Is There a Trend of Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry?

By Reilly Sakai – Sustainability Analyst at G&A Institute

Despite being identified by some as one of the top contributors to impact on society’s environmental and social issues, on close inspection we could say that the fashion industry continues in 2020 to lag behind other sectors when it comes to a close review of the industry’s sustainability efforts.

The positives: Some major apparel industry players have or are attempting to create strategies and initiatives to reduce plastic and improve the sustainability of their supply chain.

However, in reviewing industry performance overall, it can be difficult to parse through which initiatives are actually making a difference — and which are simply an example of greenwashing, especially given the lower rate of disclosure of ESG emissions by prominent companies’ reporting.

Solutions? What Steps To Be Taken?

So, we can ask, what steps must be taken now — both at the company and the consumer level?

We can ask this question: Is it possible for an industry that so depends on continuous consumption of its products (clothing) to become more sustainable?

The fashion industry is reported to be responsible for more carbon emission than all international flights and maritime shipping combined — “producing 10 percent of all humanity’s carbon emissions” (source: UNEP, 2018).

The apparel industry is also the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply — after fruit and vegetable farming, which can be very intensive in terms of water use (source: Thomas Insights, 2019).

And, among the challenges, it’s reported that up to 85% of textiles end up in landfills rather than being recycled or upcycled (UNECE, 2018).

Between 2000 and 2015, clothing sales increased from 50 billion units to over 100 billion units, while utilization of clothing (the average number of times a garment is worn) dropped 36% during the same timeframe (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

These figures are nothing to scoff at as various sectors and industries move toward less water use; less waste to landfill; more recycling and re-use, among many measures adopted throughout industries.

Is the Fashion Industry Drive to Sustainability Slowing Down?

And yet, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report from the year 2019, sustainability efforts in the industry appear to be slowing down rather than accelerating to address these issues.

In GRI’s Sustainability Disclosure Database, there are currently 248 organizations that fall in the textiles & apparel sector worldwide. Put that in perspective of the total 14,476 organizations in the database.

That’s less than 2% of reporting organizations in the textile & apparel sector. In the sector, there are just 80 GRI Standards industry reports, vs 4,089 GRI Standards reports in the database as a whole.

Given the rate at which the global fashion industry has been growing (before the coronavirus emergency) – more people, more apparel, more income, etc) — we might conclude that companies in the industry have simply not been doing enough to offset their well-charted detrimental environmental impacts.

So what to do now? We know that the fashion industry is important in terms of global economic impact and employment, and creativity – while also being a top contributor to waste, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and an array of other negative environmental factors.

Incentives For Changing – Lacking

Today, there aren’t major economic or societal incentives in place for apparel companies to make real changes.

It’s going to take a lot of time and effort, not to mention considerable investment, to switch factories in which clothes are produced and polluting or violating human rights and so on (to address key ESG issues).

And it’s also quite difficult to have real transparency at every level of the apparel and footwear global supply chain to help to ensure a more sustainable production process.

Consumer Tastes – May Make a Difference. Maybe.

Moreover, while many consumers are now starting to buy what they believe to be the more sustainable products in many categories including fashion, very few consumers are apparently willing to pay more for them — or have the time or means to investigate every company’s sustainability initiatives and track record before making their purchase (Source: Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2019).

Since it’s so much quicker and cheaper to do, companies instead may turn to marketing messaging that tells their customers that they are working towards a more sustainable future — without actually doing much or even anything in reality.

What Leading Companies Are Doing – the Positives

There is good news.  The “we are sustainable” message has begun to sell well and customers have been moving to certain apparel brands that are promoting a sustainable vision — without the buyer being able to (at point-of-sale) fact-check a company’s claims. That is the reality of at-market sales.

We can begin by taking a look at Everlane, which touts “radical transparency,” but doesn’t actually divulge the name of the factories in which its garments are produced.  So we don’t know what is going on there.

Patagonia, on the other hand, is considered best-in-class, offering repair and buyback programs in order to promote a circular economy, and has a multitude of policies and systems in place to ensure they’re doing everything they can to protect the environment and people who work at or interact with the company.

Nike, similarly, has done a lot to improve their supply chains over many years, using innovation as a driver for sustainability.

Rather than increasing factory audits to ensure that workers are wearing protective gear, Nike engineered a non-toxic glue so protective gear is no longer needed.\

Nike’s flyknit sneaker vastly reduced the amount of material needed to construct a shoe, meaning lower costs and less waste.

Other brands, from Adidas to Puma, have followed suit.

On the luxury end, Eileen Fisher has been a staple of sustainable clothing for decades, sourcing environmentally friendly materials, offering a buyback program, upcycling old materials into new garments, and sharing the wealth with all of her employees by offering a comprehensive ESOP.

Looking to the Future to Protect the Planet

With our Planet Earth’s environmental situation growing ever more dire, it is critical for the fashion industry — now! —  to encourage and make major changes — but convincing individual corporate leadership that this is a worthwhile investment is no small feat.

Because of the higher costs typically associated with implementing sustainability initiatives (or at least the perception of higher cost), overhauling a company’s entire supply chain is quite challenging.

Many fashion companies do not find it feasible in this competitive pricing environment to raise their prices or cut into their margins, especially when they continue to see the industry growing at such a swift pace year-over-year.

Perhaps more and more companies will consider Nike’s successful approach. That is, increasing spending in R&D as opposed to marketing, which has major potential to decrease costs and increase margins in the long-term, while improving their ESG efforts at the same time.

In my opinion, it’s going to probably take some form of public sector intervention or a mass consumer revolution or some similar dramatic action to influence the bulk of the fashion industry to move toward a truly sustainable future – and one of those things might happen sooner than later.

The leaders in corporate sustainability in the industry will be the major beneficiaries when the tide turns.

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Reilly SakaiReilly Sakai is a sustainability analyst at G&A Institute; she began her work with us as one of our outstanding analyst-interns in grad school. She is completing her MBA program in Fashion & Luxury at NYU Stern School of Business, where she is specializing in Sustainable Business & Innovation, and, Management of Technology & Operations. She has been working with NYU’s Center for Sustainable Business on an independent study that explores environmental sustainability in apparel manufacturing.

Recycling – The Circular Economy: Admirable Efforts, With Significant Challenges As The Efforts Expand & Become More Complex for Businesses

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

In these closing days of the year 2018, of course, we’ll be seeing shared expert perspectives on the year now ending and a look into the new year, 2019.  Sustainable Brands shared one person’s perspectives on three sustainability trends that are gaining momentum heading into 2019.

The commentary is authored by Renee Yardley, VP-Sales & Marketing of Rolland Inc., a prominent North American commercial & security paper manufacturer established in 1882. The company strives to be an environmental leader in the pulp and paper industry. A wide range of fine paper products is made using renewable energy, recycled fiber, and de-inked without the use of chlorine.  Rolland started making recycled paper in 1989 and adopted biogas as an energy source in 2004. The company is privately-owned and headquartered in Quebec, Canada.

The trends the author explains, do of course, affect users of all types of paper products — but also are useful for businesses in other sectors & industries.  He sees:  (1) a shifting of global recycling mindsets and in the circular economy; (2) more open collaboration and partnerships for impactful change; and (3) the need for more measurement and efforts to quantify impact.

Rolland is a paper supply company and so there is a focus on recycled (post-consumer) paper, fiber, forests, the recycled paper process, moving toward zero waste, municipal recycling in North America, and so on.

On recycling:  we are seeing reports now of problems arising in the waste stream; in the USA, municipalities are calling for a reduction of waste and automating processes (to help reduce costs).  There are new on-line marketplaces as well for buying and selling recovered items.  The “market solution” is a great hope for the future as we continue to use paper products (we are not quite a paperless society, are we?).

Part of the issues recycling advocates are dealing with:  China is restricting the import of recyclable materials (think:  that paper you put at curbside at home of business).  Consumers can be encouraged to reduce consumption but paper is paper and we all use it every day – so new approaches are urgently needed!

That leads to the second trend – developing and leveraging partnership & open collaboration:  Yardley writes that collaboration across the spectrum of an organization’s stakeholders can help to address supply-chain wide sustainability if an organization can “understand the wider system” it is operating in (citing Harvard Business Review).  And, if an organization can learn to work with people you haven’t worked with before.

Rolland, for example, leverages biogas as a main energy source, partnering with a local landfill to recover methane (since 2004).  This trend is on the rise, with the EU biogas plants expanding by 200% (2009-2015).

And then there is Measure and Manage:  Environmental measuring and reporting is an important part of a company’s sustainability journey – at the outset and continuing and at G&A Institute we stress the importance of reporting year-to-year results in a standardized format, such as in a GRI Standards report  — most important, including a GRI Content Index.

At the Sustainable Brands New Metrics conference in 2018, SAP explained that organizations integrating ESG objectives see higher employee retention, and minimizing of risk for investors.

Renee Yardley’s commentary is our Top Story choice for you this week – do read it and you’ll find excellent examples of how companies in various sectors (Ford, Microsoft, Starbucks, Patagonia, Unilever) are dealing with their sustainability commitments in the face of challenges posed.

Click here for more information on Rolland and its environmental / sustainability efforts and products.

 

This Week’s Top Story

Three Sustainability Trends Gaining Momentum for 2019
(Friday, December 14, 2018) Source: Sustainable Brands – In the spirit of looking ahead to 2019, we’ve identified three important societal trends for 2019, relating to sustainability in business…

Benefit Corporations and the Public Markets — Will We Ever See a Public Benefit Corporation?

Lois Yurow-Nov 14-016eQuestion:  Benefit Corporations and the Public Markets — Will We Ever See a Public Benefit Corporation?

by Guest Commentator Lois Yurow

The United States is home to over 1,100 privately-held benefit corporations—for-profit entities organized under state statutes that require them to pursue a general public benefit in the ordinary course of business.  Many commentators have discussed whether directors of socially-oriented companies need legislation to protect them from liability for breach of fiduciary duty when they strive for goals other than financial return.  Others have argued that benefit corporation legislation is counterproductive because it wrongly implies that traditional corporations are required to make shareholder value their exclusive priority. 

This essay will not revisit those issues.  Instead, I want to consider whether it would be viable for a public company to become a benefit corporation, or for a benefit corporation to go public.  I will describe benefit corporations and some distinct obligations of public companies, and then explain why benefit corporations are not suited to the public markets.

Benefit corporations, B corporations, and public companies

Corporate law in 26 states and the District of Columbia permits for-profit entities to become benefit corporations.[1]  The various state statutes differ, but all benefit corporations have three distinct features: charter documents must state that the corporation’s purpose is to create a material, positive impact on society and the environment; benefit corporation directors must consider the interests of stakeholders other than shareholders, such as employees and the surrounding community; and benefit corporations must report periodically on their social and environmental performance. 

The first benefit corporation statute was enacted (by Maryland) roughly five years ago, placing benefit corporations among the rare subjects that garner bipartisan support and inspire legislative speed.  Currently, there are 1,140 known benefit corporations in the United States.  The most familiar are Method Products (which makes cleaning supplies) and Patagonia (which specializes in outdoor apparel).

Benefit corporations are easily confused with B corps, but they are different.  A B corp is an entity—not necessarily a corporation—that is certified by B Lab, a nonprofit organization committed to “using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.”  Unlike programs to certify a particular product (say, Fair Trade coffee) or facility (an LEED building), the B Lab certification is comprehensive.  The idea is to identify good companies instead of just good products or good marketing.  As of this writing, there are 1161 B corps in 37 countries.  Some are benefit corporations, but most are not.  The most recognizable B corp is Ben & Jerry’s.

Public companies offer their shares to the general public, typically on a stock exchange.  To become public, a company must file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) a registration statement that contains audited financial statements and describes the business and the risks of the investment.  Once public, the company is subject to ongoing reporting and auditing requirements.  According to B Lab (a driving force behind benefit corporation legislation), no existing benefit corporation is publicly traded.[2]

Existing corporations cannot convert into benefit corporations without the approval of a supermajority of their shareholders.  It would be difficult for a public company to muster that support.  But could a benefit corporation go public?  That would be a bad idea, for two reasons: becoming and remaining a public company is too expensive, and broad ownership might jeopardize the company’s mission. 

Going public is too expensive

According to a 2011 study prepared by the IPO Task Force for the U.S. Treasury Department, it costs approximately US$2.5 million for a company to achieve regulatory compliance for an initial public offering, and another $1.5 million per year for ongoing compliance. These costs include underwriting commissions; filing fees; and fees for lawyers, accountants, and transfer agents.  Even typical for-profit companies need to be large and successful to absorb those costs.  For a benefit corporation that already may need to sacrifice potential earnings, steep compliance costs would further diminish the company’s resources for engaging in business and pursuing a public benefit.

Moreover, the SEC’s disclosure regime focuses on financial and economic analysis; it does not elicit the type of social benefit assessment that benefit corporations must provide under state law.  Indeed, many investors have complained to the SEC about inadequate reporting of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) information.  Thus, a public benefit corporation that produced the periodic reports required by federal law would still need to prepare an annual benefit report to satisfy state law. 

Under the Model Benefit Corporation Legislation, which is the starting point for most state laws, the benefit report must describe “[t]he ways in which the benefit corporation pursued general public benefit during the year and the extent to which general public benefit was created,” and assess “the overall social and environmental performance of the benefit corporation against a third-party standard.”  This is not an inconsequential or inexpensive undertaking. 

Benefit corporations are more likely to succeed with a small number of investors

Benefit corporations commit to pursue (in some states, to “create”) a public benefit, which serves as a signal to socially responsible investors.  As corporate law professor Lynn Stout says, “‘it’s like hanging a sign around your neck: Nice people invest here.’”[3]  One commentator likens benefit corporations to multiparty contracts because they “average the collective desires” of unrelated investors with a variety of social concerns.[4]  Those who invest in a benefit corporation—or opt in to the contract—are  “a self-selected, ideologically similar group” that is likely to remain committed to the company’s mission, even in circumstances that might prompt profit-oriented investors to insist that management defer social endeavors to pursue better returns.

This contractual dynamic could shift if a benefit corporation were to go public.  Activist investors often buy stock with complete understanding of a company and then agitate for change anyway.  Witness the public battles waged by investors urging EBay, EMC, and JDS Uniphase (among others) to spin off assets. 

If a benefit corporation’s business model has substantial earnings potential absent the “public benefit” mission, there is nothing to stop frustrated investors from campaigning to amend the company’s charter.  Even if activists cannot attain the supermajority vote that benefit corporation statutes require, defending the company’s mission would be a significant distraction and expense for management.

Conclusion: 

Benefit corporations appeal to the subset of investors that are willing to sacrifice some earnings to support more responsible business practices.  These companies are unlikely to generate enough new capital in the public market to justify the expense of being there.  In addition, offering stock to the general public, without any opportunity to assess the purchasers’ commitment, can jeopardize a benefit corporation’s mission.  This class of companies should stay in the private market.

Footnotes:


[1] This tally includes Arizona, where the statute is not effective until December 31, 2014, and Minnesota and New Hampshire, where the statutes are not effective until January 1, 2015.  Legislation is pending in twelve other states and Puerto Rico.

[2] Plum Organics, a benefit corporation, is wholly-owned by Campbell Soup Company, a public company.

[3] Quoted in Gunther, M. (2013, August 12). B corps: Sustainability will be shaped by the market, not corporate law. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/b-corps-markets-corporate-law.

[4] Hasler, J. E. (2014, October). Contracting for good: How benefit corporations empower investors and redefine shareholder value. Virginia Law Review, 100(6), 1279-1322, 1305.

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Guest Commentator Lois Yurow is founder and president of Investor Communications Services, LLC, where she specializes in converting complex legal, business, and financial documents into plain English.  Lois was Managing Editor of Wall Street Lawyer, a monthly newsletter focused on securities law, for seven years, and Managing Editor of RealCorporateLawyer.com, a website serving corporate and securities lawyers, for five.  Mutual Fund Regulation and Compliance Handbook, a book Lois co-authored and updates annually, is published by Thomson West.  Lois writes and speaks frequently about plain English, disclosure, and other securities law matters.  Before forming Investor Communications Services, Lois practiced corporate and securities law, first in Chicago and then in New Jersey.  Email: lois@securitieseditor.com