Arizona Muse is on a mission to change the fashion industry, and she’s taking it to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Muse is attending the United Nation’s climate change conference COP27 on behalf of her Dirt charity, as well as releasing a new short film “Explained by Dirt: Water” at the Ocean Climate Summit on Friday.
The model-turned-activist is also moderating a panel, “Imagining a World Without Plastics,” among one of the appearances she’s making during the week.
“We are talking about the ocean and questioning why this isn’t a bigger [topic]. The ocean covers 70 percent of our Earth and yet it’s not center stage in the climate conversation,” she said, noting that water pollution and carbon emissions are affecting the ocean’s ability to support marine life. It’s also a carbon sink, and the more we pollute the less ability the ocean has to cool the planet.
The film makes the connection between agricultural chemicals — heavily used on crops such as the fashion industry’s staple material, cotton — and global water toxicity.
Muse said that while the fashion industry is now asking the right questions and taking steps in the right direction, particularly looking at sustainability and workers’ rights in their supply chains, there is still work to be done.
“There’s a lot of greenwashing right now,” she said. “What does not help is to celebrate things we have not yet done, and this is how I define greenwashing.”
Muse said that while the fashion industry is setting ambitious targets, they are often decades away, yet presented as concrete change. “It’s big businesses misguiding consumers and the general public by sharing information that hasn’t happened yet.”
This kind of greenwashing from large conglomerates ends up hurting small fashion brands that are actually producing sustainably and struggling to survive.
Muse also took issue with the use of the word “regenerative agriculture,” which has been gaining traction as a sustainability buzzword but is not defined or certified. Her charity, Dirt, backs certified biodynamic farming, which does not use chemicals and builds long-term soil health.
Greenwashing has been under fire by regulators in the U.S. and the U.K. The London-based model said that companies are disproportionately spending their marketing dollars and pounds on green messaging, while not backing it up with action.
“Companies spend a high proportion of their marketing budgets talking about their sustainability efforts, but those proportions do not match the proportion of products that they create sustainably versus products that they create unsustainably,” she said.
One proposal is to require companies to distribute their marketing budgets along those lines; if a company makes 5 percent of its garments sustainably, they can spend 5 percent of their marketing budget on that message.
Such a standard has been applied to fossil fuel companies through legal action, and could be applied to the fashion industry as well, she noted.
But it comes down to companies’ sustainability departments and Muse noted that fashion brands are often promoting employees from marketing positions into sustainability positions without proper understanding of the depth of issues. “They’re a lovely person and mean no harm, but they don’t have the knowledge to transition a company to a sustainable future,” she said. “I’m sorry, we don’t have time for a lovely person to get into the role and start to learn.”
Muse also promotes the idea that a head of sustainability should be a C-suite role, alongside that of a chief finance or chief executive officer.
COP27 is set to be the “action COP,” where industries make concrete plans to move forward on their targets. The fashion industry is working toward setting specific definitions, but these still vary by jurisdiction, Muse noted. To make change the fashion industry should create universal definitions and rules for establishing sustainability.
“Each country is still controlling its own fashion industry as if that’s going to work to shift the sector. We need universal rules about agricultural chemicals on raw materials,” she said.
Cotton is a water- and pesticide-intensive monocrop, which ultimately leads to soil degradation and leads to runoff that ends up in the ocean. Those effects are explored in the film.
As for continuing her work in the fashion industry, Muse still models “occasionally,” but spends up to 50 hours a week working on Dirt projects, including fundraising for biodynamic farming projects and an educational program that teaches these techniques to young farmers.
Muse added the corporate structures need a rethink and hopes that COP27 can provide a platform. “Corporations are an old-fashioned company structure and when [sustainability departments] are functioning within that they have no choice,” she said. “Finance is the same way. The system is set up in such a way that only certain funds and businesses have access to money.”
Working with activists present at the conference fills her with “extraordinary positivity,” she said. “Because when you’re in touch with the people who are the answer, it’s quite an amazing feeling. That’s what keeps me going as an activist, I feel incredible every day, surprisingly not bogged down by the doom and gloom of what I know.”
Having said that, she says COP has to be a fashion industry game-changer. “It’s about getting the right information in front of the right people and persuading them to see the future that isn’t just about profit. They cannot continue on with business as usual and pollute the planet, and that needs to happen really fast. So I hope that COP can contribute to that change.”