poking holes in the company’s repair policy and what she saw as its hapless disregard for waste.
Joon Silverstein, the global head of sustainability and digital at Coach, responded to the backlash. “When it comes to damaged or defective product, we have been working on many avenues….It’s unfortunate these posts came out now, because we had been doing this thoughtfully,” she said at the time in a mention to the brand’s (Re)Loved program and long-running repair service. Coach underscored these programs and vowed to stop its bag-slashing in an Instagram post, as response to the TikTok advocacy.
Fast fashion did not come off clean either, by any means.
Of the fast-fashion newsmakers in 2021 were companies like Shein, which was the target of both CBC Marketplace and Public Eye investigations that spurred countless media reports, and Forever 21, which along with Ross, earned the lowest possible score (a -13 out of 150 possible points) on nonprofit Remake’s annual accountability report released in December. Brands were evaluated across transparency, wages and well-being, commercial practices, raw materials, environmental justice and climate change, governance, and diversity and inclusion.
Plastic: A Systems Error
Of course, no year-end sustainability controversy list would be complete without talk of plastic.
Recycling went from an end-all solution that fast-talking innovators spoke of on Zoom webinars, to the subject of a major “myth” in Ellen MacArthur’s circularity book.
Ubuntoo, an organization that helps companies execute upon their sustainability goals, took to myth-busting, too, in its “Plastic Promises” report published in December exposing the empty promises in recycling and plastic goals yet unmet.
“Ubuntoo has observed that the biggest controversy of 2021 is about ‘advanced recycling’ or ‘chemical recycling’ technologies,” said Venkatesh Kini, cofounder and chief operating officer of Ubuntoo to WWD. “Environmentalists and some activist investors have raised serious questions about the financial viability and technological claims of many high-profile recycling technologies. However, they continue to have the support of industry and are proceeding with their investments.”
Kini pointed to how recycling is a greenwashed guise for good with serious flaws. A number of firms, among them Loop Industries (a recycled PET startup) and Purecycle Technologies (a recycled PP startup), have come under investigation for false or misleading claims.
But not all is lost.
“Advanced recycling technologies offer some promise, especially for polyester fabrics, so it is in the interest of the fashion industry for this technology to succeed,” Kini said.
The joint pressure from consumers, investors, activists and policymakers for solutions means fashion must advance on the side of progress — it’s just a matter of how fast.