For Kowtow, sustainability standards still matter

Fashion brands around the world continue to get away with greenwashing, often using industry standards as “smokescreens”. So why does Kowtow still care about certifications?

Fashion is awash with greenwashing. The clothing industry accounts for up to 10% of global carbon emissions. In 2018 alone, he produced $206 billion worth of clothing in countries using some form of modern slavery, all aimed at the world’s 20 largest economies.

Ten years ago, brands could have gotten away with simply claiming that their products were “sustainably sourced”, or made from “recycled materials” or “certified organic”. But as sustainability has become more mainstream and shoppers have become more conscious consumers, brands are coming under increased scrutiny and pressure is mounting for the industry to address its environmental and social impacts. .

Every year since 2013, the Christian aid organization Tearfund New Zealand has published a “Guide to ethical fashion”, a report on how fashion companies protect workers’ rights and reduce their own impact on the environment. Almost every year there is room for improvement, and almost every year brands fail to respond to the survey. Take the 2018 report, for example, which rated Karen Walker “C” and Trelise Cooper “F.” Walker said she didn’t participate because she believed she could use her resources to more effective ways; Dame Trelise dismissed the bad score, saying so was not a measure of its ethical standards.

The Tearfund scheme is just one example of many trying to hold the fashion industry to account, but some designers are ignoring them. Diets aren’t perfect either. A March 2022 report by sustainability lobby group the Changing Markets Foundation concluded that the most represented “a false promise” certification program for textiles, providing “an industry-wide smokescreen” for fast fashion to continue its upward trajectory and “fig leaf greenwashing” that obscures the industry’s scant progress. New Zealand consumers are suffering the consequences. Last Christmas, a Consumer NZ survey of sustainable fashion claims led four brands – H&M, Kate Sylvester, Maggie Marilyn and Ruby – to withdraw their claims after they were unable to back them up. Four other brands have been identified as not respecting the labeling rules.

Kowtow is aware of the dynamic. An hour before my Zoom chat with Emma Wallace, the managing director of the local fashion brand was hosted by B Corp, the global movement the spearhead of a responsible and ethical company. Kowtow has been B Corp certified for barely a month, and Wallace readily admits she’s not yet an expert on what that entails. But the latest piece of paper makes partly formal what the label has been doing since owner Gosia Piatek founded it in 2006 – working with Fairtrade-certified organic cotton producers and accredited manufacturing workplaces; use inks and dyes certified free of toxins and pollutants; and trying to close the loop on circularity, like taking back end-of-life Kowtow garments and offering free minor repairs.

Kowtow chief executive Emma Wallace (Picture: Supplied)

The label is one of approximately 70 other New Zealand companies demonstrating high social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Eligible companies must obtain at least 80 points out of 200 in the “Impact Assessment B” to take into consideration. The median score of mainstream companies completing the assessment tool, which assesses how companies’ operations and business models affect workers, customers, governance, the environment and the community, is 51 points; Kowtow scored 101.3. By comparison, American outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia, famous for its sustainability practices, scored 107.3 in 2011, his first year of certification. His most recent score is 151.4.

Verification is not easy – it took B Corp 15 years to certify 5,000 companies; of nearly 20,300 new submissions received since 2011, only 28% have been certified. But as businesses and investors look to sustainability, more companies are turning to B Corp for guidance. In the past two years alone, some 6,500 applications have been filed, a 38% increase compared to 2018 and 2019. Increased demand pushes verification times to a estimated at 20 months. Companies must recertify every three years.

It may have taken Kowtow 11 months to achieve certification, but the certificate expands the scope of the label beyond the supply chain and the product. It’s a framework for comparing its present to its past, and to competitors, to the broader industry and to the country as a whole, Wallace says. “People can say ‘these things don’t really matter, it’s just a piece of paper’. But words are powerful. They are just like a blueprint. I spoke with her about why Kowtow still cares about them.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity.

The spin-off: Certification is a tangible way to see if you’re improving or regressing, do you agree?

Emma Wallace: Certification is really valuable because in the business world you can congratulate yourself and think you’re doing great things. There’s no one saying “actually, compared to other companies, maybe you’re not doing very well.” B Corp has benchmarking so you can see where your performance stands in your country, industry and size of companies that [are similar]. One thing I learned about B Corp is that the valuation evolves as the company evolves and takes into account feedback from the company. At Kowtow, we’re cynical about everything because we come from the fashion industry, right? It’s greenwashing. So we hit the [B Corp Australia and New Zealand] CEO on this and I said, “Some of these questions, you could really phrase them better. I think some people might respond and [their answers] will not be legitimate”. And he said “it’s funny you say that because every time Patagonia is audited, it gives us this list of things that [say] ‘you have to be better at it’”. And B Corp takes care of it. He tries to keep improving.

Kowtow uses verified toxin-free dyes on its cotton fibers (Picture: Supplied)

Given the rigor that supposedly underpins the certifications, they push back on that cynicism to some degree.

It’s true. But over the past two years, many certifications have begun to be viewed as not being as robust as they could be for the industry. Always realize that certifications aren’t perfect and the fashion industry is one of the best for greenwashing, using them to craft a message that they think is aligned with the zeitgeist. , which at the moment is all about being more and more sustainable and making sure you don’t become part of that big, greedy fast fashion machine. It’s really important that people question this and continue to do so.

How do you ensure that your certifications are always watertight?

It has been quite a challenge with Covid as our supply chain is based in India. Travel restrictions were difficult as we travel to India often and are on the ground able to establish these relationships with our supply chain. But we weren’t able to do that, so we relied on third parties to do what they were supposed to do – and they found it really difficult. Certifications like Fairtrade are realistic about what is happening on the ground. Society is what it is, people are what they are. But Fairtrade has very good systems to be able to intervene and arbitrate or moderate the situation and find a solution.

We’ve been involved with Fairtrade for 15 years, we’ve seen it on the ground, on the farms, what it does. On one of our visits to the cotton growers, we asked them why they chose to be part of it and they looked at us and thought we were crazy to ask them that. It gives them support, security, education and it also helps them have a sustainable business… You know when people are bullshitting you. We have never experienced this for ourselves. I don’t think we’re completely naive, but I also know it’s not perfect. I think there’s enough of a system in place that when things aren’t perfect, there’s something that can roll up to create a solution.

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