How Fashion Week Really Should Embrace Sustainability

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 08: Gigi Hadid is seen walking the runway at Proenza Schouler … [+] during NYFW: The Shows on September 8, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Gotham/GC Images)

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New York Fashion Week kicks off Friday with an explicit focus on sustainability, a major issue for the $3 trillion apparel industry, whose activities account for more than 5% of the world’s carbon emissions. Event organizers at the Council of Fashion Designers of America deserve credit for including a variety of “sustainability strategies” panel discussions in the midst of the shows, but there is a significant gap between how the industry talks about sustainability and what it does. What do companies do about it? . Three problems illustrate the discrepancy.

First is the problem of “greenwashing,” which refers to advertising or corporate marketing that portrays a company’s products or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not. Unfortunately, greenwashing is quite common in many industries. Too many companies make misleading or outright false claims about their impact on the environment that many consumers may assume to be true.

A recent study by the Behavioral Insights Team, a British consultancy, surveyed more than 10,000 people, aged 16-25, in 10 countries about corporate environmental complaints. More than half believed that misleading information about a company’s environmental practices was reliable. The survey also found that even “consumers who were most concerned about the environment were highly susceptible to greenwashing.”

Some apparel companies claim that their heavy reliance on polyester, a relatively inexpensive form of plastic, is environmentally sound. In making this claim, they often rely on the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI), which is the leading environmental assessment tool in the fashion industry.

Higg index data rates products made with polyester higher than natural fabrics like cotton in terms of environmental sustainability. Jeremy Lardeau, Vice President of the Higg Index, said: “We are not actively pushing for synthetic numbers to be low. We are just collecting the data in one place.”

But garments made from synthetic fibers, such as polyester, are a primary source of ocean plastic debris that is especially harmful to marine life. In fact, clothing accounts for a fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced worldwide each year.

Higg’s data has been disputed by critics, including the Norwegian government’s Consumer Protection Agency, based on its own guidance for companies making sustainability claims for marketing purposes. In June, that agency concluded that the Higg Index “is not sufficient as a basis for environmental claims. [companies] have used in their marketing.”

A second related problem is that the data on which sustainability claims are made are weak and inconsistent. The lack of uniform standards for data collection or insufficient rigor in data collection goes beyond helping to facilitate greenwashing. The Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights published a report in July titled The Rise of Life Cycle Analysis and the Fall of Sustainability – Illustrations from the Apparel and Leather Sector. It was written by Veronica Bates Kassatly and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, who heads the Geneva Center and is my colleague at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. The report examines the data used in life cycle analysis metrics that support various rating methodologies.

Their report finds a lack of uniformity in the way data on topics such as carbon emissions and water consumption is collected, analyzed and presented. They conclude that “individual product claims on many brand and manufacturer websites are at best nonsensical, at worst pernicious.” More consistent data protocols would give consumers a basis for making informed purchasing decisions.

A third way in which the discussion of the sustainability of the fashion industry falls short is that, despite the availability of metrics to assess progress on labor rights, companies generally do not address the working conditions of factories in global supply chains, among other human rights issues.

There are consistent and measurable ways to monitor labor rights progress, for example by holding companies accountable for significant progress in workers’ wages, which often correlates with fewer overtime violations and a better quality of life. for the workers. And while Fashion Week organizers and others talk about having a positive impact on the global economy, they pay little attention to improving conditions for low-wage workers around the world.

Once a major engine of US jobs, global clothing brands have outsourced most garment production to countries where labor laws and enforcement are weak. This change in the past three decades reflects the appeal of dramatically lower labor costs and high-volume, rapid production capabilities in less prosperous countries. Although there may be understandable commercial pressures influencing these decisions, and for the most part global companies do not own or operate the factories in their supply chains, they still have a responsibility to address labor abuses. For many global fashion brands, overseas production serves a central business function; They should take more responsibility to ensure that the workers who make their products are treated fairly.

This will require companies to adjust their cost-cutting business models, which are putting increasing financial and operational pressures on their suppliers. Responsible business practices, such as meeting contractual delivery dates, making timely payments to suppliers, and negotiating contracts that allow factory owners to ensure safe working conditions and fair compensation for their workers, can make a world of difference to the workers who make the fashion industry work. .

It is not reasonable to expect global brands to absorb all these costs; Still, they must do more to prevent worker exploitation and human rights abuses if they expect their sustainability claims to be taken seriously. This should be a focal point for Fashion Week and for those who are committed to creating a sustainable fashion industry.