High Fashion Going Green: Greenwashing or a True Revolution?

By Aada Orava, GLOBUS Correspondent

The fashion industry is notorious for its polluting practices: in the UK, the manufacturing and sale of clothing is the fourth largest burden on the environment after housing, transport and food. In contrast, according to a report by Fashion Revolution (2018), 88% of consumers in the five largest European markets (Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain) think that it is important that fashion brands tackle environmental protection and nearly equal numbers wish for transparency in production and sourcing.

Under pressure from the environmental realities of today and consumers’ attitudes, many corporations across the fashion industry have started implementing environmental strategies. Industry leaders such as Kering and LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) have been in the news for their newly established sustainability programs.

In the midst of this apparent shift in the environmental attitudes of luxury brands, it is worth asking whether the reported changes are truly revolutionising the fashion industry, or merely a manifestation of greenwashing, defined by CorpWatch as “the phenomenon of socially and environmentally destructive corporations attempting to preserve and expand their markets by posing as friends of the environment and leaders in the struggle to eradicate poverty”.

Clearly, corporations are seeking to promote themselves as pioneers in sustainable fashion, with moguls Bernard Arnault (LVMH) and François-Henri Pinault (Kering) making grand statements about going “further than simply meeting standards” and “the new frontier is the sustainability frontier”. Both conglomerates[LJ1] [LJ2]  have also advertised decade-long commitments to sustainability on their websites: while these might be viewed as hot air, there is evidence of more than mere lip service to sustainability, including near-future sustainability goals, Carbon Funds and Environmental Profit & Loss accounts.

However, a dive into third party reports reveals that there may be more to the real environmental impact of luxury brands than meets the eye. As recently as 2018, [LJ3] Greenpeace reported on progress in the “Detox My Fashion” campaign, which aims to address the toxic pollution from hazardous chemicals used in the manufacture of clothes. The report judged that most luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Dior[LJ4] , were not making adequate advances, and were instead denying their responsibility for the toxic pollution in their supply chain and products. Before that, in 2016, WWF published a report ranking fashion giants on their sustainable cotton record. Luxury brands included in the report performed poorly: Burberry, Kering and LMVH ranked as some of the worst. Earlier, in 2014, the brand-comparison site ‘Rank a Brand’ [LJ5] put forward a Greenwashing Alert on brands with ineffective sustainability practices; once again, luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Marc Jacobs found themselves on the list.

Although these reports paint a rather grim picture of the sustainability of many luxury brands, it is worth acknowledging that many of these companies are in the early stages of a long process. Taking the example of LVMH, WWF’s ‘Sustainable Cotton Ranking’ slammed the label for not setting specific targets nor being transparent about how much of its cotton is sourced sustainably. LVMH also did not disclose whether it is part of any collaborative initiative promoting more sustainable cotton sourcing. Since 2017, however, it has been a member of the ‘Better Cotton Initiative[LJ6]  (BCI), and its 2017 Environmental Report showcased the percentage of certified cotton used in 2017 as well as a near-future target. On the other hand, that portion of certified cotton used in 2017 was a mere 5%, showing that there is still a long way to go in pursuit of their 2020 goal of 70%. Although it is reassuring to see that LVMH is actively taking steps in the direction of sustainability, for now it is hardly “going further than meeting standards”.

While the luxury industry is perhaps not so far along on the sustainability path as it would have you believe, there is still undeniably progress to be seen. According to the 2018 Fashion Transparency Index by Fashion Revolution, luxury retailers are catching up with other major brands in their transparency records, with several brands such as Hugo Boss, Bottega Veneta and Gucci increasing their score by around 10% compared to the previous year. Furthermore, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018 report, which measures the sustainability of the global fashion industry across key environmental and social indicators, luxury brands are, regardless of shortcomings, some of the frontrunners of the industry, and are pressing for sustainability – particularly in the field of raw materials.

Among the various corporations embarking on their sustainability quests, Kering has perhaps drawn the most positive attention. In addition to having an ambitious environmental policy, the luxury conglomerate[LJ7]  has recruited Marie-Claire Devau as its chief sustainability officer. Devau has a background of working in the public sector on ecology and sustainable development, which affords her a valuable non-business perspective. As to the actual realization of its sustainability targets, Kering still has some way to go, since[LJ8]  most of its 2012-2016 goals were not achieved. Regardless, definite progress was made and at least some level of authenticity is evident from their efforts to produce a comprehensive report tracking progress –[LJ9] the first report of its kind by luxury groups of Kering’s size.

Whether or not luxury fashion brands are truly committed to sustainability remains to be seen: reports on questionable practices, such as stock burning and unethical crocodile harvesting, have recently damaged their fragile reputation. However, perhaps giving luxury fashion the benefit of the doubt when it comes the genuineness of their overall sustainability goals is not too far-fetched. [LJ10] There is, after all, real progress to be seen, and, as [LJ11] Marie-Claire Devau pointed out regarding the risks of greenwashing in terms of business interest: “If you say you are doing something, it’s better, really, to do it.”

Header Image: Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

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