Greenwashing, or falsified and misleading environmental claims, has become a trend in itself as companies continue to make statements on sustainability and climate change.
Like other industries, fashion can be victim to slippery language, climate commitments without interim targets, empty timelines, narrowly focused goals that cherry-pick the highlights and — perhaps the most Hollywood stunt — companies’ deflections that call out the broader industry but paint their brand as muse to the misguided whole.
For the sake of navigating this sea change, WWD has compiled the latest trends in greenwashing.
1. Stalling on Goals Until 2050
With sea-level rise, heat waves and monsoons a new climate reality, companies can no longer remain silent on the climate crisis.
“The biggest trend to point out is we are now in a moment where every corporation, at least in the U.S., has to say something on climate. Even five years ago, that wasn’t the case,” Alison Kirsch, climate and energy lead researcher at San Francisco-based nonprofit Rainforest Action Network, told WWD. Kirsch is well-versed in the common Wall Street bank climate policies that leave the door open to deception.
To stand up to the most ambitious science-based aims of the landmark Paris Agreement, companies need to halve greenhouse gas emissions (not just carbon dioxide) by 2030 and hit net-zero emissions (canceling out their impact) by 2050. Anything less is twiddling thumbs to the detriment of many stakeholders, according to climate research.
“Companies should not be telling us that they need more data in order to act right now,” said Kirsch, noting that climate science is clear on immediate action. Alongside stalling tactics to postpone making public commitments, some companies will present lofty commitments 30 years down the road but without concrete, interim goals leading up to it.
Consumers who see a fashion company instill a target for 2050 without interim progress updates or concrete detail on the entire business’ impact (encompassing both direct emissions or Scope 1 and 2, as well as indirect or Scope 3), should be very wary.
“It’s incredibly important to strip away industry influence, and frankly, political influence to really get at what’s going on. The urgency of the climate science lays out a road map.” A number of industry-led coalitions have sprung up to accelerate progress, but Kirsch warns if “the focus of the coalition isn’t reducing emissions then at the very least it needs some real scrutiny.”
2. Headlining the Convo Yet Acting Hypocritically
Finance is notoriously linked to the fossil fuel industry’s expansion. Even in the years since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the 60 largest banks poured an additional $3.8 trillion into fossil fuels, according to the March report “Banking on Climate Chaos,” authored by Sierra Club and other environmental groups.
Even amid the pandemic, 2020 saw higher fossil fuel financing than in 2016. The standout institutions bankrolling the climate chaos over the past five years were J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Citi Group, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Royal Bank of Canada, per the report.
“I think we are approaching the moment, where any company, including fashion, is professing to be a leader on climate and is banking with one of the biggest fossil banks in the world — there’s a discrepancy there,” said Kirsch.
Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan are top institutional holders of companies like VF Corp. Meanwhile, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan have strongholds on off-pricers like The TJX Cos. Inc.
In the eyes of penny-pinching corporate leaders pressed to act on climate, ambitious emissions reduction targets and the like are dependent upon budget allowance. Under these constraints, Kirsch has found corporations will do “something that looks the best but takes the least change internally,” or in other words: greenwash.
Other efforts that could fall flat include professing to be an inspiration to industry peers or gaslighting consumers by falling back on the oft-used phrase of “progress not perfection.”
3. Burning Goods and Turning to Carbon Offsets
Indigenous rights leaders in the environmental space like Tom Goldtooth are quick to call out fast fixes that are more than likely greenwashing in another form. In a press briefing held by coalition Stop the Money Pipeline on Sept. 28, Goldtooth called carbon offsetting and carbon capture “a false solution.”
Stop the Money Pipeline includes some 175 organizations striving to hold the financial backers of the climate crisis accountable.
In a social media-transfixed world, digital zines are springing up as another means to educate citizens around common “false solutions.” One such zine called “Hoodwinked in the Hothouse” is in its third annual run with its latest digital edition published in April after a 12-year hiatus. The zine is underpinned by grassroots environmental networks like Rising Tide North America and Carbon Trade Watch, along with the Indigenous Environmental Network and a number of allied environmental justice and climate action organizers.
The zine highlighted a number of greenwashing tactics including waste incineration being disguised as “waste-to-energy” in environmental reports (even Nike reported waste to energy metrics in its fiscal year 2019 report). The report also highlighted how carbon offsetting, carbon pricing and carbon capturing are another means for “polluters to justify more pollution” by offloading their impact perpetually into other projects.
4. Keeping It Vague on ‘More Responsible’ Materials
While gasoline-powered cars, plastic-cluttered beaches and coal-powered electricity in buildings became the showpiece for fossil fuel harm, fashion is not immune to controversy given its love affair with petroleum-based synthetics (polyester, especially, is the most used fiber in the world per Textile Exchange’s 2019 Preferred Fiber & Materials Report).
Brands will often release sustainable capsule collections or create goals with “more responsible” materials (including recycled polyester, organic cotton and the like) in mind. The gray area sets in when companies fail to define what exactly makes the materials more responsible or how the capsule line is representative of their broader efforts. In many cases, the “better” line is a very slim percentage of the company’s overall assortment (1 to 8 percent) or the material improvements are negligible across its wider material mix or the main materials a company uses and in what quantity.
Pointing to the misinformation surrounding the cotton sector, Marc Lewkowitz, chief executive officer of U.S. cotton nonprofit Supima and chair of the Better Cotton Initiative, said, “Those terms, [organic and regenerative], much like sustainability are overapplied, misunderstood and misrepresented in terms of the claims made.”
While the call to reduce virgin material use is commendable, experts believe reliance on fossil fuels, in one form or another, is still at the crux of such goals.
“The most bare truth is we have to wean off fossil-fuel dependent economies,” Kirsch reiterated. “No matter what the end use is [for the fossil fuels], the impact on communities and around transportation and infrastructure is the same. I think we do need to draw a line, and [the fossil fuel industry] doesn’t want us to do that.”
5. Maintaining Supply Chain Opacity
While some businesses claim to be leading their counterparts when it comes to sustainability, they can only do so much in a broken system.
“I think it’s about infrastructure and the transition to green energy,” said Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council. “Some of the biggest barriers to businesses being more sustainable is the infrastructure.”
In September, the BFC released a report that highlights the steps to achieve a circular fashion economy. Rush relayed the findings including clamping down on overproduction.
As for greenwashing, she believes the supply chain transparency that would come through legislation aimed at creating a circular-focused economy — where garment materials come from, chemical usage, water usage, who is making the garments and how much they’re being paid — “would be able to tackle industries that are inauthentic.”
“Particularly after the last year and a half through the challenges of COVID-19, businesses have been reflecting on their businesses and [exploring] more sustainable [models]. Having COP26 on the horizon helps to keep businesses tied to their pledges,” said Rush, who believes the U.N.-sponsored climate summit is a “really key moment to ensure [climate commitments] are embedded in business strategies going forward.”
Rush anticipates ongoing discussions on clean energy incentives for businesses, clear parameters on overproduction and overconsumption and coinvestments in innovation and waste infrastructure as service to reducing greenwashing while advancing the circular fashion transition.
“It’s not that [fashion companies] don’t want to move toward that,” she said.
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