NRDC Voices: The Carrot and the Stick

To reform the dirty apparel industry, we need to reward those who are making a sincere effort—and call out those who are not.

January 06, 2015
Linda Greer -

I've been working for seven years to clean up the way our clothes get made, and lately—finally!—I’ve seen some encouraging progress. More than 30 percent of the apparel industry now participates in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which strives to measure and reduce the environmental impacts related to the manufacture of clothing. Meanwhile, a number of major retailers (including Target and Gap) participate in NRDC’s Clean by Design program, which was initiated to help mills and other production facilities cut their excessive use of water, energy, and harmful chemicals—all while cutting costs. Other companies have started to take positive steps on their own. For example, VF—an apparel conglomerate that owns Wrangler, Lee, and The North Face, among many other well-recognized brands—recently instituted a program to monitor and restrict the use of any chemicals that pose a threat to human health and the environment.

Still, the slow pace of change within the textile and apparel industry has been frustrating, to say the least, especially when one considers its rapid growth and increased impact globally. How can we push companies to do more—and to do it much more quickly?

Ultimately, consumers hold the key to industry-wide change with the power of their purse. However, to become a force, they need to care.

One recent high-profile initiative, Greenpeace’s Detox campaign, focused much-needed public attention on the industry’s serious toxic chemical problem. Once the group began releasing data and naming names, CEOs from a number of clothing companies were tripping over one another in their rush to sign the Greenpeace-drafted commitment letters pledging zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. The campaign served as a blunt reminder to corporations that over the Internet, bad reputations can spread very quickly indeed—and also that the press is always more than happy to break the story of this or that well-known company’s misconduct.

For me, it also offered a sobering lesson. Despite their claims to the contrary, many corporations were unquestionably more responsive to the negative pressure applied by Greenpeace than they had been to our more collaborative Clean by Design initiative. The Detox campaign succeeded beautifully in raising consumer awareness and sparking media coverage of the apparel industry’s toxic habits. But signed commitment letters, while an excellent first step, aren’t enough to get the job done. Indeed, the industry has now spent several fruitless years floundering about in misguided efforts to reduce its use of chemicals on the Greenpeace hit list. That’s why NRDC continues to work tirelessly with these corporations to promote pragmatic, off-the-shelf solutions that can immediately reform their outdated, inefficient polluting methods.

The moral of the story: To achieve real progress, you need both the stick and the carrot. (Although even with both, progress still doesn’t come easy.)

Ultimately, of course, consumers hold the key to industry-wide change with the power of their purse. The dollars they choose to spend—or not spend—on clothing from a particular brand represent an enticing carrot and a punishing stick. However, to become a force, consumers need to care. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet sufficiently engaged with this issue, individually or collectively. For one thing, they don’t have enough information about how their purchases are contributing to things like water pollution, workplace accidents, and even climate change. (The process of dyeing and finishing fabric requires massive amounts of very hot water and steam, both of which consume an enormous amount of energy.)

Chinese consumers experience—firsthand—the pollution caused by the production of the clothes they’re buying. And they are finally beginning to speak out.

But that’s about to change. The veil is finally lifting on manufacturing practices abroad, and despite the thousands of miles that separate overseas apparel factories from American consumers, the information gap is rapidly shrinking in a world connected by social media. Citizens equipped with little more than a smartphone have managed to capture some pretty shocking images—which can go viral and motivate action. (For instance, check out these photos of a factory in China’s northern Henan province, discharging toxic dyes into the Jian River.) Environmental groups, meanwhile, have begun rating the performance of apparel corporations (see, for example, “Greening the Global Supply Chain,” a new report that NRDC just released with our Beijing-based partner, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.)

But change will also be driven by economic growth in China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, whose citizens not only dye, cut, and sew clothing for others but increasingly also buy it themselves. Indeed, some U.S. apparel companies now sell more blue jeans in China than they do domestically. The big difference is that Chinese consumers experience—firsthand—the pollution caused by the production of the clothes they’re buying. It’s their water, air, and health that are put at risk. And they are finally beginning to speak out. As a result, many of the companies operating within China’s borders—and even the leaders of the government—are feeling pressure to institute reforms.

In America, our rivers may not be directly at risk and our health may be less directly imperiled, but as long as we keep purchasing these clothes by the closetful year after year, we are complicit. Meaningful reform of multinational apparel companies will not happen until all of us, everywhere, become more conscious consumers.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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