Too many companies are making greenwashed PR pledges on their climate plans

Too many companies are making greenwashed PR pledges on their climate plans

Levi Strauss has taken the lead on climate commitment – but where does the rest of the fashion industry stand today? asks Todd Paglia, executive director at Stand.earth.

One year ago, Levi Strauss made the most aggressive climate commitment the fashion industry has ever seen. The denim giant's groundbreaking plan to cut emissions from its entire supply chain, including factories, rightly shook the entire fashion industry.

All of the clothes we wear exact a huge cost on the people who make them – and on our planet. As the world's fourth largest climate polluter, the fashion industry is responsible for a massive 8% of global climate pollution. That's more than Russia.

Few things are more personal, or more intimate, than what we choose to wrap around our bodies. Unfortunately, the fashion industry holds a dirty secret: its worldwide factories – especially in places like China, Vietnam, Turkey and Bangladesh – are powered almost entirely with coal. Levi's commitment was so important because it sent a signal to the entire industry that there is a better way to do things. 

In an industry filled with fashion brands who prefer to "follow the laggard" instead of being leaders, sustainability is becoming an increasingly important and controversial issue

Customers are increasingly pushing the companies they do business with to match their values. In an industry filled with fashion brands who prefer to "follow the laggard" instead of being leaders, sustainability is becoming an increasingly important and controversial issue. 

From human rights issues to child labour scandals and the use of toxic dyes that make rivers run red, the fashion industry is continually rocked by cyclical scandals. And now – with the recent UN report telling us the world has just over a decade to drastically reduce emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – the industry is about to get rocked by a climate scandal as well. 

Levi's is among the first brands trying to get ahead of the issue, rather than wait for it to explode. Though to be fair, they did so only after Stand.earth's Too Dirty to Wear campaign raised the issue of the company's greenwashing with its customers and employees. Now, the rest of the industry is on notice.

Greenwashing fashion

The revolutionary, and most hopeful, part of Levi's climate commitment is that it applies to not only reducing pollution at its stores and headquarters, but more importantly, to the factories where its jeans are made. 

That level of commitment continues to be extremely rare. In the past year, other fashion brands have continued to make commitments that largely apply only to their offices and stores, which is often just 10% of their total climate footprint. These fake climate commitments do nothing to address the scale of the problem. It's like bragging that you quit smoking, but leaving out that you only quit for one hour per day. 

Another issue getting a lot of attention in the fashion world these days is the phrase "circular economy." The concept can be a good thing – but only when paired with actual climate pollution reductions. 

When leaders like Levi's make dramatic climate commitments, while a gaggle of other companies talk loudly about clothes recycling and zero-waste design, we should all be suspicious. As companies like Levi's show the fashion industry that drastic supply chain pollution reductions can be done right now, a holistic sector by 2030 will do us no good. It's simply too late. 

In July 2018, Levi's shifted away from its greenwashed PR pledges and announced an industry-leading pledge, stating that between now and 2025, it would slash climate pollution by 90% in its stores and offices and – far more importantly – by 40% in its entire supply chain. 

That's remarkable. And while the laggard culture of the fashion industry remains strong, some are following Levi's lead. Burberry recently adopted a similar commitment, which, while not quite as ambitious as Levi's, marks a solid effort to reduce 30% of the climate pollution in its entire supply chain by 2025.

Who's next?

Fashion brands that announce actual pollution reductions mark far more real climate commitments than fashionable climate approaches

So where does the rest of the fashion industry stand? In the coming months, huge companies like Nike, Gap Inc, and VF Corp (The North Face, Vans) are expected to announce new climate plans. Let's hope they join Levi's in making pledges heavy on substance and light on style. 

Fashion brands that announce actual pollution reductions mark far more real climate commitments than fashionable climate approaches like the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action

When companies that have done little to address their climate impacts flock to a "solution" like the UN charter, we should all hold our noses. It's a well-intentioned effort by an international body, but with no secretariat, little funding, and working groups focused on researching ways to "solve the problem," the charter simply ignores the myriad solutions that already exist (like the Higg Index and Clean by Design). 

With today's changing climate, we simply don't have time left to discover whether the whole thing is simply a big delay tactic.

It's a lot to ask of the fashion industry to finally get ahead of its massive pollution problem. But millennials – the industry's current and future market focus – have already started insisting that brands match their values. And as the fourth largest polluter on Earth, a climate-stable world depends upon the fashion industry to reform, and reform fast. 

The fashion industry's groundbreaking climate pledges of tomorrow must include clear emissions reduction benchmarks and investments in getting factories off coal. The fate of the planet should be the sufficient motivation brands need to change their stripes.

Todd Paglia JD, LLM is the executive director at Stand.earth, an international nonprofit environmental organisation with offices in Canada and the United States that is known for its groundbreaking research and successful corporate and citizens engagement campaigns to create new policies and industry standards in protecting forests, advocating the rights of Indigenous peoples, and protecting the climate. From 2017-2018, Stand.earth ran its "Too Dirty to Wear" campaign against Levi's, calling for the denim giant to make a climate commitment in line with the Paris Agreement.