In the apparel sector as elsewhere, campaigning NGOs and consumer “watchdog” organisations have always played a role in holding brands to account over their product claims, and the compliance of those products with ethical and environmental standards, as well as the law. And campaigners and watchdogs have arguably never been as powerful as they are now.
The championing of consumers is a huge industry in its own right – and the organisations doing so have ever-deeper pockets. British consumer organisation Which?, for example, had in 2014-15 revenues in excess of £100m for the first time, and spent £7.6m on research and testing.
Such research doesn’t necessarily need huge budgets. Resources can be targeted at discrete areas or small selections of products and still turn up sufficient information to be embarrassing for the brands concerned.
Outdoor brands tested …
For example, Greenpeace recently tested outdoor gear
from brands including Columbia, North Face and Patagonia, for hazardous chemicals that are used for waterproofing. Many outdoor brands emphasise their environmental credentials and have glossy advertising in natural settings, making them, of course, particularly vulnerable to claims that they are failing on sustainability.
Greenpeace’s testing, on a small selection of products (for example, 11 jackets, eight backpacks and two sleeping bags), found widespread use of environmentally-hazardous polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which turned up in all but four of 40 products. Of greater concern, a form of PFC, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was found in 18 samples.
PFOA is a cancer-causing substance that persists in the environment, with traces being found in snow on mountain tops and in polar bears’ livers. Companies recognise its hazards and are working to phase it out. US outdoor brand Patagonia, for example, says it has moved to an alternative form of PFC
Swiss mountain equipment brand Mammut, meanwhile, says it is gradually increasing the volume of completely PFC-free material in its clothing. The company, which was included in Greenpeace’s research, also points out that PFC-free clothing produces its own sustainability problem because it is less durable and likely to be discarded more quickly, generating more waste.
… but moving too slowly?
But for Greenpeace, the brands are moving too slowly. Greenpeace detox campaigner Mirjam Kopp says that viable alternatives to PFCs “are already out there and responsible brands should start using them now”.
Some brands, such as Sweden's Fjällräven and the UK's Páramo are already going PFC-free, she says. However, she concedes that for clothing that must withstand the most extreme conditions, there is no ideal alternative to PFCs.
Some brands might be tempted to react defensively to such campaigning activity, or to raise legitimate points about the research. Speaking to Innovation Forum, Mammut says that “we tested our own products in an independent laboratory and had different results than Greenpeace”. Mammut is making progress and Greenpeace “doesn’t seem to recognise any of our efforts,” the company says.
But brands might instead look at such reports as useful reminders about matters that could become the subject of regulation. Norway already has a law restricting PFOA to a minimal level in products – 11 of the samples according to the Greenpeace tests exceeded this limit. A European Union-wide restriction similar to the Norwegian limit has been proposed. In other words, brands do need to make real progress in reducing or substituting or face product lines being banned.
Reports are often, therefore, the writing on the wall. Companies that do not act ahead of regulation could find themselves scrambling to catch up when regulation does come into force.
On the other hand, campaigners and watchdogs can do more to encourage the frontrunners, rather than to embarrass the laggards. In the Greenpeace outdoor clothing report, the emphasis is very much on the companies with products that contain PFCs. Notably, the four PFC-free products – jackets from Jack Wolfskin and Vaude, a Haglöfs backpack and North Face gloves – are much less in the spotlight.
Perhaps greater awareness of these success stories would motivate brands, buyers and consumers alike to demand change on a faster timescale.