Corporate sustainability in 2017

I’m in the jury for the ‘Best Swedish Sustainability Report’ award and we are announcing the 2017 winner tomorrow. Because of this jury work, I have been reading a lot of sustainability reports this summer and see some current trends.

On the positive side, companies increasingly work with sustainability in their core operations. Compared to when I started my research in this area eight years ago, there is much less reporting on how much money companies give to charities. These days, companies understand that their main focus should be on the social and environmental impact of their business operations. This is where they can really make a difference. Anyone can give money to a charity, but only the company can make demands on its suppliers and reduce the carbon footprint in the operations.

Another trend is that companies increasingly connect their work to the UN sustainable development goals. This can of course be seen as a way for companies to ‘glorify’ their work. Nevertheless, the UN goals may help companies to think about the global challenges and their role therein. It’s a way to connect everyday work to a bigger picture. Similarly, some companies describe how their work contributes to the Swedish state’s sustainability plan ‘Agenda 2030’ (which, in fact all Swedish state-owned companies should do).

Still, there is more work to be done. Sustainability, in its essence, is about the long term perspective. According to the 1987 definition, it’s about future generations. In this respect, the old criticism that companies’ sustainability reports are not really about sustainability at all is still valid. When you set goals for 2020 you are not considering future generations. When you mainly report what you did last year you do not see the longer time perspective. As a company you should ask how your business operations will affect the life conditions of future generations. If there is no unpolluted water left, how will it affect future generations? No biodiversity? Unfortunately, very few companies think in terms of such time perspectives (yet).

Still, there are reasons to be optimistic. A few companies stand out and show that things can in fact change fast. Swedish textile company Ellos isn’t known for their sustainability work. However, in two years they have gone from sourcing only conventional cotton to 46% ‘better’, organic or recycled cotton. By 2020 it should be 100% and, at this pace, they will definitely make it. If all companies went from 0 to 50% in one to two years it would help the environment tremendously.

From 2018, all large Swedish companies will report on sustainability (a Swedish adoption of the EU directive). I am excited to see how this will affect business practices.

 

Is expensive fashion more sustainable?

You might, as I once did, think that you avoid the sustainability issues in fashion because you don’t shop at H&M, Gina Tricot, Dressman etc.

The short answer is no, expensive fashion is not necessarily more sustainable. Luxury production in Europe should guarantee better working conditions and less chemicals, but only a few luxury brands still produce in Europe. Those who do might only produce certain parts of the collection in Europe. And ‘Made in Italy’ can these days mean made by Chinese in Italy. Even when something is made in Europe, the fabric may be imported. Luxury brands often source their materials from outside of Europe and then we have the issues with conventional cotton and synthetic fibre etc.

There are also environmental issues with the chrome and heavy metals involved in tanning of leather. If you do want a new luxury bag, check where the leather came from, that it can be tracked to sustainable farming, and for vegetable tanning. I found that Swedish brand Palmgrens had a longstanding relationship the Italian farm the leather derived from and used vegetable tanning processes for a certain bag. Thus it’s the last bag I’ve bought, before my current year of no-shopping, and I don’t feel I compromised on design just because I focused on sustainability.

Another issue with luxury brands is that they don’t consider the environmental impact of care. Many put dry cleaning on the care instructions (as on this Ralph Lauren jacket, made in the Philippines) which isn’t environmentally friendly. And, in many cases, the items are better cared for by hand washing. I don’t know how many times the dry cleaner couldn’t remove stains and when I try at home, as a last resort, it works perfectly. Money and chemicals wasted.

The luxury conglomerates seem to lack a thorough understanding of sustainability issues. For example, when LVMH reports on biodiversity, they write about how they finance biodiversity research rather than how they take biodiversity into account in their sourcing of raw materials. Now I am all for funding research, of course, but certain issues we already know a lot about, such as pesticides and biodiversity. We can act on these today.

Similarly, it is admirable that Kering has developed the Environmental Profit and Loss account (which I often teach to students) but more important is how they handle their everyday sustainability challenges. I searched for organic on Kering’s website and only found ‘organic growth’.

Taking the opposite road, many cheap brands are not as diligent about working conditions and where things are made* but are instead rapidly increasing their share of ‘better’ or organic cotton and renewable fibre. They hardly ever prescribe dry cleaning. But then again they don’t make clothes that should last.

Thus while some brands are working on social issues and others focus on some of the environmental, few brands cover all the necessary issues. Those who do are generally those that started their business with a sustainability focus. These brands are generally slightly more expensive than fast fashion but usually much cheaper than luxury brands.

So the answer is no: price is not a good indicator of sustainability.

* The Inditex group (Zara, Massimo Dutti etc. ) is an interesting exception. Around 60% of their suppliers are located in proximity to the headquarters in Spain.

How businesses handle legal but toxic chemicals

Some might believe that the use of manufactured chemical substances is tightly and safely regulated. Unfortunately it is not necessarily the case. In many cases we do not know yet if something is toxic (for example hormone-disrupting chemicals). In other cases we think it is safe and later find out that it is not. A famous example is the insecticide DDT that not only affected the environment but turned out to be an endocrine disruptor and likely carcinogen. It is prohibited since the 1970s but still found in our bodies and the environment. In certain cases, the company using the substance knows it is dangerous but conceals the information. The latter seems to be the case of Monsanto and glyphosate.

Sometimes businesses are in fact allowed to use substances that are toxic to us and the environment. One current example is PFOS and PFOA. They are water and stain repellent fluorosurfactants, used in all kinds of products. I found it in my water proofing spray for shoes and bags (that I am consequently handing in as toxic waste). They are legal to use. Today, however, we know that they do not degrade and thus accumulate in the environment: in the air, water and our food. They are commonly found in breast milk. In large enough doses it’s toxic and carcinogenic to us. While we are all exposed to it to some degree, the inhabitants of Swedish Kallinge were unknowingly exposed to large doses in their drinking water. Similarly, inhabitants close to DuPont’s factory in West Virginia were exposed to large doses too and developed all kinds of diseases (and successfully sued the company that was aware that it poisoned the water). Dupont has also contaminated the air around a factory in Holland for many years with a similar substance. Swedish environmental radio show Klotet made a very good reportage about these substances this week (in Swedish).

What can we as individuals do? When the substances are out there (and they travel far, for example to the Arctic) we cannot stop them on our own.

However, we can support the companies that voluntarily limit their use of the legal but proven, or potentially, toxic substances.

We can also avoid items that contribute to this pollution, such as teflon, ski wax, stain and water repellent textiles. If we worry about our drinking water, a charcoal filter absorbs PFAS (charcoal filter made a difference in Kallinge ).

Businesses, on the other hand, can learn from the DuPont lawsuits that concealing information about toxicity and contamination is unethical business practice. Even if the substance is legal, they now have to pay for the contamination and health consequences.