Beyond Greenwashing: Paths Toward Sustainability in the Fashion Industry (Part 2)

Monday, November 2, 2020

Part 1 of this blog presented the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, and argued for structural changes to address sustainability beyond greenwashing. Part 2 presents potential paths toward sustainability in the fashion industry.

cottonOne challenge in promoting structural changes for sustainability is creating a universal definition and certification process for sustainability. For companies to claim “sustainability,” they should first meet standards that verify their efforts. Currently, fashion companies can opt into over 30 certification systems. These certification programs vary based on standards for environmental impact, organic sourcing, and fair labor, among others. However, these certifications do not always provide the full picture. For example, a garment can be USDA-certified organic, but still be dyed with toxic chemicals or processed in a hazardous work environment. This gap in information reveals a need to develop a certification system that guarantees sustainable practices in every aspect of the supply chain. Studies have shown that certification systems work as an effective tool to ensure industries adopt good practices, provide transparency, decrease information asymmetry, increase accountability, and even work as a short-term, cost-effective solution to larger unsustainability problems. Certifications may also influence consumer attitudes. A study on organic goods found that developing and promoting organic logos created consumer demand, enhanced positive consumer attitudes, and influenced buying habits.

However, certification systems have a few limitations. While certification systems can allow for more transparency, they may not be effective in some cases where there is incompatibility between public interest and private certification systems, lack of involvement in the market, and/or inadequate threat of sanctions for noncompliance. Despite these drawbacks, many of these pitfalls can be overcome if third parties such as the government, consumers, and nongovernmental organizations play a role in providing oversight and regulation for fashion companies.

Financial incentives may also motivate clothing manufacturers to adhere to sustainability standards. Companies who manufacture their goods overseas could be offered a financial incentive such as subsidies or tax breaks to move their factories to the United States. The number of people employed in the U.S. garment-manufacturing sector has been on a steady decline for the past three decades. This move would reverse the trend. Bringing even a fraction of those jobs to the United States would be seen as a win for politicians on both sides of the aisle. Additionally, if factories are relocated to the United States, regulators could monitor their adherence to certification standards more easily. The government would play an integral role in holding fashion companies accountable, and have the capacity to encourage adherence to certification standards.

Finally, companies may be motivated by consumers to shift towards sustainability. More and more consumers seek to buy sustainably made clothing—one survey found that 73% of consumers prefer to purchase from environmentally friendly companies. Demographically, they found that Gen-Z consumers are the most willing to pay more for sustainable clothes.

Consumers also have a responsibility to push for change in both personal habits and corporate accountability. A sustainability certification can be an effective mechanism for ethically minded consumers to make informed purchases. Consumers, investors, and many others are seeking to buy clothing with environmentally conscious practices implemented in all aspects of the supply chain. The current system of surface-level sustainability and greenwashing does not adequately address the industry’s high pollution, dangerous working environments, or unnecessary waste.