In 2009, adidas and four other of the world’s most powerful brands called some 250 key suppliers to a hotel and conference centre in Sri Lanka and told them things had to change.
It was a milestone on the journey to more sustainable cotton. Four years earlier, adidas, Ikea, H&M, and Marks & Spencer (M&S) had helped found the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). A platform for retailers, their suppliers, government and campaigners, its aim was to turn the water and pesticide-intense fibre, associated with sweat shops in poor countries, into a responsibly grown and used commodity. Two years later, the four joined with partner Levi Strauss and gathered suppliers together once more: “We saw it was easy to change behaviour,” says Guido Verijke, Ikea’s global lead on cotton and the present chairman of the BCI’s council. “But we couldn’t do it alone.”
While BCI is starting to push itself forward, it is not a consumer-facing initiative. Each brand is left to communicate to its audience as it will, and their strategies vary widely.
Puma proudly displays Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) labels on the shirts of sponsored football teams in the continent’s fast-growing markets. Competitor adidas, like Ikea, takes a more low-key approach. They see backing Better Cotton as integral to their sustainability and brand agendas rather than something to promote to consumers.
Other brands have started out with ethics as their unique selling point. Solidaridad, the international non-governmental organisation, set up an ethical clothing retail chain, Kuyichi – and, in light of its success, established the fashion consultancy Made-By to help others follow suit. Solidaridad works to improve environmental and social standards across brand supply chains, and actively promotes organic cotton and Better Cotton. Janet Mensink, International Program Coordinator, observes, “There is no single solution to change this sector, complimentary approaches are needed”.
But the success of labels promoting supply chain standards in the mainstream has been mixed. Big retailers say they wrestle with consumer apathy. Even when they provide information, most consumers don’t access it, says Henrik Lampa, a product sustainability specialist at H&M: “We don’t shy away from talking about the challenges.”
Many consumers are confused by the variety of claims, from vague assertions that a product is ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’ or ‘eco-friendly’, to different organic standards, to claims about the origins of a product. And retailers are shy of the awkward questions such labels might incite:
Many brands still fear being caught up in negative publicity
“Brands remain nervous”, says Solidaridad’s Alice Mostert, an adviser to the fashion industry. “Those that can afford it can draw on the likes of Made-by to help manage and clean up their supply chains, but many still fear being caught up in negative publicity.”
Such concerns led CmiA to drop a requirement for partners to bear its logo three years ago, says Tina Stridde, its Head of Marketing. Moreover, she says, consumers tend to associate certification with extra cost, running against CmiA’s mission to bring sustainable cotton to the mass market. Stridde is concerned that weak demand for sustainable cotton will prove an impediment to scale, a widely-shared sentiment within the movement.
However, Ebru Gencoglu, Head of Material Sourcing for adidas in Europe, is less fazed than some. She believes the future of cotton lies in transparency: with supply chains open to scrutiny, brands will have an added incentive to make the best procurement decisions.
Market research shows that consumers expect manufacturers and brands to assume environmental responsibility, adds Cotton Incorporated, the body that represents the large US cotton industry. “They expect the green to be built in.” Which means that, whatever their buying habits, they are vocal when they learn something they don’t like.
H&M, Zara, Nike and Victoria’s Secret were among those quick to respond when Greenpeace’s 2011 Detox campaign blew the lid on the extent of hazardous chemical emissions in the textiles industry. Alexandra Perschau, who runs Future for Cotton, a German consultancy, hopes Detox’s success will trigger more consumer support for sustainable materials. Like others, she says there is a big gap between consumer criticism of bad practices such as forced labour and poor working conditions, and their buying habits. She would like to see more done to educate consumers, starting with children in school.
H&M is the world’s biggest user of organic cotton
It doesn’t help sustainability that fashion is fast, observes Emma Waight, an ethical consumption specialist at the UK’s Southampton University. Many mass-market labels thrive on rushing out copies of designer collections, something hard to square with cotton’s complex supply chains. But she also points to more positive signals. “The mass-market retailer H&M, now the world’s biggest user of organic cotton, more than anyone has brought sustainable cotton to the high street with its successful Conscious Collection”, she says.
As ever with fashion, good ideas move quickly. H&M is, in turn, building on M&S’ ‘shwopping’ recycling scheme, by putting collection bins for unwanted clothes in its shops. This is helping foster a culture of donating personal items to charity that doesn’t exist in many countries, says H&M’s Lampa. The big groups have also learnt to be more subtle in their messaging, speaking to consumers’ emotions in a lighter tone. Catchy-sounding ‘shwopping’ replaced the more worthy M&S and Oxfam Clothes Exchange.
“We have to tell a story about a farmer’s life, not how good we are”, says Ikea’s Verijke who in June fronted the retailer’s first YouTube film on Better Cotton. Good storytelling is one of the most effective ways to attract consumer interest, and so small brands with a human-interest tale to spin can become a talking point amongst peers.
Neil Chadwick co-founded one such brand, Seasalt – a UK pioneer of organic cotton clothing which draws creative inspiration from its base on the picturesque Cornish coast. It was launched in 2007, and by last year it was on the shelves in John Lewis, one of the UK’s biggest retail chains. Consumers respond to those who do things differently, he says: “Our challenge is to gently poke the large companies. They notice who is doing well.”
Another encouraging sign is the prominence of sustainable fashion among influential celebrities. Four years ago, Livia Firth, wife of the actor Colin, said she would only wear ethical clothing on the red carpet. Others responded to her Green Carpet Challenge, prompting interest in sustainable couture. Meryl Streep wore Lanvin’s first eco-certified dress to the Oscars; Cameron Diaz followed with an ethically made Stella McCartney gown at New York’s Met ball; and in February 2013, Gucci – a label named and shamed by Greenpeace – launched ‘eco’ versions of its classic bags in sumptuous-looking ethical Brazilian leather at Paris Fashion Week to critical acclaim.
Campaigners worry that ethical fashion still lives on the pages of celebrity consumer magazines, rather than in people’s wardrobes. But history suggests that where the glitterati lead, the mainstream markets eventually follow.
Virginia Marsh is a freelance writer specialising in business, sustainability and health.
Photo Credit: jwaddick/iStockphoto; H&M