With greenwashing now a target by federal government watchdogs, B Lab Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand CEO Andrew Davies reveals the opportunities and pain points for apparel brands on the ESG journey. 

With greenwashing continuing to muddy the marketing waters, one thing is clear: the days of slogans without substance are numbered.

Whether in the fashion industry or otherwise, it is no longer OK to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes, if it ever was. It’s a complex game, but businesses that lead with accountability build the credibility and authenticity so essential to success.

As the CEO of B Lab Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand — a global movement committed to using business as a force for good — seeing businesses lean into the complexity of fashion value chains and strive to be better is inspiring.

It’s one of many signs that the much-needed change in our economic system is beginning to take shape. This change is especially needed in an industry consistently listed as one of the largest polluters in our global economy.

It’s time to walk the walk

The collective power of consumers choosing brands that represent their values has put fashion brands on notice: if you talk the talk, you better make sure you can walk the walk. We’re also seeing increased focus from regulators like ASIC and ACCC as greenwashing crackdowns hit the headlines.

However, whilst greenwashing is rightly being called out, it can breed a fear of getting it ‘wrong’ that inhibits taking any action at all. The courage to keep lifting standards, accept accountability, work in complexity, and resist the easy pitch is essential to really change industry practices.

The rise of the ‘B’ in the fashion industry

In recent years, there has been a rapid uptick in the number of Certified B Corporations across 160+ industries from food to finance and fashion – another strong sign of the change we seek. The movement now stands at over 7,200 businesses globally, with a strong contingent of more than 250 apparel brands in the mix, and more on their way.

In Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, fashion brands are stepping up, with the likes of Arnsdorf, bassike, Kowtow, Rip Curl, GlamCorner, Outland Denim, Clothing The Gaps, AWWA, Boody, and others, joining international icons such as Chloé, Patagonia, Vestiaire Collective, and Ganni as Certified B Corporations.

Achieving B Corp Certification is a rigorous process, for any business, with Harper’s BAZAAR features and fashion news director Patty Huntington recently describing it as "the Olympics of sustainability."

The comparison is tempting, but there is more to it. For B Corps, there is no simple finish line, no single prize, and not always a cheering crowd. The B Corp movement is founded on principles of endurance, interdependence, and sustainability. For B Corps, achieving certification is one step in an ongoing journey towards a shared vision for an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy.

Do good, B better

A distinguishing feature of B Corp Certification is that it recognises a business’ positive impact. A fashion business that moves to preferred materials with a smaller environmental footprint (often with certifications like GOTS or Oeko-Tex) could earn recognition for resource conservation -such as protecting biodiversity through the use of organic materials - or in toxin reduction, as New Zealand brand Kowtow has with its 100% certified Fairtrade organic cotton.

A business that creates economic prosperity through job creation by manufacturing in Australia, close to its operations, can earn credit for its commitment to local communities - something Bassike revealed through its certification, prompting them to affirm that practice.

Others are being recognised for working with underserved communities in locations like India and Cambodia for production - and in doing so are also often helping to conserve local artisanal skills of cultural value. Outland Denim provides life-changing employment to people in Cambodia who have experienced modern slavery, exploitation and vulnerability, bolstering their positive impact and their B Corp assessment score.

The power of purpose: tell us what you’re not good at (yet)

For apparel brands, the level of complexity in ‘proving your impact’ is often extensive due to long — and often nebulous — supply chains. The reality is you can only get a handle on your impact if you’re connected to your suppliers. With years of sub-contracting creating complex supply chains, many fashion brands don’t even know who is contributing fabric, and how the fibres are sourced, let alone being in a position to influence their staffing practices, emissions or decarbonisation efforts.

Without doubt, it’s easier to hold back, say less, out of fear of being labelled as greenwashers. There’s even a word for that too: greenhushing. While that may be understandable, it’s certainly not helpful.

The simple truth is we need all businesses to find ways to be transparent about their progress if we’re to have any hope of addressing big global challenges like climate change. In fashion, this often means rebuilding knowledge and relationships beyond tier one suppliers. New Zealand brand AWWA underwear takes this transparency a step further and openly publishes its supply chain for every product range, from cotton growers to nylon recycle processing, spinning, dyeing, fabric and trims supply to cut and sew production.

But here’s the best bit: you don’t need to wait until you’ve done all the work. In fact, the more you share about where you want to be better and the toughest barriers to positive impact in your own business, the more you’ll find support – and the less you’ll face the greenwashing label. Despite what the slogans may suggest, no brand has it 100 per cent right all of the time, not even a hero brand like Patagonia.

Purpose-led businesses are more prepared to own what they’re not so good at, and these are the best stories to tell. We see them naming the wicked challenges they are committed to solving, and we see others - from customers, investors and employees - showing up to join the cause. Going well beyond slogans without substance, this is the power of purpose.

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