Do pledges make a brand sustainable?

"Our goal is to propel those brands with the highest commitment to circular fashion; not shame those who do not [fulfill the pledge]. Therefore, we will not penalize participants who cannot complete their commitment. We will, however, remove brands that have not completed their commitment from the listings of Pledge signatories." That's what the organization behind the 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge said in response to the question, "Is there a penalty for not fulfilling my [brand's] commitment?" Promises, pledges, commitments, marketing schemes, whatever you want to call them, have long been used by brands and retailers to promote their sustainability practices without proof of implementation. In most cases, signing up for pledges is a win-win for brands and consumers. Brands can benefit from being "sustainable" while collecting funding and tools necessary to follow through on their claims. Consumers can know which brands acknowledge the need for sustainability and encourage those brands to continue improving their operations. But what happens when a brand doesn't stick to a pledge? Are they just quietly removed from a list? Should brands be punished?


The impacts from COVID-19 have left the fashion industry in pieces. Household name retailers are filing for bankruptcy weekly, independent brands are completely shutting down, and everyone else is holding their breath waiting for the money to come back. Understandably, sustainability is not the top priority for every brand right now. Maybe this year, brands can receive a bit of leeway on commitments made prior to the pandemic. But, signing up for a pledge after the pandemic conquered the world and then bailing is just greenwashing. The 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge was launched towards the end of April, meaning the 110 brands that had signed on by the end of July were well aware of the state of the economy and knew what kind of challenge they were signing up for.


The requirements for the 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge are simple. Three initiatives must be implemented; enable take-back or resale, increase recycled content, and design for durability. These initiatives also usually only apply to the top five selling items for the brand. In the case of the recycling initiative, only 10% of the garment needs to be made with recycled or scrap material. That can barely be considered "recycling" and certainly does not classify a brand as "a circular fashion business." The name of the pledge, which is often all consumers see, is misleading the accountability from the organization is just not there. Yet brands signed their name to a list, so they are allowed to make a big deal about their commitments.


Other companies are doing it differently. Antoine Arnault, the son of Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, said in a New York Times webinar that his father chooses to let accomplishments speak for themselves instead of bragging to consumers. This method has led critics to believe that LVMH is not progressing with sustainability at the same pace as the rest of the industry. When the company chooses to conceal some information from the public, it looks like there is something to hide. Bernard Arnault seems to be coming around to the idea of sharing his brand's sustainability progress, though, based on their recent addition of social and environmental responsibility reports and a public partnership with UNESCO.


LVMH is becoming more transparent about their sustainability progress because consumers demand to know what fashion is doing to address the climate crisis. Signing on to pledges, making public proclamations and promises, and committing — even just verbally — to change is one way of showing potential shoppers that brands take sustainability seriously.


Commentary:


Pledges can be an excellent way to propel change in the fashion industry if they incite real change and can't be abused. To prevent pledges from being abused, though, there needs to be a consequence for not abiding by the rules put forth by the organization behind the pledge. Preferably a consequence more severe than being removed from an arbitrary list.

A fine close in value to what it would have cost the brand to implement the changes required to fulfill their commitment would be a reasonable consequence. Public shaming doesn't seem to work anymore as cancel culture has become so prevalent that it hardly gets noticed anymore. Above all, brands and retailers care about revenue, and most companies would rather invest their revenue back into their brand than give it away to an organization as a fine. Whatever the solution to brands backing out of pledges is, it needs to be implemented soon because greenwashing hurts consumer trust and the sustainability movement.