Patagonia Can’t Save the Planet. Fast-fashion – and You – Could

Climate September 19, 2022 Rebeca Minguela, CEO and Founder, Clarity AI

This week, Yvon Chouinard – the Chairman of Patagonia – announced that he will be donating the entire company, worth $3 billion, to fight climate change. Social networks were on fire sharing the news and supporting Chouinard – CEOs, fashion models, and millions of consumers. Simply put, the story went viral.

Another viral story from earlier this summer is related to fast-fashion giant H&M. It is facing a class-action lawsuit, brought by a student at SUNY New Paltz, for using misleading sustainability claims. 

Around the same time, regulators in Europe bore down on the use of inaccurate data or misleading claims. The Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) concluded that H&M’s usage of sustainability data was non-compliant. Then, the UK’s Competitions and Markets Authority opened an investigation to scrutinize the sustainability claims made by 3 brands – ASOS, Boohoo, and Walmart-owned George at Asda. The Netherlands’ Authority for Consumer Markets (ACM) followed and put H&M and Decathlon, the largest sporting goods retailer in the world, under investigation for using misleading “green” claims. And considering 60% of the top 20 fashion conglomerates by market cap have similar sustainability claims, I believe this is just the beginning.

It is clear that consumers, and now regulators, care about sustainability. But what is the fastest, most efficient and scalable way to get to sustainability for the fashion industry?

When I read the news about Patagonia and saw the overwhelming consumer support for Chouinard’s actions, I couldn’t help but wonder: if what the brand stands for is so popular, why is it then that Patagonia is only 0.09% of the fashion market? How many of those people who cheered publicly and privately have actually purchased or will now purchase Patagonia clothes? Let me be clear, I’m not speaking negatively about Patagonia at all. It is admirable how Patagonia is leading by example, but Patagonia can’t save the planet. What can? Or at least what could make a much larger push towards saving the planet? The combination of large fashion companies whose operations and products become more sustainable as quickly as possible and all those consumers and influencers praising Patagonia walking the talk and buying more truly sustainable products, whatever the brand, and less often than they do today. 

So how can we move large fashion companies and their customers to more sustainable behaviors?

Let’s go back to the H&M lawsuit and the flags it received from the regulators here. 

H&M is being highly criticized, but to be fair, it seems to be heading in the right direction. In order to fight climate change, fashion companies have to: First, decrease the emissions of their operations, and second, push customers to adopt more sustainable purchasing habits. H&M is trying to do both. And yes, it has significant room for improvement – hence the lawsuit and the scrutiny from regulators. But what are the specific issues and what is the best way to actually address those? 

On the emissions of the operations of the company, the lawsuit against H&M states “(H&M) and its Products are not sustainable, and any marketing efforts to suggest otherwise are at odds with its business model.” Yes, the fast-fashion model, which is approximately 10% of the fashion industry, generates waste and fuels consumerism, but it is not acceptable to say the entire industry cannot push to be more sustainable or that it is solely to blame for the planet’s woes. The average ticket of a fast-fashion label is $30-70 for clients who want affordable “fashion.” That’s very different from “outdoor clothing” retailer Patagonia – where the average jacket costs more than $300. Both H&M and Patagonia are successfully servicing a different set of consumers’ demands, and both deserve to be allowed to put themselves and their consumers on a more sustainable path. 

Most importantly, a very large fast-fashion company can have a globally-sized impact on sustainability. In terms of size, H&M is 1.5% of the fashion industry and is more than 15 times bigger than Patagonia. How does that size relate to carbon emissions and potential emissions reduction? When looking at the intensity of carbon emissions (CO2 per dollar of revenue), Patagonia performs more than twice as well as H&M. And yet, H&M has committed to get to that intensity level by 2030, and it is on track so far.  Should it achieve its goal, H&M will be at almost exactly the same level of carbon emissions intensity that Patagonia is today serving a different and larger client need. That would mean that H&M would successfully reduce 56% of their emissions, which is the same as 8 million passenger flights from London to NYC or 21 times Patagonia’s yearly emissions. 

So, in order to help the fashion industry minimize the emission of their operations, we need to properly track commitments over time and make the industry accountable to those, using precise, accurate language and supporting data.

To push consumers to make more sustainable purchases, H&M and other fast-fashion brands have added sustainability labels to their products. The lawsuit against H&M states, “H&M has created an extensive marketing scheme to ‘greenwash’ its Products, in order to represent them as environmentally-friendly when they are not.” And, the NCA and other regulators say: “The global average data behind (the index that contains the data H&M uses) does not constitute sufficient evidence for the product specific claims.” I worry about whether the lawsuit, the regulatory scrutiny, and the intense pressure from the negative press surrounding them will move sustainability forward or unfortunately push it into a retreat. In fact, fashion companies recently flagged by regulators are already whitewashing their green away: H&M, Decathlon and Asos have already removed sustainability claims from their sites product labels. 

The reality is that advanced technology models actually allow us to improve the data displayed on those labels. We can measure more, and better. We should encourage H&M and the rest of the fashion industry (the other 98.5%) – to add those improved sustainability labels and for consumers to use that information.

Now that New York Fashion Week has ended and Climate Week NYC is beginning, if we’re looking to create change that can bring us to a more sustainable world, let’s focus on solutions, and tech is the answer. Tech will allow us to measure sustainability scalably, be specific and bring reliable data to consumers when and where they need it. I absolutely believe that regulation and legal actions can be good and can catalyze positive outcomes, but the implications of adding fear instead of bringing solutions to the market will not keep the focus on how we can measure more, and better on our path to a more sustainable world.

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