A global pandemic. An environmental crisis. An increasingly polarised world. Currents of change are bringing to the surface movements that have been simmering away for some time. People are more aware than ever of global issues and are willing to align themselves with businesses driving positive change. In response, businesses are remodelling themselves to incorporate doing good for people and the planet. Is this self-preservation, advocacy, or both? Are these remodels real commitmen
mitments to change or just branding moves to win more customers? The answer is complicated. The effort to address fashion’s big problems Fashion comes with a whole litany of issues – from the amount of water needed to successfully grow cotton, to the rights of workers in textile factories, to the environmental impacts of discarded fast fashion. What would more sustainable fashion look like? Patagonia usually tops the list of sustainable fashion businesses, thanks to its wide-ranging efforts and willingness to make genuine commitments to change. Founder Yvon Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing details how Patagonia supports its employees through actions such as starting a creche and flexible working arrangements. Chouinard also initiated 1% for the Planet – Patagonia was among the first brands to donate 1% per cent of its profits to worthy causes. Outdoor brand Arc’teryx has also taken steps to commit to better environmental production and social outcomes. From donating used and repaired products to school outdoor programs, to switching to organic cotton for all its T-shirts, finding safer textile chemistries, and developing production methods that use less water. These are major efforts, but can fashion brands really be sustainable across their manufacture and production processes while labels are still producing fashion at pace? The future of ethical fashion might look more like Early Majority, fashion’s first ‘degrowth’ brand. Adopting a ‘degrowth’ mindset means people buy fewer things that last for longer. Whether this is sustainable from a business perspective remains to be seen, but it is the most realistic view of how to tackle our fast-fashion addiction. Changing its makeup The beauty industry has an ugly problem. Many of the products we use contain a number of chemicals, and studies show women are exposed daily to many more chemicals than men, through frequent use of cosmetics and beauty products. Then there’s the packaging. The founder of the brand Urban Decay started a new brand, Caliray, which is part of the ‘clean’ beauty trend based on eliminating harmful chemicals by upcycling ocean plastics, using sugar cane and other innovations. One of Caliray’s eye makeup products – a product line Urban Decay is famous for – is claimed to be so waterproof you can surf wearing it. This product line raises a lot of questions – who needs to surf wearing make-up, for one. Clean beauty remains a vague term that might appeal to people wanting more sustainable options but can still hide a few sins. How are we defining ‘harmful’ chemicals? And is using ocean plastics really doing anything to help the environment? Caliray and other beauty brands might need to show more commitment to the environment – and to deconstructing beauty standards – if brands really want to be seen to be doing something about the beauty industry’s environmental sustainability issues. Chocolate that fights child labour The chocolate industry is anything but sweet for many of its primary producers, and ethical products that recognise the problems in the supply chain are slowly gaining popularity. Bennetto Natural Foods Co produces organic, dairy-free chocolate using fair-trade ingredients where possible. The New Zealand company’s support for farmers extends to helping improve their living standards and the environment in which they operate. This includes providing interest-free loans to farmers for purchasing tools, free school uniforms for farmers’ children, and educational seminars for personal development. Tony’s Chocolonely is another confectionery maker on a mission. The Dutch company recognises slavery still exists on cocoa farms in West Africa and is intent on changing this. These efforts to make chocolate slavery-free extend to calling out rival chocolate makers for driving farmers to use child labour. Tony’s Chocolonely is calling for action following an exposé into supply chains, which revealed children as young as 10 have been working in illegal conditions on farms. Tony’s Chocolonely has demonstrated its outspokenness and transparent commitment to a cause, which might sway more people to choose its products over competitors’. Many other brands across other industries are also starting to remodel to reflect a broader trend of activism. It seems that the strength of the branding hinges on whether these businesses are simply jumping on a trend or genuinely committing to a cause. These days, consumers are smart enough to know the difference and the bottom line will reflect the change in mindset. If brands plan on remodelling to adapt more sustainable practices, they should consider: The language they use. Greenwashing is not looked on favourably, and there is great demand for marketing terms more specific than ‘eco-friendly’, ‘biodegradable’, or ‘clean’. What is your brand doing to back up your claims? As consumers demand more action, empty promises will do more harm than good. The wider context around the category the brand sits in; fashion brands can acknowledge the harm of fast fashion if they are doing something to address it.