Sustainability Claims Ripped To Shreds

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Over the last 40 years, the fossil fuel industry “has perpetrated a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar disinformation, propaganda and lobbying campaign to delay climate action”. Key to these campaigns was to “reposition global warming as theory, not a fact”, with “advertorials” – advertisements disguised as editorials – with broken record messaging of “weak” evidence, “non-existent” proof, inaccurate climate models.

Conservation organisations and academia have been monitoring the decline of species for decades making it impossible for business to use the same disinformation and propaganda they have used to delay climate action. In the case of biodiversity loss, they can’t “reposition biodiversity loss as a theory, not a fact” or pay for advertorials about “non-existent” proof.

Instead for the last two decades or more business have focused on producing glossy sustainability reports, paying for sustainability advertorials and supported the rise of sustainability influencers, journalists and editors. Add to these the growing number of sustainability managers, consultants and directors together with the ever-growing number of sustainability tools created for business. These tool, which claim to aid governance, are all voluntary. Over the years, while much has been written, little has provided any proof.

If you care to look, nowhere is this more apparent than in the legal trade of wild species. After seafood, fashion and furniture are the biggest users of wild species as the raw materials in their production.

Perhaps the industry that has the most to gain by trying to project that sustainability is currently something more than an ideology is the luxury sector. In 2016, Kering’s chairman and chief executive François-Henri Pinault said, I do consider the luxury segment… is leading the race in sustainability, because we have the resources”. For over a decade the fashion industry has tried hard to push its sustainability credentials, with the unquestioning help of the fashion and mainstream media who are both reliant on the industry’s advertising budgets. It has also created a number of sustainability initiatives.

In 2019, and with great fanfare, French President, Emmanuel Macron proposed a mission, the Fashion Pact, to François-Henri Pinault to bring together “a global coalition of companies in the fashion and textile industry (ready-to-wear, sport, lifestyle and luxury) including their suppliers and distributors, all committed to a common core of key environmental goals in three areas: stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans.”, with the aim to ensure that new actions will fill the ‘gaps’ across fashion supply chains.

One stakeholder missing from the collaboration is CITES, which seems a glaring omission given endangered species are the raw materials in some of the luxury fashion industry’s most expensive apparel. The industry has a blind spot in relation to its use of wild species, be it by accident or design.

The Fashion Pact’s first-year progress report, in the summary section, First Progress of Signatories in Our Pillars for the pillar of biodiversity, states: “The Fashion Pact sparks [the] first comprehensive industry commitment to set Science Based Targets for Nature enabling measurable decrease of impact on biodiversity.”. This is a statement for which they should feel thoroughly ashamed.

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Trillions of dollars have been made over decades from the sale of products made from the skin, fur and feathers of endangered and exotic species. Yet, the industry who profits from this has taken until 2020 to create the first comprehensive industry commitment to set targets to enable a measurable decrease of impact on biodiversity. But this statement isn’t just a failure on the industry’s part. It is also a failure of CITES, the global regulator of this trade in endangered species (which was launched in 1975), its signatories and the global conservation organisations who have supposedly worked on this with the fashion industry over the years. Given it has taken until 2020 for the first comprehensive industry commitment to be set, the question has to be asked, why has the CITES regulator had so little influence on how industries use of CITES listed endangered species in their product lines?

As one previous CITES Secretary General stated, “CITES regulates trade in certain species to ensure the trade is legal and not detrimental to the survival of that species…It seeks to ensure that any such international trade is sustainable”. If the CITES had regular strategic reviews (rather than just one in its 50 years of operation), the convention’s lack of power in driving any real changes to business practices would have been apparent.

In fashion industry publications, reports, announcements, talks and conference proceedings, if wildlife does feature – and it almost never does – it is only in the context of animal welfare. The industry consistently ignores the lack of supply chain transparency, the ease of laundering illicit products into the legal marketplace and the lack of proof of sustainability. But as an elite networking group, the Fashion Pact shouldn’t be singled out; there are many more.

So it is interesting that the KPMG Technical review of the Higg MSI and Higg PM Tools has just been released. The Sustainable Apparal Coalition (SAC), who commissioned the review, says it is dedicated to tackling pressing environmental and social challenges within the textile, apparel & footwear industry. The SAC states on its website that “The Higg Index is a suite of tools for the standardized measurement of value chain sustainability, and it is central to the SAC’s mission to transform businesses for exponential impact”.  As Brett Mathews, editor of Apparel Insider magazine, commented, “The review failed to address whether consumer facing product labels based on Higg MSI data are greenwashing. This is odd given that it was the findings of Norwegian regulators that Higg consumer labels were greenwashing in 2022 that prompted this review in the first place”.

Kering and Burberry in 2022 spoke about a “year of maturity” in sustainability. Maybe this was in response to sustainability experts such as Ken Pucker questioning if the sustainability strategy has any real validity in its current form. As with other similar initiatives, luxury fashion companies are now quietly withdrawing from The Fashion Pact. Rather than “leading the race” in sustainability because they have the necessary resources, the lack of media attention of the sector’s use of endangered and exotic species has resulted in such initiatives “falling at the first hurdle”.

Lynn Johnson

Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years.  In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.