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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

The Ambiguous Promise of Commercial Sustainability

Commercial companies focus on progressing in a sustainable way, but how much of the environmental promises are actually genuine?


Companies that promote sustainability practices seem to be on the rise as more of us realize the importance of promoting more ethical practices and consumption in our daily lives. Consumers are pivoting to more eco-friendly brands that promise less waste and less harmful manufacturing processes. By promising to uphold these values and to produce ethical products, consumers can also feel safe buying clothes that they know are guaranteed to be sustainable. However, brands that market themselves as sustainable often have a long way to go. 

The fashion industry has been struggling with sustainability in its brands, especially commercial ones. Commercial fashion is synonymous with the mass production of clothes, especially in less than ethical conditions. Larger corporations such as H&M have pledged efforts towards a more sustainable future, starting with increased transparency about their production process and using organic textiles compared to harmful synthetic ones. Several other brands, most notably Reformation, have prided themselves as a sustainable brand at its core, complete with their respective transparency reports and their locally-sourced fabrics and manufacturing. Many have lauded for its take on sustainability as they have incorporated sustainable practices and goals as the centerpiece of its business, instead of as an afterthought.

What the companies offer in sustainability they often lack in other factors.

However, sustainability is often hard to define as many iterations of the word has been applied to anything, ranging from pledging carbon-neutral fashion shows to producing clothes from upcycled materials. And reports about fashion brands shows that what they offer in sustainability they often lack in other factors such as the effects of outsourcing organic textiles to other countries. Organic cotton, for example, still puts a strain on drought-ridden areas such as India and China. The report made by the British parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee also notes that upcycling fabrics often cannot keep up with the expectations that companies have when it comes to the level of quality that people are usually familiar with. 

Furthermore, workers often were not compensated enough for their labor. Even with environmental efforts on hand, another report notes that the majority of garment workers outside the UK do not have any negotiating power over their pay and working conditions. This means that despite promises of sustainability, workers are still not guaranteed that reasonable working hours and wages that appropriately reflect the labor that they put into these clothes. It also has not helped that there have been accusations of unsafe work environments, with Reformation’s executives coming under fire for accusations of racism within its executive levels and its refusal to diversify its models. 

The problem also extends past the fashion industry. Plastic straws have been often the lynchpin of reducing single-use plastic items, with many cities and corporations banning them or announcing plans to phase them out by a certain date. Starbucks in particular has announced that it will replace its plastic straws with a Nitro lid for its cold drinks, but news organizations have noted that the new lid has more plastic in terms of weight compared to a plastic straw and a regular plastic lid. Starbucks, in response, has contested that the Nitro lid is made of recyclable plastic that could be caught and processed in modern recycling equipment. 

Other companies have pushed for a more environmentally friendly image through their advertising. This can be done by associating the brand with a story of the founder’s background, portraying them as fellow people who care about manufacturing products in an ethical and sustainable manner. Some opt for the disclosure of their sustainability efforts and transparency of tracing their sources in production, which can often backfire. 

It comes as unsurprising that the company would spin it as an opportunity for more jobs and to ‘give back’ to local municipalities through funding and lobbying.

In 2018, Nestlé had announced that it was going to switch to recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025. People were also quick to note that Nestlé was caught up in a controversy where they were bottling water from the San Bernardino National Forest despite reports of drought plaguing California, in addition to reports of operating under an expired permit. However, Nestlé was also offered a new permit to continue bottling water by the Forest Service. With Nestlé’s track history in extracting water from various federal and state sources and its lobbying campaigns for looser restrictions, it comes as unsurprising that the company would spin it as an opportunity for more jobs and to ‘give back’ to local municipalities through funding and lobbying.

Despite many brands marketing themselves as sustainable, how can we be sure that a brand is totally sustainable in the first place? This brings forward the need to discuss what is sustainability in the first place. As with the examples above, even points that are generally agreed upon are still lacking in other aspects. A company certainly cannot be perfect on all counts, but first and foremost there should be regulating committees that can define how sustainable it is and ensure that sustainability also comes with good company practices and rights for its workers.

Cover: Noah Buscher on Unsplash

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