Do you ever get an itch to push back against overly bold, ‘green’ marketing claims you come across? The little rebel and provocateur in me does.
Today’s post may get me in trouble and cost future opportunities for me. But this is what working towards being a fully independent writer here calls on me to do, unabashedly, so I shall gently proceed.
I’m deconstructing various marketing campaigns from “conscious” brands that I’m purposefully interpreting more literally than they may have been intended—in order to highlight more significant points.
While I name a few brands, I am not writing this to malign them at all, as they actually are some of the more responsible ones within their fields (and that I have supported before). I am just using them as examples representative of the broader trend of “conscious greenwashing”. I did just make this up to put a name to it, but for me, this loosely refers to instances when companies that are already doing respectable things make claims about their accomplishments that may go a little too far (or that I would question for other reasons), leading to a dilution of the meaning of sustainability.
I am going over 1) the question of quantity and scale, 2) the erasure of “first-ever” claims, and 3) the narrow use of “regenerative”. The examples are mostly focused on the fashion industry, but the same patterns exist in other sectors.
Relative “savings”… from buying more?
With a following of millions, Reformation is probably one of the first major “sustainable” fashion companies to have “gone mainstream”. The brand’s tagline reads, “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable. We are number two.”
It’s probably not meant to be taken literally (or maybe they actually do mean it). But I would push back, anyhow: “Being naked” is not “more sustainable” than wearing handmade clothing using bioregional, wild-collected, regeneratively grown fibers—or, in this day and age, picking up vintage or used clothing otherwise headed towards the landfill. That’s really just a matter of preference of whether one wants to be clothed or not.
Reformation recently initiated a social media campaign inviting people to submit photos of themselves not wearing any clothing but only “nature” (e.g., unclothed people holding a bouquet of flowers in front of themselves to keep the photos Instagram-appropriate). Except that I do not see a difference in the impact of unclothed people “wearing nature” and again, someone wearing an artisan-made, rain-fed cotton dress, or a hand-me-down. This unnecessary distinction reinforces the colonial idea that the influence, touch, or co-creation of mankind is inherently destructive, tainting, “unpure”, and that man and nature are separate.
I would also challenge that Reformation is the second “most sustainable”—especially when its founder, Yael Aflalo, set out with the brand to prove that fast fashion (emphasis on “fast”) can be ethical and sustainable. As she shares, “To me, fast fashion is about paying attention to what people want and making that right away… I think that fast is the future. Pretty soon, it won’t be called ‘fast fashion,’ because all of the slow brands will be gone.”
Sure, the average person would not be able to treat a $100 dress with the same throwaway mindset compared to another fast-fashion brand’s $20 dress. But perpetuating the similar values of overconsumption, just-in-time production, and not-enoughness (with seductive messages saying “you need this” or “you probably need something new”), they are hardly transformative for the industry nor the culture. With higher price tags, they have arguably just become a fast-fashion fix for those with a lot more disposable income.
This is not at all to equate them with other fast fashion brands like Boohoo, Zara, or H&M.
But it is to question: To what extent can “conscious brands” scale in quantity and accelerate their mass production and still be considered “sustainable”, let alone “second-most sustainable”?
Note that I prefer to use “conscious” over “sustainable” when it comes to any relatively more responsible brand, as I think the first is more accurate. I do not believe any brand can be considered “sustainable” because it is dependent on broader contexts, systems, and processes outside of an individual brand’s control—they only make up one small part of the equation of “sustainability” for the planet, after all. How will the customer care for the items? How many are purchased overall? How soon are they disposed of and how? “Organic” cotton but did it require converting native, biodiverse ecosystems into monoculture farms for production? (More on this from another angle towards the end.)
Various brands (including Reformation) also use a marketing tactic to make people feel better about their purchases—by telling their customers how much carbon emissions or water they save by purchasing their stuff—when compared to a similar item from a conventional brand. This latter, more critical part, though, is what they often hide deep in the text.
Unless the companies’ pieces were slow-made bioregionally and contribute to the socio-ecological community’s wellbeing, customers do not save those ecological resources by making the purchase—it would simply be a saving relative to another similar, conventional purchase. This acknowledgment, if placed front and center, could remind us to practice a deeper shift in our values and approaches to “consumption” altogether.
Might we consider these less tangible, more relational and cultural aspects as crucial parts of “sustainability”, too, and not just fixate on the material?
The erasure of “first-ever”…
Another brand whose marketing I’m going to pick on (though that I’m certain is much more progressive than their counterparts) is Sheep Inc. I actually brought this up to one of their co-founders directly in a public discussion before back in the Clubhouse days, so I think they’re already aware…
They describe on their about page:
“Our raw materials are carbon-negative, and our manufacturing is completely powered by solar energy. This makes us the first people in the world whose process naturally saves and stores more carbon than it creates. (That’s the bit you should remember when you tell your friends about us.)”
Are they really the first people in the world to make clothing in a net-carbon-negative manner, though? I’ve seen such claims as “first-ever” by so many brands that think they are revolutionary when they are really just learning from Indigenous, traditional, or ancestral knowledge.
These claims not only are false but also lead to erasure.
Before industrialization and the globalization of supply chains, many place-based textile systems were regenerative parts of their bioregional ecosystems—where people would harvest or grow what is readily available or abundant right where they are. There would also not have been a need for global transport networks to accommodate the outsourcing of production in the same way that many “first-ever regenerative” brands would need to do so today.
It might technically be true that some brands are truly the first to do something specific. But it’s important to note this distinction: Brands, in general, are the fabricated identities of companies that create a level of separation—sometimes used to manipulate public perception—from the makers and people behind them. In other words, it’s possible that while various communities and artisans have achieved similar outcomes before, such brands are becoming the first to do so as commercial entities.
As I acknowledged in a past article I wrote years ago:
“Besides the formalized ‘brands’ we can find online, many Indigenous or traditional artisans and makers around the globe — the true pioneers of ‘regenerative fashion’ — also make clothes using locally, wild-harvested or regeneratively grown fibers and dyes and generational craftsmanship techniques. In fact, many of them are working to preserve their regional textile systems against the forces of economic globalization.
While we may not be able to find all of their products in online shops, it is important to acknowledge their contributions to sustainability outside of the mainstream fashion sphere — where fame, popularity, and success often depend on the financial resources that companies have to market their brands and imagery.”
What is “regenerative” regenerating?
Speaking of regenerative, my thoughts on it has expanded and evolved. Wanting to hold sacred the meaning of the word, I now try to be more specific and reserved in using it as something to aspire to, something to be guided by, rather than something that can be achieved at a one-time, individual level.
I want to be delicate here and say that there are a few brands that label their products as “regenerative” that truly are setting profound examples within their industries. Their use of the word, though, is largely based on narratives from “regenerative agriculture”. And I have to critique what they miss.
Many of these brands, for example, are based in the “Global North” and have outsourced their production to the “Global South.” By “regenerative”, then, these brands are mostly referring to the farmers, herders, and growers in “developing” countries getting to use their bioregional land care practices in order to restore degraded lands (or protect them from degradation). They refer mostly, if not only, to the ecological system—sequestering carbon, enhancing biodiversity, etc.
But what would it mean to be regenerative socially, if we took on a broader, integrative view that the social and the ecological cannot be separated?
From my perspective, simply paying fair wages based on how that is defined in a community, de-contextualized from the global picture, is inadequate to count as regenerative. This is because of the vast inequalities that exist between the monetary currencies of different nation-states—the result of unresolved historical theft, extraction, and exploitation.
“Any massive social-economic policy that is being crafted, forged, and implemented in the U.S. already is acting to either uphold, transform, or worsen the existing system of accumulation that already exists on the planet—accumulation on a world scale, which involves the U.S. (or other ‘developed’ countries) sucking labor and resources out of poorer countries very systematically.
[There is] something called the uneven exchange.
Basically, what it means is that an hour of labor in the U.S. buys the labor of, say, 10 or 20 people in Africa, and it even buys the labor of people who are using the same types of technology that we're using in the U.S.—just because wages are suppressed there.
What that means is people in the U.S. have access to more of the things that are produced in the whole world than people in the south. That's what we mean, in part, by uneven accumulation.
That's meant to serve a broader goal of profit and to the great profit of the northern monopolies. The way it manifests is that there's a sharp divergence in who has access to all of the things that are produced and also all the things that go into those things—labor and resources. The access to those things is sharply uneven in the north and south.
That's the world we live in. That's the colonial system. That's the neo-colonial system.”
With our pre-existing, skewed economic system, a company based in the Global North using their larger currencies to pay “living wages” to workers in the Global South still unavoidably upholds the same extractive dynamic—even if it is far from the intention. It is not possible to see this relationship as regenerative in the full sense of the word. After all, beyond the ecosystem-enhancing land practices implemented, labor and resources are still disproportionately being taken from “Global South” communities in order to further the uneven accumulation of the “Global North”. That is an ongoing, one-wayed trend. And that is not reciprocity.
Of course, it is impractical to expect any one person or company to be able to unravel this scale of power differential. But this is the point.
Should we even be using “sustainable” or “regenerative” in product marketing in such individualistic ways, stripped of the contexts they are just small parts of?
This is not to say that those with economic privilege should not support the few companies that are going much above and beyond their industry standards. But people cannot be disillusioned by these romanticized brand campaigns to think that we can buy our ways to healing our collective wounds.
I’m now left pondering:
What if we decentered ourselves and let go of the urge to use these terms as signals of self-accomplishment?What if we honored Regeneration’s whole meaning by centering the view of the Earth-at-large—of which all our socio-ecological systems and interdependent bodies are parts?
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