Follow me on:

  • less2

By Lasse Lindegaard Pedersen

Fashion Summits, corporate »Codes of Conduct« and the Higg Index – yes, green is indeed the new black in the fashion world. But is the green transition real or merely a PR stunt? How optimistic should we be that the green trend will last for more than a season?

The problem with the word »sustainability« is identical to that of »innovation«: Everybody wants it, everybody claims it, but only a few have any idea what it actually means. This however, does not keep dozens of actors within the fashion sector from using it in their PR strategies and marketing, and thus we as consumers are overexposed to words like “eco-frendly”, “natural” and “green” this and that. Furthermore, the sustainability programs for most companies are as transparent as the fog over Dhaka in Bangladesh. A regular consumer has no chance of seeing through the complicated supply chain that occurs prior to the purchasing of a pair of jeans: from the cotton field, to the manufacturing, to the shipping and retailing etc. and it seems that most companies are not concerned with clearing this up for us. This lack of transparency and the excessive use of green buzzwords are generating distrust between the fashion companies and the consumers, and is also potentially damaging to those who do run a green business.

Therefore I have conducted my own little research by asking the following questions:
What is the status of sustainability in the fashion world? How far have we come to date? Who should take responsibility – the consumers or the companies? And what chance do I, as a consumer, have to navigate this jungle of self-proclaiming green brands?

What’s the status?
It is no secret that a vast majority of the apparel production, especially in Scandinavia, has been moved to countries outside of Europe, such as China, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Globalisation has changed the game, and the apparel industry has gradually shifted to a fashion industry. A Danish 2011 PhD-study by Kristoffer Jensen concludes that in the 1950’s the industry had to adapt to the contemporary fashion trends to survive, in the 1970’s, international competition first started to become a challenge, and in the 1990’s, increasing international competition waved goodbye to domestic production for good.

This change within the industry is a story of success; the industry managed to evolve and is still (even after the crisis in 2008) going strong. But there is a downside to this outsourcing, says Birgitte Lesanner, Head of Communications for Greenpeace in Scandinavia.

»They [the industry] do it, because it’s cheaper and there is less regulation. In Europe we have legislation which prohibits the worst types of chemicals. But what has happened is that they then just place the production outside of Europe and import it back in. In this way, not only are we continuing to put these toxic chemicals into the global environment, but we are also exporting a gigantic environmental problem to the less-developed countries.«

This is obviously damaging the environment, but it is also potentially damaging the industry according to Johan Kryger, Senior Manager at NICE, The Danish Fashion Institute. He explains how outsourcing has meant that the fashion industry missed out on the development of new means of production compared to other industries: »By outsourcing you skipped all the problems. The entire production machinery did not go through the same green transition as many of the other industries did, say the architecture or food industry. Still, looking at the global market, it soon became obvious to The Danish Fashion Institute that sustainability would become an important competitive parameter in the future.«

In Scandinavia many initiatives have emerged over the past decade, such as NICE in Denmark and Mistra Future Fashion in Sweden – the goal of both organizations is to help small and large fashion companies to develop, and to implement sustainabillity strategies. On the larger scale we have SAC (Sustainable Apparel Coalition) – an umbrella organisation with members from the top shelf of the industry such as Nike, Adidas, H&M and Bestseller.

But, wait a minute! Is it a good thing to have these powerful companies sitting around the table discussing solutions to the problems they themselves are part of?

According to Johan Kryger it is: »It has to be a multi-pronged strategy. We can’t implement a green transition overnight and change both our consumer behavior and the way a whole industry works. It’s a process that has to also be economically sustainable for the companies. That said, it must not become a pretext for inaction – we have to push hard to change the industry. But even though it is possible that these super fashion companies like H&M, Inditex etc. will not exist in the future, they are necessary in the transformation of the industry.«

OK, so for a profound green transition to ever occur, big companies like these have to be onboard, therefore organisations like SAC are a step in the right direction. Still, recognizing and agreeing on the issues and challenges is one thing – taking action is another. And for everyone who has paid just a little attention to the international COP-meetings, it should be clear that good intentions will only get you halfway – money and commitment will get you there and back. Here the term “greenwashing” comes into play. When companies spend more money on telling you they’re green than on actually being green, that’s greenwashing. This is an issue that has been addressed within many industries, but it can be hard to detect due to the lack of transparency.

At Greenpeace they are aware of this problem with companies who do nothing, or do just enough to silence the criticism, and they are therefore skeptical towards these allegedly green strategies. Still, a positive tendency is spreading throughout the fashion industry where a growing number of big and small businesses include sustainability programs within their company’s future plans, says Birgitte Lesanner. She agrees with Johan Kryger, that even though the big companies are part of the problem, they are also part of the solution:

»It is crucial to have the big companies on board as they are able to pull the rest of the industry in the same direction. In order to raise the bar and develop new technologies we need the big ones«, she says, and mentions the otherwise criticized Conscious collection by H&M as a positive initiative, which forces designers and manufacturers to think innovatively.”

Who should take responsibility?
Young western designers and small start-up companies are already pulling in a greener direction, but as we have just learned the big boys have to also commit before a paradigm-shift of how we consume clothing is even close to becoming a reality.

Birgitte Lesanner from Greenpeace believes that small companies can actually make a difference by making sustainability cool, and thus create a higher demand for those types of products. However, she makes it clear that real change will only come through either government legislation or the companies themselves:

12509924_10206734734220988_1373301562_o

»The main responsibility lies with the corporations who make money from producing a certain product. For example the Danish company Bestseller has moved their production to China and other countries and is slopping these chemicals around. I think that is irresponsible and unethical,« she says.

Mogens Werge, Director of Corporate Sustainability & Communication at Bestseller, does not agree that they are the source of the problem nor that they are failing their green responsibility. He does however acknowledge »that there is a risk by doing business in these regions,« since there is no, or very little, regulation on both the environmental and social fronts. According to Mogens Werge these are challenges that Bestseller is well aware of and that is why it has become a major part of the company’s CSR-strategy when doing business in, for example, Bangladesh:
»First of all, let’s face it; we are there because it’s cheap, otherwise we could produce our products back in Herning in Denmark. What we have built in Denmark as a society in terms of collective agreements, working conditions etc. throughout the past 100 years in a dialogue and/or a struggle with the unions, is obviously far from the everyday reality of these workers. Therefore, we as a company must take on that responsibility as much as possible. Secondly, it is of course at the same time a way to protect our brand from critique,« Mogens Werge says.

We have now talked about the small and big companies – about legislation and working conditions. But aren’t we forgetting someone here?

That’s right – the not-so-insignificant other half of the equation: the consumers. Our hunger for new things – the shopaholic nature of young modern men and women, who have been taught to love and crave anything bearing a sale tag, are undeniably a big part of this and should, according to Mogens Werge, take a good look at themselves in the fitting room mirror:

The responibillity lies both with the consumer and the company. As a consumer you can have a hard time figuring these things out, but it does not free you from responsibility. Obviously, we shoulder the main responsibility, but as a consumer, you can’t just close your eyes and say “I don’t know what to do.” You have to prepare as a consumer. Just like when you’re buying a car, you want a car that has the best gas mileage – partly because of economical reasons, but also because of the eco-factor«.

The Newspeak of the fast fashion industry
As Vanessa Friedmann, fashion director/critic at New York Times, stated on stage during the Copenhagen Fashion Summit a few months back, the contradiction between fast fashion and sustainabillity is obvious. Sustainable fashion is a oxymoron and as ridiculous a concept as healthy fast food. Fast fashion and sustainability simply don’t mix and thus makes the involvement of H&M in SAC echo the same reliability as when Camel had doctors approve their cigarettes back in 1949 (look it up on YouTube for a perfect example of the power of strategic communication).

That comparison might sound a bit too harsh, but consumers should be advised to react with precisely that kind of skepticism when it comes to the green PR surrounding us these days. A good example of this is an article »Fast fashion doesn’t automatically mean unsustainable« published on theguardian.com. As the title indicates, the article is advocating how fast fashion (or “High Street” as they want us to call it) is not as bad as we think, how fashion has become democratic (whatever that means), and how the fast fashion companies actually »are at the forefront whereas many luxury brands remain oblivious« when it comes to sustainability. You know, when something sounds a little too good to be true, it usually is.

Well, you guessed it: the author of the article is no other than Catarina Midtby, Head of Fashion and Sustainability Communication, H&M. Even though The Guardian states that the article is published within the media’s so called “Business Partner Zone”, it could definitely have fooled me; the text was structured like a news article and the layout was identical to that of average articles on the site.

Even though one could argue that this probably says more about the commercialization of the classic news media and/or the downfall of journalism in general, it also shows us just how clever the communication strategies of brands like H&M are. They are aware of the difficulty of uniting two contradictory concepts and so, instead of denying the issue, they embrace it and operate within its language. And what a vague language that is. Like the article says: »Today we expect the products we want to be available and affordable. We just need to be smarter, and produce and consume sustainably. [… ] Because we’re all in it together«. Doesn’t that sound good?

Unlike this piece of strategic communication from H&M, Mogens Werge from Bestseller holds no such illusions about a golden connection between sustainability and fashion. He agrees with Friedmann’s logic and accepts the special premise on which the industry is based.

»It is completely contradictory and paradoxical to talk about sustainabillity in a business that provides products, which – at the end of the day – are not necessary. Most of us, at least in the Western world, have the clothes that we need. Therefore, we are talking about a product which in itself is a paradox,« Mogens Werge says. He continues: »That is how the world works. Politically and ideologically you might not agree with that, but that is the name of the game in terms of fast fashion, and therefore we must operate from that perspective when we as a company wish to reduce the potential negative impact.«

Maybe Mogens Werge makes an important point in so far as we need to consider the underlying consumerism on which our economy is based if we wish to change it. In the same way, Johan Kryger from NICE also wants to bring more realism into the discussion of sustainability: »We believe it is necessary that people recognize that there is something called “fashion”, and understand that the consumer will never buy jeans in order to save the world. Fashion is a communicative tool and an important part of creating an identity in a modern society.«

So, what have we learned?
If we in Scandinavia and Europe do not invest in green strategies, then someone else will; the green ship is about to sail and we need to be on it if we wish to continue to be the frontrunners of the industry. The corporations bear the main responsibility – but consumers shouldn’t be naive and fool themselves when they buy a dress for 15€ or a suit for 60€. Neither should they be fooled by the industry, but be critical and vigilant, as it is always possible that the supposed ethical and eco-friendly summer dress on display in a fast-fashion store is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Share

You might also like

Leave a Reply