Making sustainability a reality, not a greenwash
“Greenwashing” was a term that first came to prominence in the 1980s, particularly regarding oil companies that were putting an environmental gloss over their exploration activities at the time.
Coined by environmental campaigner Jay Westerveld, the term was used to highlight those companies and corporations who were promoting claims of their sustainable and environmentally friendly initiatives whilst, at the same time not truly supporting those initiatives with any real action, instead using them as a marketing tool.
Fast forward to the present day and there is increasing evidence of an alarming trend amongst global apparel brands and retailers to employ greenwashing in their marketing campaigns.
What is the extent of this practice and what are the ramifications in terms of actual sustainable, environmental improvements in the apparel industry, and the message that is given to the end consumer?
The sustainable, environmental, “green” bandwagon is definitely one that has gained momentum and adherents over the last decade.
Recently, with the global awareness for the green agenda, being fuelled by activists including Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion pushing awareness of the climate crisis to a wider global audience, brands and retailers are keen to show that they are fully on board with sustainable, environmentally friendly activities.
We now live in a world where student environment awareness strikes, and mass non-violent public demonstrations are commonplace, and brands and retailers are keen to show that they are listening. But are they? Or is it just another route to marketing, ramping up the environmental credentials of a product and maxing out sales?
It should be stressed that “any” initiative undertaken by brands and retailers to further the course of sustainable production of apparel should be applauded. Any action is better than inaction!
However, how far do the claims made by companies of the steps they are taking actually go and what is the end consumer to think about the information they are presented with?
My first issue with the situation is that, by its very nature, the mass-volume apparel industry (in which Bangladesh RMG sector plays a significant role, as the second-largest apparel manufacturing resource globally) exists to sell more product.
This flies in the face of worthy initiatives championed by organizations including Fashion Revolution and Fashion for Good (to name but two) that advocate that to achieve a truly sustainable, circular apparel industry we should actually be making less product, making it better, within the safest manufacturing environment, at a fair price, and producing it in the most environmentally sensitive manner possible.
There appears to be an alarming number of companies that are happy to promote their sustainable and environmental credentials surrounding the use of water, recycled or organic cotton, recycled polyester, and reduction in single-use plastics (to name but a few!).
But I wonder what percentage these much-vaunted products make in the overall make-up of those companies’ annual product ranges and sales?
To further compound the issue, the same companies are happy to promote their initiatives to their customers who, quite innocently, can be led to believe that these worthwhile sustainable and environmental initiatives apply to all of the company’s operating practices.
As we all know, with a few exceptions, this is very far from the truth.
To me the crux of the problem lies in the fact that to be truly sustainable, to ensure an environmentally sound business model for the future of the apparel industry and to start benefitting our fellow man and our planet it is time for a radical shake-up and approach to achieving a conscious global apparel business for the future.
The environmental and sustainable, circular issues are not about marketing, not about trying to appear better, they are, fundamentally, about the survival of the planet. We cannot carry on in the manner that we have been over the last few decades and not expect any ramifications.
Were brands and retailers to start by following the same guidelines for sustainable, ethical production imposed upon Bangladesh since 2013 for all of their global suppliers and were they then to consider the actual cost to manufacturers globally of implementing these changes then maybe that would be a start?
A global “cleaning up” of the industry is definitely required. It will require investment. It will require partnerships. It will require expertise. This is where brands and retailers can truly make a difference.
Brands and retailers need to stop investing in the greenwashing of their operation. Imagine the advances that can be made if the amount of funding allocated to the disingenuous marketing campaigns was actually allocated to something that would yield something worthwhile?
Furthermore, aside from direct financial contributions, brands and retailers need to be engaging properly with the end consumer. We as the RMG sector in Bangladesh do not have this access.
Our customers need to be painting a true picture of the endeavours being made on a sustainable and environmental front, not just for marketing, but to inform the in-store customer and make them aware of the purchasing decisions they face.
Engagement with the end-consumer is pivotal in ensuring that the industry can truly realize a sustainable, ethical, environmentally aware business model.
The responsibility for this communication lies solely in the hands of our business customers and I would urge them individually and collectively, to re-evaluate their approach to sustainable production and divert their marketing funds into making it a reality -- not a greenwash.
I believe it is the time that we see a more transparent approach from brands and retailers towards the establishment of a truly sustainable apparel business model and, with the Bangladesh RMG industry as a key partner, I believe this is attainable.
It is time to forget marketing and get moving. A little less advertising and a lot more action are required to realize a truly sustainable apparel industry in the future.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). He can be reached at [email protected]