Waste Watch: Big Fashion Embraces Sustainability? Ha!

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Kering chair and CEO François-Henri Pinault on Friday unveiled the Fashion Pact, a series of sustainability objectives for the fashion industry, as part of the G7 shindig in Biarritz.

Thirty-two companies have thus far signed on, including luxury (Burberry, Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Hermès, Karl Lagerfeld, Kering, Prada, Stella McCartney); actionwear (Adidas, Nike, Puma); fast fashion (H & M Group, Gap, and Inditex- parent of Zara); and department stores (Galeries Lafayette, Nordstrom, Selfridges), according to Fortune, Fashion Companies Reach Landmark Sustainability Accord Ahead of G7 Summit.

More are expected to join – and I don’t see why others don’t rush to do so – and soon. As by my reading, the pact doesn’t commit anyone to all that much; the deadlines are lax; and it’s all voluntary anyway.  Even the Grey Lady concedes there’s less here than meets the eye, Will a ‘Fashion Pact’ Make Fashion Greener?. And when even the Grey Lady doesn’t swoon upon announcement of the latest virtue- signalling scam…::

“Meaningful change will start here, given the volume and breadth of companies that have agreed to be part of this pact, and that is extremely exciting,” said Marie-Claire Daveu, the chief sustainability officer of Kering.

A follow-up meeting confirming more in-depth pledges will be held in October, Ms. Daveu said. For now, details on specific targets remain vague. Progress is to be voluntarily reported annually by the companies themselves.

To combat the climate crisis, the signatories commit to implementing “science-based targets” that could contribute to achieving zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. These may include sustainable sourcing of key raw materials, and 100 percent use of renewable energy within supply chains by 2030.

Ms. Daveu defended the fact that there will be no punitive measures for signatories that fail to meet their targets.

“This is not about regulation,” she said. “We cannot punish groups directly. But by committing to improved and collective transparency, there is an incentive for those in this pact to stick to targets and not fall behind.”

Indeed.

Some Background and Context

Pinault announced in May that he had been commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron to develop a coalition of fashion companies to agree and implement a sustainability program (as I discussed in May in Waste Watch: Fashion Stumbles on Sustainability).

Fashion is a notoriously dirty industry – in terms of labour policies and environmental footprint, especially its use of carbon, plastics, pesticides, and water. Despite increasing lip service to the issue, the fashion sustainability situation is actually deteriorating, and more top-level interest might be just what’s needed.

Now, to give credit where some is due, the group acted quickly to produce its manifesto. Alas, at the time of the May launch, I worried the initiative would likely founder for want of ambition. What’s needed is not more empty gesturing and greenwashing. And sad to say, that’s proven to be the case.

What They’ve Not Done

I concede that cleaning up the fashion industry is a Herculean task, as I discussed at length in my May piece (to which many members of the commentariat responded with astute commentary, so I encourage interested readers to look to that post and the comments for further details).

But, it seems that the drafters of the Fashion Pact couldn’t even be bothered to pluck obvious low-hanging fruit, e.g., single use plastics.

The group has pledged to eliminate single use mastics in packaging, at both the B2B and B2C levels. By 2030.  Are you kidding me? Knock yourselves out, guys.

We’ve seen much recent  backslapping all round as the EU and various countries have implemented (Vanuatu), announced (EU), or mulled (India) single use plastics bans, of one form or another. Banning plastic bags, drinking straws, cutlery, take-away containers – all unnecessary: good riddance to bad rubbish. Plucky little Vanuatu deserves the most kudos, as their ban is the most far-reaching, and is already in effect.

But these are only a small part of the plastics problem. Single use plastic bags have been targeted, but wider attention to packaging remains, for the most part, an unfulfilled agenda. Eliminating plastic packaging – both for the consumer, as well as at all steps of the global supply chain – would tackle another aspect of the problem.

And would not require a decade to implement and in fact could – at least as the fashion industry is concerned – be done, virtually immediately, Look, for example, what toy manufacturer Hasbro just announced, according to TreeHugger, Toymaker Hasbro says it will phase out plastic packaging.

American toy company Hasbro has announced that it will start immediately to phase out plastic from new product packaging. Its goal is to eliminate plastic elements like polybags, elastic bands, shrink wrap, window sheets, and blister packs by 2022.

It’s not the first time Hasbro has made a concerted effort to improve its environmental impact. In recent years it has stopped using wire ties, added How2Recycle® labels to packaging, started using plant-based bioPET, and joined forces with TerraCycle to create a toy recycling program.

The recycling program exists in the United States, Germany, France, and Brazil. It turns old toys into “materials to be used in the construction of play spaces, flowerpots, park benches, and other innovative uses.” The eventual plan is to ensure that all Hasbro toys are recyclable in the major markets where they are sold.

To cite chairman and CEO Brian Goldner, “Removing plastic from our packaging is the latest advancement in our more than decade-long journey to create a more sustainable future for our business and our world.”

Hasbro’s not alone in eliminating plastic packaging. Some major Indian retailers such as FabIndia have long eschewed such packaging. The company uses bags comprised of recycled newspaper and doesn’t swaddle most products in plastic. Luxury Indian cashmere producers  – Kashmir Loom Company, Andraab – sell their products in reusable cotton pouches. And many other Indian textile retailers use bags made from textile “waste” – usually cotton – as packaging. This packaging is a better protection for the product, and can be used, and reused – eventually as a cleaning rag – until it finally disintegrates.

Another piece of low-hanging fruit: banning destruction of products to maintain “exclusivity” rather than selling them at a discount, or donating to those in need (see my 2018 post, Waste Watch: Burberry Pledges to Stop Burning Unsold Goods). Stung by bad publicity, some retailers have already changed their policies.

France recently announced, according to the NYT, France to End Disposal of $900 Million in Unsold Goods Each Year:

France plans to outlaw the destruction of unsold consumer products, a practice that currently results in the disposal of new goods worth 800 million euros, or more than $900 million, in the country each year.

By 2023, manufacturers and retailers will have to donate, reuse or recycle the goods, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said on Tuesday of the measure, which the government billed as the first of its kind.

“It is waste that defies reason,” Mr. Philippe said at a discount store in Paris, according to Agence France-Presse, and he called the practice “scandalous.”

Why then should Fashion Pact signatories not make similar company-wide commitments to do so? Especially since those with French operations will be subject to the new French law anyway, under penalty of fines or jail time.

I concede that what’s necessary is going far beyond harvesting low-hanging fruit. But when the fashion industry can’t even go through the motions of doing that, I succumb to cynicism and ask: why bother?

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8 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    During my lunch break today I passed one fast fashion store (Penneys, known elsewhere as Primark) and its windows were full of large signs proclaiming its adherence to sustainability, etc., and even vegan cosmetics. To be fair, this company was one of the very first to sign up to supply chain checks (back before doing that was the new black), but given the price of its products, its very hard to take its new claims too seriously.

    The purpose of all this is, of course, to confuse the customer. Very few people have the time and skills to distinguish fake claims from companies genuinely trying to do the right thing. So people just succumb to cynicism.

    The only solution of course, is regulation.

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for posting this – I had considered including some discussion of this news in my post, but opted not to, as I wanted to keep the post to a manageable length and I didn’t want to widen the focus beyond the Fashion Pact. But I’ll probably write about the issue sometime soon, especially as it’s not just Macy’s that’s decided to get into this game.

      Reply
  2. Synoia

    There is Human Hunting Behavior (Typically Male), and Gathering Behavior (Typically Female).

    I personally believe that Human Behavior has been twisted and perverted by our Consumer Driven (ecologically a dead end, and a very probable mass extinction event) Civilization.

    How must “stuff” does one need, as opposed to “possess”?

    I personally do not need over 20 pairs of shoes, nor a few wardrobes full of clothes.

    All in the impossible pursuit of limitless demand driven growth.

    Reply
  3. upstater

    Thanks for your coverage of this industry. When thinking of carbon and waste footprint, clothing does not come to mind immediately.

    Capitalism cannot possibly handle such problems.

    Reply
  4. John Zelnicker

    Thanks for the plastics update, Jerri-Lynn.

    Maybe at their next meeting these companies will make a real, enforceable agreement (not holding my breath).

    Considering the very high carbon footprint of the clothing industry, the use of hemp for clothing would go a long way to alleviating a big piece of that footprint. It grows almost anywhere and doesn’t need the vast amounts of water that cotton does. In fact, it might be possible to create localized, community clothing production with hemp fiber which would also eliminate the carbon cost of vast distribution networks.

    On a different note, I use a lot of spaghetti sauce and I don’t have the time or skill to make it from scratch. I prefer Newman’s Own, but for some time now, they have been using plastic jars so I’ve been buying other brands that use glass, such as Classico and Prego.

    The last time I bought groceries, Newman’s was in glass jars. Hopefully this is a permanent change and not a fluke. We’ll see.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The nice thing about Classico jars is that they are thick glass and are good for re-using over and over, even as pickling jars. They have good threading for real threaded lids.

      I suspect Prego would just have slightly ridged sub-threading form lids with minimal grips but not real threads.

      Reply
  5. Ian Perkins

    The way I see it, first, large amounts of land, water and oil are used to produce the plastics and crops.
    Next, these are turned into clothes by millions of mostly poor and female workers in the developing world who would sooner be back in their villages were it not for the money.
    These clothes are then shipped to the developed world to be bought and maybe worn once (single use plastics in the case of polyester etc!) by consumers looking to fill the voids in their lives.
    Finally, the clothes are discarded, many ending up in landfill or being burned.
    The fashion industry may tinker around the edges of this business model, but I can’t see them abandoning it voluntarily.

    Reply

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