Our Co-Founder, Antoinette's latest article for The Flock Magazine
Is ‘climate positivity’ fashion’s new favourite greenwash?
The September issues are out and the looks we’ll covet for the year to come are being set. But in 2021, there’s one trend that’s rising above all others: environmental awareness. Is it anything more than hot air, asks Antoinette Fionda-Douglas?
From endless social media posts and press releases to a raft of ECG reports, the fashion industry’s been spending a lot of time lately waxing lyrical about the fabulous new climate strategies it’s implementing. And as September brings about the annual focus on new trends, there’s one shining more brightly than all the others. Fashion’s newest obsession? Climate positivity.
The message being sent, loud and clear, is that the industry is ready to take responsibility for its shortcomings. Why, then, do so many of us feel uneasy about all this positivity?
While the press releases tell one story, research appears to tell a different one.
Take last month’s Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, which concluded underwhelmingly that the top 250 fashion brands continue to disclose “very little” environmental data? Fashion Revolution has repeatedly warned that the industry is too slow on key issues such as purchasing practices, living wages, overproduction, water use, and carbon emissions in the supply chain. Yet this year, at a time when the industry is shouting about dramatic change, not one single brand scored above 80% on 250 transparency markers. The picture was even worse in Britain, where retailers were conspicuous by their absence in the transparency top ten.
More worryingly, from a macro level, the deluge of climate positive press releases has only increased in the wake of the latest IPCC report which saw the UN’s leading scientists sound a “code red for humanity”. Clearly, there is a disconnect between current industry actions and the change that is essentially required. It feels like the fashion industry has proffered a pack of pretty, ditsy print finger plasters to help our injured earth, currently in the early throes of a potentially fatal heart attack.
The problem is that, beyond the lack of transparency, we are witnessing a near universal failure to take responsibility for supply chain and governance, with greenwashing now an almost expected and accepted part of the fashion industry’s marketing strategy. Now, in the wake of the IPCC report, woke-washing is increasingly entering the frame too – quite literally, in the case of H&M’s windows worldwide.
Woke-washing is when a corporation, institution or individual signals their advocacy for a marginalised cause while continuing to cause harm to vulnerable communities. Take, for example, the tens of thousands of garment and textile workers in the global south who risked their lives (with little or no pay) to complete orders for leading fashion manufacturers last year, while their marketing teams were posting black squares on Instagram feeds without a hint of self-awareness.
Lately, woke-washing and green-washing have joined forces to help the fashion industry obfuscate further on its climate responsibilities. For how could a brand shouting about climate positivity while displaying glossy imagery of climate protesters and young activists in its windows ever be responsible for the industry’s worst excesses?
Given the scale and impact of the fashion industry, it has a huge role to play in efforts to stave off climate catastrophe. Acknowledging this is clearly a step forward. But while estimates vary, current research suggests the fashion industry, producing 150bn items a year, is among the world’s five most polluting industries – so what we say matters a great deal less than how our clothing is actually made and disposed of.
Today, there are a number of brands who are making the right noises about rising to the challenge, aiming not just for climate neutrality but for – here comes the buzz word – climate positivity. In short, being climate positive means benefitting the environment by removing more carbon from the atmosphere than you produce. Burberry and H&M say they’ll reach climate positivity by 2040, Reformation by 2025. Others are beginning to follow suit.
These brands all plan on achieving their goals by pursuing a number of low carbon solutions, investing in nature-based projects that restore natural ecosystems and in programmes that boost climate resilience and protect livelihoods in vulnerable, frontline communities.
These are brilliant ambitions to be welcomed, of course. But with reservations from many climate experts on whether climate positivity is actually achievable, can such goals be anything more than empty promises?
There are many questions pertaining to the measurement of carbon and even what climate positivity actually means from a scientific perspective. In reality however, whether positivity is possible or not, colossal transformation is required to address our reliance on fossil fuels. While the business world continues to plan to reduce total emissions while focussing on growth, the potential for continued green- and woke-washing, clearly, is rife.
Sustainable fashion expert Dr Patsy Perry from Manchester Fashion Institute argues that the key to any successful turnaround lies in addressing growth culture. “We need to transition to a smaller and slower fashion system,” she says. “But brands aren’t committing to produce less, so it will be difficult to achieve alongside ever-increasing production and consumption.”
As the co-founder of a small brand, I’m hoping climate positivity is more achievable for us. We already make everything at Beira from discarded materials and waste, solar panels in our factory have helped us further reduce our impact, and we plan to invest in greener delivery methods, end-of life of the product strategy, and further off-setting measures too. It is simpler for us, because we have complete control of the whole process, but our impact is smaller too. Can similar ever be possible for the monolithic global brands, with growth-focussed shareholders intent on wrapping humans in cheap plastic fabrics? I have my doubts.
This industry needs to care more about the waste it creates than all the tills it rings. It needs to understand that short term profit gain increasingly has only a selfish and self-destructive impact. After all, if there are no humans left to wear the piles of unwanted clothes, what on earth was the point?
I applaud any company that puts itself out there and commits to making positive change. But when it comes to climate positivity, it cannot start or end as a marketing campaign. Real change must be embedded in brand values, ethos, transparency and governance. Meaningful action follows accountability.
The industry is right that now is the time for change. But to get there, we need to stop thinking up catchy new campaign slogans and instead start thinking small. Anything else is a pretty sticking plaster on a planet in need of a defibrillator.