Last call for fashion industry’s paradigm shift

Author: Mark Randall

In the early 19th Century Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, from Delaware USA, wrote a poem including the lines:

Not in outward seeming only
Art thou spotless, white and fair,
Slavery’s touch hath never cursed thee,
Freedom in her arms hath nursed thee,
And bestowed a beauty rare…

Across the Atlantic, Eleanor Stephens Clark was setting up a shop in a rural village named ‘Free Labour Cotton Depot’ offering ‘slavery free’ cotton products. She successfully created a supply chain from a path less trodden whilst building a business with ethics as its cornerstone. Earlier in 1791, and with significant geopolitical consequence, William Fox published a pamphlet urging a boycott of ‘slave sugar’ in the USA and United Kingdom. His simple dictum was: “If we purchase the commodity, we participate in the crime’’.

Estimates suggest the campaign led to some 300,000 people abandoning sugar with sales dropping initially by a third and then to a half.  Businesses which shared these values, or with a will to survive, or both advertised goods produced by ‘freemen’. This resulted in India seeing sales of sugar increase tenfold over two years.

In the 1920’s India herself displayed another spectacular consumer activism. At that time it accounted for half of Britain’s cotton exports. These exports came from cotton imported from India but with British shipping companies, mills and traders making a profit in reselling finished product back to India. The Khadi Movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi, aimed at boycotting foreign cotton and promoted the spinning of Khadi. This hand-spun fabric wasn’t just a movement — it was a categorical imperative. In rejecting British spun products 74 mills closed in less than four years in the UK. It was devastatingly effective as a form of activism.

Gandhi and the Quaker Abolitionists grasped the central theme of the economist Adam Smith, who famously stated that “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production”, meaning that the two activities were entirely reliant on each other.

This level of consumer activism was on the periphery throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, with a societal focus on economic growth and poverty alleviation whilst supported by new world transnational organisations. The World Bank claims, ‘‘The global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time’’.

As a result of this success we have another problem — climate-change. Accepted as a scientific working principle with overwhelming support from the scientific community, Millennials largely subscribe to climate change as very probably having catastrophic consequences. Millennials are organized and committed to change, as is evidenced in the protests spreading globally. This must give the fashion industry some significant anxiety – and if it doesn’t, then it should.

It is a fact that the industry is the world’s second most polluting after the oil industry. The journal Nature Climate Change says the total greenhouse gas emissions from textile production are more than maritime shipping and international flights combined. It is also estimated that it’s responsible for 10 percent of the global carbon emissions with this set to increase over 60 percent by 2030 if transformation doesn’t happen very soon.

Many companies have signed the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action but by and large the sector seems to target engendering consumer guilt, to change selection (e.g. single cotton over polyester), behaviour and use. Buy fewer more expensive garments and wear them more times and the C02 impact is decreased. However, this strategy circumnavigates the big burning elephant in the room.

The leading brands talk of company carbon targets but often these relate only to their owned assets which account for a negligible amount of their business mandate. The industry is built on its external suppliers in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and China who produce entirely, or largely, for specific companies. They are controlled through robust quality audits but not meaningful energy audits. In the majority of the regions suppliers’ factories use fossil fuel energy sources, energy from the electricity grid and, in many cases, diesel generators rattling out carcinogenic emissions.

What is surprising is that in the countries mentioned, renewable energy — principally solar — produces electricity at alower cost than thenational grid and at aconsiderably lower cost than diesel generators which are often used. So why aren’t the leading brands insisting on cleaner energy production from their suppliers? There isn’t a satisfactory answer to this as there are no regulatory barriers in any of the referred to countries.If they did insist the suppliers would have cheaper energy, the industry asignificantly less C02 footprint and the local communities would not be subject to the pervasive carcinogenic of fossil fuels. Funding is also available from private sector renewable energy developers. They would build, own and operate projects at both large utility scale and factory level generation, redeeming their investment through power purchase agreements with the off-taker.

Recently we sat down with a CFO of a global fashion brand who informed us that unless the admirable initiative of the ‘Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures’ (which looks to have climate-related financial risk disclosures for all company stakeholders) was enforced they will not allocate a budget to it.  This is it. Unless the industry has external motivation, which could negatively impact its bottom line, the decision-makers simply will not give it focus. The industry will continue with its ‘Green Wash’ strategy which is an open secret in Hong Kong sky bars withfashion captains doing the job they love whilst brokering carbon carnage in the catwalk.

As shown above fashion would not be the first industry to fly high and with such clear indifference to the threat of the consumer’s value shift. Many Millennials experienced an education focused on developing tools of critical and independent thinking, better equipped to understand the difference between sloganism and principles, whilst fueled with gratitude for the planet and a sense of stewardship through collective responsibility.  They have a post-modern mind which craves authenticity and they strive to ‘pierce the corporate veil’ to see the substance behind the unspun reality. They have a mechanism for communication considerably beyond ‘sugar slavery’, ‘cotton slavery’ and ‘Khadi’ movements. Those movements changed geopolitics but if Millennial consumers feel misled by the brands through an inauthenticity of being there will be more than a few muddy tears from struggling executives. It is possible the impending blitzkrieg will lead to the howling out of major brands. Adam Smith’s axiom will not be stopped by the Little Black Dress.

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