The following article is a takeover prepared by Valentine Hochart, Gaël Bruyns & Die Hu, students of the class « Sustainable Luxury » (part of the master « New Luxury & Art de Vivre » at Sciences Po, Paris / France) taught by UrbanMeister founder Mirela Orlovic. They share their views on how a future based on sustainability and circular economy after Covid19 will look like.
The fashion industry has signaled a strong commitment to the preservation of our ecosystem, or at least this is what 150 brands of the 2019 Fashion Pact tend to pretend in their attempt to comply with the UN-set Sustainable Developments Goals. This new resolution is a series of commitments based on Sciences-Based Targets (SBTs) and is aimed to be adopted by more than 20% of the global fashion industry. The focus of the first coalition of actions for textiles and fashion is based on three pillars: Climate, Biodiversity as well as the preservation of the Oceans. This all-encompassing pact includes signatories ranging from luxury pioneers such as Kering, Burberry, Chanel and Hermès, textiles and mainstream “Prêt-à-porter” groups and brands like H&M, Inditex, Fashion 3, and Gap, sportswear brands including Nike, Adidas, and Puma, as well as distribution giants ranging from Carrefour, to Galeries Lafayette and La Redoute.
In light of the growing concern around the preservation of our ecosystems and the weight that bears the fashion industry on that matter, François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering Group, was charged by French President Emmanuel Macron to come up with a plan of action comprising concrete solutions and serious commitments to be presented during the G7 Summit held in Biarritz in France in August 2019. Indeed, according to a 2017 report issued by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, global textile production is responsible for the emission of 1,2 Billion tonnes of greenhouse gases, 20% of industrial water pollution, 35% of microplastic released in the oceans and 22,5% of pesticide use worldwide, making it the second most polluting industry after the oil industry. As such, it is little wonder that states such as France, which have signaled a growing concern for the preservation of the environment, have attempted to regulate this industry. The propositions of the pact go as follows: the use of 100% of renewable energy across supply chains by 2030, 0 carbon emissions, the prohibition of single-use plastic, the ban of intensive livestock farms sourcing, to name a few. However, a number of actors, ranging from the civil society to NGOs have increasingly pointed at the limits of the pact and its resolutions, in an attempt to debunk its true bindingness and effectiveness, some of them going as far as calling it a pure greenwashing strategy.
A vague pact ?
It appears of utmost relevance to first put things into context. As aforementioned, the Fashion Pact is an initiative carried out by the French President Emmanuel Macron’s government to regulate and limit the excesses of the fashion industry, in the framework of the G7 summit held in Biarritz on the 26th of August, 2019. There were originally 32 signatories, but 24 others later joined, accounting for around 250 different brands from the luxury, fashion and textile industries, united in the preservation of the climate, biodiversity and the oceans. The fashion industry being one of the most lucrative, with a worldwide annual turnover of more than $1.4 trillion, it is also one of the most polluting ones, and our global governance and international organizations have made it a priority to regulate private sector actors in hopes of modeling a greener and more ethical profit-driven model. The official press release of the Fashion Pact is the first to present limits and earned many criticisms. For instance, the Fashion Pact being a coalition, it implies that brands can decide to take part of it on a voluntary basis that is not enforceable by law, making it non-binding and non-obligatory, as there is no legislation to back it up, nor a legal entity or central authority to ensure and monitor its concrete implementation. Furthermore, the language used in the official communication is very vague and elusive, making the scope of actions hard to grasp, as shown below:
The fact that brands may choose their own course of action also implies that there is no inter-brand coordination or dialogue prior to the setting of rules, making it a very à la carte Pact with no accountability measures, nor enforcement possibilities. Indeed, the non-binding character and voluntary basis of the Pact implies that there are no possible sanctions in case the case of no respect of the measures put forward.
Do you think that this vague pact presents some signs of so-called greenwashing?
Carbon offsetting: the easy way to go?
Gucci being the biggest contributor to the Kering Group turnover, it is particularly relevant to dive into the implications of the pact at a brand level as to check whether brands have started to act accordingly. As per Gucci’s Instagram posts from September 12th, 2019, the brand has claimed to be entirely carbon neutral. However, things seem to be more nuanced than what Gucci claims. In fact, this irrelevant claim can be misleading to customers, who prima facie can be led to think that Gucci emits no carbon dioxide whatsoever throughout the entirety of its production process, when, in reality, the brand largely employs offsetting measures to even out its carbon footprint. In fact, carbon offsetting is used to compensate carbon emissions by producing an equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere. So in reality, the brand is investing in environmental projects and conservation schemes to balance out the damaging emissions of its supply chain and operations activities. As such, Gucci is factually not carbon neutral and is not entirely tackling the issue through the reorganization and optimization of its supply chain because the act of producing something necessarily implies the production of emission in the first place.
In your opinion, do these carbon neutral pledges also mirror greenwashing practices?
A curious & luxurious absence
Competition-wise, the Fashion Pact saw the unprecedented cooperation of fierce competitors of the luxury industry such as the Kering Group, Hermès and Chanel. However, LVMH’s unwillingness to join the cooperation did not go unnoticed. LVMH’s CEO, Bernard Arnault, and his son, Antoine Arnault, later explained the group’s refusal to cooperate in a press conference held on September 25th, 2019 in Paris, where they presented the results of the group’s environmental policies. Bernard Arnault criticized Kering Group’s offsetting strategy and later explained that his group’s environmental policies were not only axed around long-term goals but also short-term, quantifiable and constraining goals, before adding that he prefered “acts to pacts.” On July 15th, 2019, LVMH also announced a partnership with Stella McCartney, a pioneer in the development of sustainable production methods in the textile industry, who now serves as special advisor and consultant to the group’s executive committee on environmental matter. In the same press release, LVMH also claimed to be the first large company in France to create a sustainability department, which mirrors greenwashing practices of brands seeking to give a first in the class impression and greener than the rest of its competitors, although it is not based on factual evidences. Additionally, LVMH had also criticized the fact that actors of the fast-fashion segment had joined the coalition, which appeared all the more paradoxical in Mr. Arnault’s eyes given their poor contribution to environmental efforts.
Is one of the largest luxury companies in France truly committing itself to the environmental cause by creating a sustainability department or is it yet again another greenwashing statement?
Fast fashion makes its way among the league
Notwithstanding, the Fashion Pact’s inclusiveness efforts encompassed the whole textile industry and also comprised members of the fast-fashion segment. Although the later is deemed for its particularly pernicious carbon footprint and overall impact on the environment when compared to its luxury peers, the Pact aimed to give a chance to everyone seeking to better its impact on the environment. As such, when fast-fashion giant H&M was announced as a member of the coalition, it rapidly became the target for criticism. For example, H&M’s recent Conscious Collection, a collection made out of sustainably-sourced materials and sold in in-store recycled bins, was received with thorough criticism around the mention of the word “conscious” in its name. As a matter of fact, H&M failed to provide customers with sufficient information to prove that their garments were greener than other competitors’ products. Its claims were not backed with information on the traceability of the garment, nor on the exact amount of recycled material for each garment. The huge gap between a garment made out of 5% of recycled materials and one made of 60% of recycled materials makes it very effortless and paradoxical communication at best, controversial and false at worst.
Is Fast Fashion becoming sustainably conscious or is it fastly entering the greenwashing sphere ?
What about local producers?
On the side of civil society actors, the Fashion Pact also received strong backlash, notably from independent bodies such as France Terre Textile, who strongly voiced their anger over what they consider greenwashing strategies. This independent body rewards brands with a label that certifies that ¾ of the product cycle of their products (going from textile fabrication to the manufacturing of the garment) are made in France, comply with short-circuit fabrication criteria, are products of quality, and comply with Corporate Social Responsibility engagements. This independent body is a fierce advocate against greenwashing and the very frequent offshoring that French leaders of the textile industry resort to for cost-saving purposes, and have called for the relocation of their supply chains in France to limit their carbon footprint and favor local employment. In a video sent to the French president dating from September 2nd, 2019, a few selected textile producers whose factories are located in France replied to the Fashion Pact by reminding the president of the existence of a well-developed textile industry in his own country which has already taken concrete steps towards a more ecologically-responsible and transparent supply chain. Haulage bears in fact a strong weight in textile products’ carbon footprint, and a very simple way of reducing this burden is by relocating factories to the country of origin of their brands, which also presents other virtues, notably in the stimulation of local economies and employment.
Boycotted NGOs felt particularly salty
Furthermore, NGOs also played a prominent role in the voicing of criticisms against the pact, particularly because they had not been consulted prior to the creation of the Pact, and subsequently felt left out. As such, they denounced the Pact as an umpteenth window dressing by the French government, which according to them, would have purposely left NGOs out from the Pact as to avoid them from undermining the reach of a not-too-drastic consensus and leaving room for greenwashing. For instance, Greenpeace was particularly vocal in its discontent towards the initiative because they do not believe on its effectiveness given the Pact was made by and for the brands, which enables them to set their own rules while having no obligation to comply to any sort of legislation or policies. Clément Sénéchal, spokesperson of Greenpeace France went further and claimed that France needs concrete and binding “legislation to push the reduction of the consumption of clothing,” thus calling not only for a more inclusive pact, but also one calling for a more frugal and ethical consumption.
WWF France also joined the coalition of the disgruntled, but called for a reconceptualization and rethinking of the industry’s production methods, and of the industry as a whole. Pierre Cannet, WWF France’s Delegate for Climate, Energy and Sustainable Cities stated that « If it is to sell more and renewable energy, it will not be enough […] We must review the model, reduce production, make clothes usable longer, that no longer emit microplastics when they are washed and produced sustainably. » Although he did not emphasize the call for stricter and more constraining legislation, it is rather evident that NGOs have started denouncing the palpable limits of the Pact and the tangible bits of its greenwashing strategies.
Diesel: the engine booster of the Pact?
Finally, at a brand yet premium level, actors such as Diesel have also taken part of this endeavor and it is interesting to look at some of their communications regarding their actions to reduce their overall environmental impact. Diesel joined the Fashion Pact February 14th, 2020, during the “second wave” of recruitment and announced, at the same time, their most recent environmental and sustainable strategic program called For Responsible Living, which gave birth to its first green initiative Diesel Upcycling For 55DSL. The later is an upcycling operation that seeks to address and limit wastage accross its supply chain through the use of deadstock, old samples, prototypes and leftover materials. The ensuing collection was a collaboration with Diesel’s prototype brand, DSL55, which was created in 1994, wherein every garment had a QR code that could be scanned in order to trace back its production, the origin of the materials used and its overall composition. The collection was particularly successful because it had a limited run of exactly 5055 pieces, its materials were reused in a completely innovative way and its packaging was entirely recycled to keep in line with the brand’s premises. Despite its negative reputation as the “bad pupil,” maybe the mid-market and premium sectors have started to achieve more than its luxury counterpart. Maybe, after all, the luxury industry does have something to learn from the brands it so castigates? The question remains to be answered, and perhaps the one year anniversary of the pact will provide us with more insights as brands may be brought to showcase how they have progressed since its signing.
This one year anniversary will happen at a particularly delicate and touchy moment for the industry. In fact, the Covid-19 outbreak had a very strong impact on the overall textile industry’s performance, and many questions remain unanswered regarding whether its actors will have recovered by the anniversary of the pact. For the time being, the industry’s top priority remains getting back on shape and limiting the damage of the outbreak. The reopening of Hermès’ second biggest store in China hauled in $2.7 million in one day, which gives hope to the leaders of the industry and their capacity to recover. It also remains to be seen whether the reopening of flagships in France on May 11th will yield the same results, and more globally, if the West is as capable of recovering fastly as China.
Sources: A Vague Pact
Sources: Carbon offsetting: the easy way to go?
Sources: A curious & luxurious absence
Sources: Fast fashion makes its way among the league
Sources: What about local producers
Sources: Boycotted NGOs felt particularly salty
Sources: Diesel: the engine booster of the Pact?