Progress or perfection? As the fashion industry faces mounting pressure to reform its profligate and polluting ways, one question looms large: Is incremental change good enough, or should brands go big or go home?
“Over the past five years or so, as we have witnessed an uptick in sustainability initiatives, there have been some clear leaders who’ve taken big risks and are openly talking about what they’re doing,” Kelly Drennan, founder of Fashion Takes Action, a Toronto-based sustainability group, said at a recent webinar. “The risk of course being that they will be heavily criticized for what they aren’t doing; for not being perfect.”
The role of criticism is an important one, she noted. Greenwashing—that is, when a company tries to present itself as eco-friendlier than it actually is—has run rampant at a time when consumers are increasingly favoring products that dovetail with their values. To keep up with the zeitgeist, brands often exaggerate or misrepresent claims—or invent them altogether. But if companies are afraid to stick their necks out because they’re afraid their heads will roll, that’s a problem, too.
“And that is a critical piece of this: we need more brands to step up and take action,” Drennan said. “Because when the risks of taking action outweigh the benefit of hopefully sharing progress, it has the opposite effect and oftentimes prevents people from doing any talking at all. In this era of transparency, not only do we need more brands to take action, but we also need them to be talking about what they’re doing.”
Transparency is critical when setting goals and making them public, said Hendrik Alpen, sustainability engagement manager at H&M Group, a company that has attracted its own share of flak from naysayers. When the Swedish retailer, which owns & Other Stories, Arket, Cos and Monki, along with its own eponymous chain, made the decision in 2017 to become climate positive by 2040, it didn’t have all the answers, Alpen said. What’s important, he added, is setting key milestones, marshaling the resources required to achieve them and then sharing the lessons learned along the way.
“When setting goals we’re looking into the future—we’re operating with the unknown, actually—and we need to put our bets on a few things that we know or at least can anticipate,” Alpen said. “2040 is an extremely ambitious goal, and we’re sweating over it, but that doesn’t mean that until 2040 there are no major steps on that journey. We have set clear sub-goals, so by 2030, for example, our goal is to have a climate-neutral value chain, and from there we broke it down into smaller milestones that we’re trying to achieve and be transparent about.”
For Nicolaj Reffstrup, founder and CEO of Danish It brand Ganni, any step forward requires a vision that can be communicated to investors and other stakeholders who can help bring it to fruition. Next up: Determination.
“You just have to find a way to achieve that vision, and you must allow yourself to be agile in the progress and constantly course-correct like a toy car that bounces back and forth whenever it hits an obstacle until it finds a way through,” he said. “If you believe in your vision, that is where true progress happens.”
H&M and Ganni approach sustainability from different vantage points. Despite falling under the umbrella of fast fashion, a business model frequently slated for encouraging overconsumption and waste, H&M isn’t shy about touting its eco bonafides, from its use of next-generation fibers to its investments into recycling innovations. Ganni, on the other hand, pointedly does not identify as a “sustainable brand,” explaining on its website that it recognizes the “inherent contradiction between the current fashion industry that thrives off newness and consumption, and the concept of sustainability.” Instead, the company says, it’s focused on becoming “the most responsible version” of itself.
Telling people where a brand is headed isn’t always a PR win, Alpen said. Labor-rights campaigners, for one, have long challenged H&M’s claims of improving wages for workers, denouncing them as nebulous, unsubstantiated and not ambitious enough. Others have pointed out that the discarded duds it recycles are a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of new garments it pumps out every year.
“It’s unfortunate if [goals result in] more criticisms, but that’s a reality we have to deal with,” he said. “But to be honest, we wouldn’t move forward if we did not set those goals.”
Like it or not, brands are also on the hook for the commitments they make. “There is public accountability, so you cannot just say, ‘Didn’t work out, sorry,’ especially if you’re big and you have the spotlight on you,” Alpen said. “There will be constant scrutiny and you will not be able to get away with that.”
Missteps, too, are bound to happen, Reffstrup said. In 2018, Ganni released a collection of clothing and accessories made from biodegradable thermoplastic. It was about to expand its use of the material “until someone told us that that was probably not a good idea, or at least that it’s debatable,” he said. Still, trying something new is better than doing nothing at all, in Reffstrup’s opinion, particularly when the climate crisis has reached a crucial inflection point.
“If climate change was a war, the enemy would not be at the gates of Copenhagen, they would already have broken through,” he said. “And based on the latest IPCC report, I’d say they’re not just in the streets, they’re in your apartment and you’re on your way to a dungeon somewhere. So the situation is so crazy that if it was a war, you’d be scrambling for whatever weapon you can find and nobody would criticize you for grabbing a fork or a baseball bat. We just all have to charge in one direction and see if we can get the enemy out of the city.”
Drennan said perfection “does not and likely never” will exist when it comes to sustainability and fashion, and that big change doesn’t happen overnight. “That’s why it’s critical that we celebrate progress over perfection,” she said.
That’s not to say brands need to be treated with kid gloves. “I’m not saying that there isn’t a role for activism and keeping brands accountable—after all, this kind of pressure is actually what often leads to positive change,“ Drennan added. “I just think that the tone needs to change to be more conversational to inspire today’s leaders to continue making progress and motivate others to follow suit.”
The worst thing brands can do is maintain the status quo, Reffstrup said.
“It’s so much easier still to do nothing or have someone in the sourcing department spend 20 percent of their time putting together a code of conduct, and that’s about it, maybe sourcing an organic capsule collection here and there,” he said.
For companies still on the fence, Reffstrup has one suggestion. “Don’t think too much about it, just be honest, not perfect and get started,” he said. “Then nobody can claim you’re greenwashing.”