Let's stop rewarding greenwashers

There's nothing award-winning about fast fashion.

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Last night, RuPaul said it best: I don’t want to see H&M on the runway, I don’t want to see any more greenwashed campaigns and I sure as hell don’t want to see them win two awards. Or words to that effect.

Drapers recently revealed the shortlist for their annual Sustainable Fashion Awards. Every year, changemakers are recognised at this “market-leading awards programme [which] shines a spotlight on best practice within the industry, so others can learn how to change for good”. You can imagine my surprise then when one of the most notorious fast fashion giants was nominated not once but twice.

H&M are in the running for the Supply Chain Initiative award - for what exactly I’m yet to determine. They made the 2021 shortlist the same year that a 20-year-old garment worker, Jeyasre Kathiravel, was murdered in a H&M supplier factory following months of sexual harassment. This has prompted over 90 international labour groups to call on H&M, Gap, PVH and their supplier Eastman Exports to sign a binding agreement to end gender-based violence in garment factories.

The nomination list was also announced in the same week that the Garment and Textile Workers’ Union (GATWU) signed an agreement with H&M supplier Gokaldas Exports which recognised the union and reinstated all of the 1,257 mostly women workers who were fired. It was the result of an eight-month struggle and international solidarity campaign. Gokaldas had blamed H&M order cancellations and the pandemic as the reason for shutting the factory, a claim H&M disputes. Either way, H&M was one of the many retailers initially refusing to pay for already processed or completed apparel orders worth over $70 million. And when there’s no evidence that H&M garment workers are paid a living wage, this is hardly a model supply chain. Let alone an awardable one.

H&M has also been nominated for the Positive Change category, though after scouring Drapers website, I’m none the wiser on what the criteria for this award is. But I could hazard a guess. When virtually no media outlets were reporting on Jeyasre Kathiravel’s murder - The Guardian have since published an article - my news feed was inundated with uncritical praise of H&M and Lee’s “sustainable denim” collaboration. And if this isn’t the reason for either brand’s nomination, I can think of an exhaustive list of greenwashed products and ranges that might make the cut.

Another questionable nominee was New Look, the very same brand Drapers reported on last April for cancelling orders and delaying payments indefinitely. Why suddenly nominate a brand that has negatively impacted its workers? Why reward mass-producing fast fashion brands at all?! There’s nothing positive about labour exploitation and environmental degradation. I also found myself involuntarily rolling my eyes at Allbirds’ nomination for the Carbon Footprint Initiative award (you can see my reasoning in this fortnights definition below).

I think it’s really insulting for graduates and rental platforms to be lumped together with brands that have always just followed the money. Instead of congratulating individual initiatives, we should be praising the brands that do it all. Instead, Drapers are giving unethical retailers a pat on the back for one-off tokenistic changes. And we all know how H&M reacted to being crowned in the Fashion Transparency Index. Let’s not give them another reason to parade around with banners tinged green.

It also steals the spotlight from the smaller, independent brands that have incorporated ethical and sustainable practices since day one. You know, the ones actually deserving of an award! Why are we clapping for historically exploitative, polluting and wasteful brands for doing the bare minimum when they’re not even doing that? They’re not scaling back production or paying workers fairly. They’re just trying to fob us off with pineapple leather.

The award ceremony will take place at Drapers’ annual sustainable fashion conference. Pascal Brun, H&M’s head of sustainability, is surprise, surprise one of the scheduled speakers. Once again, the opposite of sustainable and ethical is being allowed to define the sustainable fashion agenda. You wouldn’t let criminals write the law.

I do have some faith, however, in the judging panel, comprised of high-profile, respected experts in the field. Among them are Director at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, Dylis Williams, and Sarah Ditty, the Global Policy Director at Fashion Revolution. The judging “will be underpinned by the UN-backed Sustainable Development Goals, which address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change and environmental degradation”. If this is the case, H&M will surely never win.

But they should never have been nominated in the first place.

It’s time for them to sashay away.

In other news…

The Kantamanto market needs your help. With a workforce of 30,000 and 15 million clothes circulating weekly, Kantamanto Market is the largest secondhand clothing market in West Africa, if not the world. On December 15th, 2020 a fire razed part of Kantamanto Market leaving over 200 secondhand retailers, tailors, dyers, cleaners and upcyclers devastated during the busiest shopping week of the year. The OR Foundation has set up a fundraiser to distribute funds between those affected to help pay off debts, buy new bales of clothing, pay their children’s school fees and rebuild their shops. You can find out more and donate here. Among those donating should be the fashion brands that perpetuate this linear cycle of clothing which sees their garments soon dumped in previously colonised countries.

What does the Myanmar coup mean for garment workers? In the words of Shaun Tutron, “the military's seizure of power in Myanmar is poised to deliver a major blow to the country's $6 billion garment and footwear industry, threatening a vital source of jobs in a sector already reeling from the pandemic”. Tens of thousands of factories closed during the global health crisis and now major fashion brands, including Marks & Spencer and Primark, are monitoring the situation closely. If they withdraw their business altogether, it’s the factory worker that pays the price. Andrew Tillett-Saks has praised the unions taking a lead role in mobilising street protests, stating that “the sight of industrial workers, largely young, women garment workers, seems to have deeply inspired the general public, broken down some of the fear and catalysed the massive protests and general strike we are seeing now”.

ASOS needs to #PayUp for Topshop. In a matter of weeks, ASOS and Boohoo have “rip[ped] up centuries of British retail heritage” and tightened their monopolising grip on the online fashion marketplace. ASOS has officially acquired Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge and HIIT in a £330 million deal, putting 2,500 retail jobs at risk. Flashing the cash, ASOS clearly has a pretty penny to spare, and what better place to invest it than in paying back the $100 million Arcadia Group owes in cancelled orders. ASOS profits soared due to lockdown spending, totalling £142m in August 2020. In fact, it was one of the few retailers to enjoy a pandemic profit while garment worker wages have declined by 21%. Philip Green has wiped his hands of any responsibility and I worry ASOS will now too, but buying Topshop was surely a package deal, debts and all.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

  • An Indonesian village turned blood red after flooding hit a local batik factory. According to Reuters, “Pekalongan is a city known for manufacturing batik, a traditional Indonesian method of using wax to resist water-based dyes to depict patterns and drawings, usually on fabric. It is not uncommon for rivers in Pekalongan to turn different colours. Bright green water covered another village north of the city during a flood last month”.

  • The Campaigns Manager at Labour Behind the Label argues that Boohoo buying Debenhams is an affront to garment workers’ rights. Meg Lewis raises an important question here: how has a retailer tarnished by scandal emerged as a winner of the pandemic?

  • With a trademark promise of radical transparency and a sizeable collection of utilitarian staples, Everlane certainly prides itself on being an ethical company. I read between the lines of Everlane’s flashy marketing campaigns and found that everything is not what it seems (did you see what I did there?!)

  • Irina Grechko reflects on the sustainability agenda at Copenhagen Fashion Week.

  • The beloved resale app, Depop, has announced a two-year sustainability plan. As part of this, it aims to reshape fashion consumption, achieve carbon neutrality by the end of the year and to educate and mentor entrepreneurs, creatives and small businesses from underrepresented groups. While commendable, I think the easiest place to start would be to actually regulate the dramatic rise in dropshipping that is spoiling the secondhand fun for everyone.

  • A brilliant article on how ultra-fast fashion is destroying the world.

  • With antiviral and antimicrobial facemasks soaring in popularity, Elizabeth Cline argues that “what is being marketed to the public as a just-in-time innovation and an added layer of protection has no proven health benefits and holds hidden harms to both humans and the environment”.

  • Emily Chan predicts the 7 major sustainable fashion trends that will propel the industry forward in 2021.

  • I really enjoyed Bel Jacobs’ interview with Andrew Tillett-Saks, a South East Asia-based labour organiser and writer. I share his pessimism: “Let me be blunt. In my opinion, the entire sustainability industry […] it’s all bullshit”.

  • With greenwashing showing no sign of stopping, could blockchain tracing pave the way for industry-wide transparency?

  • Sustainable designers and environmental activists share their tips for managing climate anxiety.

  • Why is Facebook rejecting these fashion ads?

  • What fashion can expect from Biden’s stimulus plan (paywall).

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting describes when individuals and businesses balance their carbon footprint. Essentially, brands compensate for their own CO2 emissions by purchasing carbon credits which fund projects that reduce emissions in other areas around the globe, typically previously colonised countries. Companies working towards carbon neutrality rely on a combination of internal emissions reductions and external carbon offsetting, with many favouring the latter. Achieving net-zero emissions, however, also requires long-term radical system change, including transitioning to a post-carbon economy (one that does not rely on the burning of fossil fuels). In a 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated that, to avoid irreversible damage to global populations and the planet, we must become carbon neutral in all areas of life by 2050.

Carbon offsetting might sound like a mutually beneficial option, but the jury is still out on whether it does more harm than good. It is not uncommon for the carbon market to be traded away, meaning that credits are not actually used on the projects where the debt is to be repaid. Or the projects go wrong. Credits distributed by the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), for example, have actually increased emissions by about 750 million tonnes of CO2 in Europe alone.

The other glaring issue is that of accountability; brands can avoid reducing their own carbon footprint by buying compensatory credits. Many companies are now turning to carbon offsetting to shun responsibility and absolve themselves of guilt. The FT has deemed this the “carbon-offset gold rush”, while Emma Foster-Geering prefers “the great carbon distraction”. This also feeds into the idea that the solution to climate change can be bought, something that favours the most privileged. In reality, all countries should be encouraged to decarbonise, instead of only some decreasing their emissions and selling them as offsets. And, of course, this means the rich and powerful are able to buy their way out of meaningful sustainability initiatives while those least responsible for climate change will suffer the most in environmental disasters.

Which is why Allbirds’ claims to be a carbon neutral business seems, well, a bit dubious and non-award-winning. Sure, they have implemented a three-pronged plan to reduce their carbon footprint: measure the emissions of every product from its raw materials to its end of life; reduce their impact by incorporating natural and recycled materials; and counterbalancing “the little bit that’s left with carbon offsets”. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re not yet producing emissions-free, an ambitious goal that could take decades to achieve. Individual carbon offsetting measures need to give way to global carbon neutrality, meaning that Allbirds’ efforts, while impressive, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Allbirds were probably also nominated by Drapers due to their collaborative efforts with Adidas which saw them design a trainer with the “lowest ever carbon footprint”. While a great marketing gig, Emma Foster-Geering is sceptical of brands that focus “on the single most galvanising issue in the public’s mind […] without requiring any real system change”. That’s not to mention that carbon impact calculations are based on a lot of scientifically inaccurate data. So maybe the fault lies with having a Carbon Footprint Initiative award category in the first place, or the criteria for judging it. Who knows?!

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