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The Greenwashing Gambit

Updated: Jul 11, 2021

Can companies really follow through on their sustainability promises?

An LVMH Sustainability Presentation on Life 360. Credit: LVMH.

As a result of increasing political and consumer pressure, the fashion industry has steadily increased its sustainability initiatives over the course of the last decade, from using recycled materials to funding numerous “green” causes. However, in recent months, sustainability has become the hot-button issue in the world of fashion business. And, thanks to the rise of cancel culture, seemingly every brand has become “sustainable” for fear of consumer backlash and alienation. From using 100% recycled materials, to creating new collections from unsold pieces from old collections, everyone has jumped on the sustainability bandwagon.

However, as companies pledge massive, and in many cases, impossible sustainability initiatives, many are being accused of “greenwashing”—marketing sustainability measures they can’t back up. So, the question becomes: Will fashion companies be able to follow through on their sustainability promises, or are they simply “greenwashing” to please their consumer base?

Recently, I asked my friend Luce for her perspective on this topic, and I found her response quite interesting. She thinks that companies will keep their sustainability commitments, citing consumers’ desire for more sustainable products as the driving force. As she put it, in the past, consumers didn’t care about sustainability. As such, it wasn’t an issue brands needed to address. However, with today’s consumers pushing for greater sustainability, companies have responded accordingly, creating new executive positions, like Chief Sustainability Officer, funding sustainability organizations, and promising extensive renewal efforts. The Fashion Law showcased this change in consumer behavior with a recent chart, tracking the appeal of "green" buzzwords across generations.

The appeal of "green" across generations. Credit: TFL

However, while I see Luce’s point, I don’t think brands will follow through on their sustainability pledges because they’re only being held accountable for their words, rather than their actions. In the age of cancel culture, consumers care more about statements and “virtue signaling” than they do actions. As a result, these companies have no reason to fulfill their lofty sustainability commitments. Thus, while I agree with Luce that consumers drive everything, including the recent push for sustainability, today’s consumers care far more about mission statements and press releases than they do about viable, concrete actions.

Unsurprisingly, fashion conglomerates and fast fashion companies have taken the brunt of the public backlash, with ecowarriors continuously calling out their “unethical” sourcing, production, and general disregard for the environment. Unlike smaller, private companies, these titans of industry are forced to respond to mounting shareholder and consumer pressure in order to maintain their impressive market share.

Kering has had a sustainability strategy for years, but has reinforced and reemphasized it as of late. The group, whose goal is to create “more sustainable, more responsible luxury,” breaks its sustainability goals into three pillars: Care, Collaborate, and Create. Through these three pillars, Kering has developed a biodiversity strategy that aims to stem biodiversity loss caused by the fashion industry, restore ecosystems and species, and trigger systemic change that goes “above and beyond” its supply chains, according to the group’s website. Specifically, Kering aims to reduce its greenhouse emissions, targeting the reduction of Scope 1-2 GHGs by 90%, and the reduction of Scope 3 GHGs by 70% per unit of value added by 2030. The Group also aims to restore and regenerate 1 million hectares of its supply chain and protect another 1 million hectares of critical, irreplaceable habit by 2025. While this pitch sounds lovely, Kering has taken few publicly-disclosed steps toward meeting these massive goals.

A graphic outlining Kering's sustainability and biodiversity initiatives. Credit: Kering.

Like Kering, LVMH has a long-term sustainability commitment. On its website, the French conglomerate states that it views protecting the environment as “not simply an obligation, but an imperative, and a source of competitiveness. It is imperative because the long-term success of LVMH Maisons depends directly on preserving and respecting the natural resources that [we] use to make [our] products.” Unlike other luxury conglomerates, LVMH has taken concrete steps toward achieving this goal, having created five different environmental initiatives: Maison O, Life 360, Environment Academy-LVMH, Life in Stores-LVMH, and Dîner des Maisons Engagées-LVMH.

A graphic depicting LVMH's Life 360 initiative. Credit: LVMH.

Compared to luxury, fast fashion brands face incomparable scrutiny and resentment for everything, from their business models to their materials sourcing. Naturally, their lack of sustainability is heavily criticized by consumers and industry executives alike. Recently, H&M promised to use only 100% recycled or other “sustainably sourced” materials by 2030. Inditex, the parent company of Zara, also pledged to use 100% recycled or sustainably sourced cotton, linen, and polyester—which make up 90% of the group’s materials—by 2025.

A BoF sustainability index, by company. Credit: BoF

Consumers and stockholders were incredulous: How could a company whose business model revolves around unethical wages, massive production, and a constant influx of new products commit to such an overhaul? Furthermore, what does “sustainably sourced” really mean, and who is going to hold these brands accountable for their promises? This question of accountability is the main issue with the push for sustainability.

Ultimately, while I believe fashion companies have the capacity to overhaul their business models and fulfill their environmental promises, I don’t believe they will. Without accountability, they have no incentive to act beyond the scope of the words printed in their marketing campaigns.

As brands have discovered, sustainability initiatives are about promising a better tomorrow, not building one.

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