The Production Issue

On Monday evening, I took part in a conversation about plastic use during #EthicalHour on Twitter. It raised the question: how much can I do by myself to stop climate change? The answer, of course, is very little. Yet the general conversation around sustainability often focuses on our impact as individuals – in fact, it’s even a trap I’ve fallen into with this blog. Of course, we can all make a small difference ourselves, but it’s really important to remember that the biggest polluters and consumers are the companies who produce the clothes we wear. In the capitalist system we’re in, there’s so much of a focus on driving costs down and production up in order to meet demand and make a profit that sustainability is often either lost in the race or is the preserve of luxury brands. There are some brands changing their ways – as shown in my previous posts Green Jeans? Easier Said than Done and Shoes! Glorious Shoes – but many are still lagging behind. It’s difficult to make sustainable and ethical choices as a consumer when your options are so limited (not to mention the classism surrounding the subject).

One thing I have noticed as I’ve been running this blog, though, is the way that brands have started to hop on the sustainability wagon because of increasing awareness amongst consumers. However, it’s often difficult to see the tangible ways they’ve actually improved their production cycles; there’s a lot of marketing talk, but not much action. This behaviour has become so prevalent, it now has a name that is recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary: greenwashing.

greenwash, v.

(a) To mislead (the public, public concern, etc.) by falsely representing a person, company, product, etc., as being environmentally responsible;  (b) to misrepresent (a company, its operations, etc.) as environmentally responsible.

OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2019. 

There are quite a few mainstream culprits of greenwashing – Urban Outfitters springs to mind. Their particular brand strategy of ‘wokeness’ – appealing to Millenials and Gen Zers like myself with natural imagery and tongue-in-cheek slogans – means that they can seem virtuous without really putting the effort in. If you search ‘Urban Outfitters sustainability’ one of the top links is to a page of ‘Clean Living Eco Friendly and Sustainable Products’: 76 items, most of which are refillable bottles, none of which are clothes. Which is what Urban Outfitters primarily sells.

They’re doing their best, I mean, selling refillable water bottles and houseplants to us is really the only thing URBN, a multinational corporation, can do to help save the environment ~*~*~

So there are a couple of clear problems with this kind of branding:

  1. It gives the customer the impression that the company are doing more than they actually are to tackle the sustainability problems in their production cycles – if they’re offering specific pages like this, then they must be doing more behind the scenes, right?
  2. It puts the onus on the individual to tackle something that’s a global problem. Sure, it would be great if we all stopped using plastic water bottles etc. etc. etc., but once again, it is URBN themselves who are consuming huge amounts of water, textiles, energy and more to produce clothing (a reminder: the thing that is the core focus of their brand).

And yet, as I mentioned in my post about jeans, URBN’s sustainability statement mentions NOTHING to do with their garment production. In fact, the whole page is pretty scarce. Sure, they have some nice stuff about refurbing old buildings for their shops and using renewable energy on their business campus and having LED lights in stores, but they have zero information on how their clothes are made. Even ZARA has that (although you do have to dig a bit). As far as I could make out, they’re not part of any sustainability/ethical initiatives, such as the Better Cotton Initiative or the Ethical Trading Initiative; they are apparently making no tangible steps to improve the traceability of their manufacturing, let alone how their products are made (if you’re reading this and happen to work for URBN management I would love to know if I’m wrong).

I’ve singled out Urban Outfitters specifically, but that’s just because they’re an easy target. In fact, many companies are guilty of greenwashing to some extent, simply by overstating their eco credentials. It’s really difficult to sort through as a consumer and more needs to be done in terms of clear accreditation and transparency. But help is here!

I’ve been using a great app recently called Good On You; they take all of the hard work out of researching businesses with a clear rating system, which ranks brands from 1-5, starting at ‘We Avoid’ and going up to ‘Great’.

This kind of system makes it so easy to avoid brands that are doing nothing, although it does highlight the dearth of really sustainable, affordable high street brands. Since I’ve been on the app (from October last year), it’s improved in leaps and bounds, and they’re rating more and more brands every day. Some of the ratings are a little out of date; sometimes brands have changed in the last year or so, like Monki who have committed to using 100% organic cotton in their denim range, but overall it’s pretty comprehensive. And Emma Watson is now one of their supporters!

So what are the main takeaways? Apps like Good On You are really helpful for consumers, and hopefully they’ll give brands the kick up the arse they need to reach that ‘Great’ rating. But mostly, the pressure needs to be taken off the individual: it is up to businesses to improve their practices in the face of catastrophic climate change. As consumers, we can vote with our wallets, but how can we do that if a mountain of research is needed into each brand to figure out if they are actually making their businessas sustainable as possible? I’d like to see something concrete done – and done soon – by business and government to improve consumer awareness on sustainable and ethical issues. A national baseline standard for ethical and sustainable garment trading is needed. I’d like to see an accreditation scheme (a bit like the Fair Trade label) put into place that is trusted by consumers and respected by brands, because the lack of clarity surrounding various initiatives in a hindrance rather than a help; this would go a long way towards greater transparency, giving people the ability to make greener choices, as well as encouraging brands to make those movements towards sustainability. In the scheme of things, this is not a big step, but it is a start.

Earlier this year, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a 73 page report on FIXING FASHION: clothing consumption and sustainability. This is a good start, with manageable suggestions for the government such as naming and shaming brands not complying with the Modern Slavery Act, cooperative work between government and business to trace supply chains, and taxation reform to reward sustainable business practices. But did you hear about the report? I’m guessing the answer is no. With the political uncertainty of Brexit consuming all of our time and energy, I’m worried that really important issues (like idk, the future of our planet) are getting kicked into the long grass.

What do you think? I’d love to know your opinions on these issues – comment below to start the conversation!

{ I’m now on Twitter (@TheGreenMode), as well as Instagram (@_thegreenmode_) and Pinterest – the links are all up in the menu – so check those out and hit follow if you like what you see }

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