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business models, strategies and technologies

Conceptual laziness won’t wash in the environmental (fashion) face-off

I’ve been quite proud of myself recently. While doing my weekly restrained-consumer mini-shop at our local branch of the German discounted retailer Lidl, I bought several items of clothing – ultra-cheap but surprisingly sartorially appropriate.

I’m well aware of the polemics about the perpetual flood of unnecessary fashion frippery. And I know full well that Lidl’s fashion retail name – Livergy® – was probably expensively designed to inculcate all kinds of “life + energy” associations in my primeval consumer brain.

Nevertheless, I thought I’d slipped through the eye of the environmental responsibility needle, because the garments were made of organic cotton, and appropriately certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard. So they’re cheap, well-designed and ethical – what’s not to like, and aren’t I clever in my consumer choices?

Bagfuls of baloney

It’s frighteningly easy to get hoodwinked by such apparent common sense, fuelled by over-simplistic media headlines and journalistic soundbites. The classic example shopping example is the cotton tote – which is natural, re-usable and (kinda’) biodegradable, so surely it has to be better than the single-use plastic bags that are currently capturing headlines as a prime/easy symbol of environmental evil?

According to a 2018 life-cycle assessment by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, plastic shopping bags are almost certainly the worst bag solution if marine litter concerns are included, because such bags don’t break down on a timescale meaningful to life, whether human or animal.

But when taking into account other factors, including the impact that manufacturing has on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution and human toxicity, those much-reviled plastic shopping bags actually have the least environmental impact, and are the most benign of the common options currently available. The report reckons that a cotton bag would have to be reused 7,000 times for its environmental performance to equal that of a plastic bag that is used only once.

And, to take the in-between options, it turns out that “biodegradable” plastic means whatever you really want it to mean. There are different types of biodegradable plastics, each of which involves different degrees of degradability and generally requires specific conditions in order to degrade “as advertised”. Research by the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit published in 2019 has revealed that supposedly biodegradable plastic bags are still intact and fully usable after three years either at sea or buried underground.

Conceptual clarity is crucial

Apparent common sense and false-positive labels like “natural”, “organic”, “biodegradable” and “sustainable” are indeed beguiling, but they’re simply not sufficient for the key task of effective “narrative capture”. It’s far from the whole story, and not every natural fibre or material is inherently sustainable. Far from it, in fact.

As pointed out by Nina Merenzi, founder of The Sustainable Angle, a not-for-profit that focuses on helping minimise the environmental impact of industry, there are three main stages during which production of (for example) a clothing garment can be harmful:

  • · The environmental impact of growing, harvesting and processing the raw material used in the item
  • · The process of actually making, treating and colouring the garment
  • · The environmental impact of what happens once the garment has been used

There are also concerns about:

  • · The environmental impacts of every aspect of the packaging and marketing of the garment
  • · The logistics for all the raw materials and components associated with making the garment, and getting it to market.

Upping the communication game

Used intelligently and well, there is a powerful commercial narrative available in this emerging field – see here for some examples. But only if the environmental responsibility story is told better than mere random spatterings of cheap-shot adjectives like “organic”, “sustainable” and “recycled” – or even the ultra-diluted “eco-friendly”. The casual, snappy, reductive and stylised vernacular of the influencer-sphere just doesn’t cut it. Such reductionist communication simply doesn’t explain or account for the complexity and interconnectivity of the countless processes involved in the entire value chain, from design and manufacturing through to collection, sorting and processing of products at end-of-life.

“Recycling” has long been an unquestioned mantra for citizen involvement and individual responsibility, but it is now increasingly recognised that every step of our recycling system – from design to collection to sorting – has major built-in flaws. These weaknesses have been brought into sharp focus by China’s recent bans on imports for recycling, leaving the “developed countries” having to suddenly deal with these issues on their own and as an integral part of their economic model. China’s ban is “exposing a problem that we needed to fix anyway,” says Bridget Croke, VP of external affairs at Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm focused on the circular economy. So we will need a radically new narrative about materials and their manufacture and recycling, featuring a much greater appreciation of complexity and inter-connectedness.

Fighting against the tide

According to one watchdog – InfluenceMap, a UK-based non-profit community interest company – the five largest publicly listed oil and gas companies have spent no less than USD 1 billion on public relations or lobbying that is “overwhelmingly in conflict” with the goals laid down in the 2015 Paris climate deal and the 1.5°C (2.7°F) cap on global temperature increase. This is despite these companies having outwardly and publicly committed to supporting the Paris Agreement’s objectives.

When the resources working against global economic transformation and environmental responsibility are so massive and so professional, it’s pretty hopeless to use vague aspirational labelling and naive, simplistic messaging to combat these juggernaut moulders of global narratives.  An enlightened agenda and honourable intentions simply aren’t enough. Precision thinking and razor-sharp communication that deals with complex issues clearly are needed if the “forces of the righteous” are to have any chance of prevailing in the struggle for narrative supremacy.

Easy to say, I know, so I found a good, well-researched, juicily illustrated example here.