Should retailers take responsibility for tackling climate change?
WORDS BY BIANCA O’NEILL
A look at Country Road’s new climate incubator, and whether it’s the answer consumers are looking for.
Last week, a long-time Australian retailer Countryside road announced a groundbreaking new climate fund to inject $1.5 million into the pursuit of climate solutions within Australia’s fashion industry.
Created as both an incubator and accelerator program, the Country Roads Climate Fund will allocate $500,000 per year over the next three years to provide funding for Australian startups, existing initiatives and innovative products that can help accelerate sustainable fashion solutions.
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This is an Australian first for the local fashion industry; the idea of a retailer pumping money directly into businesses behind the scenes that can help drive their own climate change initiatives, while potentially delivering results to an increasingly discerning consumer base that is looking leaders who provide climate solutions, not climate problems.
So, is this where the fashion industry should be heading? Should fashion retailers take responsibility for tackling climate change – rather than, say, the government? It’s a complicated question that seems to divide policymakers and experts around the world.
On the one hand, initiatives like this should not be unusual – a company that profits from pollution should indeed be held accountable for its impacts on the environment and act accordingly. On the other hand, it seeks to shift the blame onto the private sector, rather than onto the politicians we elected to power to solve exactly these problems. Where are the broad, industry-wide policies that ensure all companies must upgrade their standards to a climate-friendly code?
Speaking to Fabia Pryor, head of brand sustainability at Country Road, last week about the fund, it was clear that despite the good intentions of the industry as a whole, what was really needed to help solving the sustainability problem was simple: money.
“The fashion industry has a key role to play in shaping a better future,” says Pryor. “An equitable future with a secure climate and thriving biodiversity. We believe that partnerships are key to addressing industry challenges such as this and driving deep, long-term change.
“While there are many existing and innovative climate fashion solutions, many of these solutions lack funding to be developed or deployed in the fashion industry. The Country Road Climate Fund’s goal is to fill this funding gap by investing, incubating and accelerating climate solutions, with a particular focus locally, in Australia.
Country Road may be ahead of the curve in implementing this fund within the local fashion industry, but according to consumers, it barely lives up to expectations. In fact, the Republic of everyone latest study on brands and the environment revealed that 81% of people believe that brands have a responsibility to act on climate issues and that companies have a responsibility to act.
78% of respondents also confirmed that they “consider a brand’s social and environmental actions when making a purchase” and 56% “consider a brand’s social and environmental actions when choosing their next workplace “.
These are sobering numbers that are hard to argue with – and confirmation that we do indeed believe brands have a responsibility to solve the environmental problems they help create. And even if you’re worried that the recent wave of “sustainable” capsule collections proliferating at fast-fashion retailers may wrongly reassure consumers, it seems we’re not so easily fooled.
The report also showed a huge level of skepticism when it comes to believing brand claims, with 86% of respondents saying they are wary of brands that have actually taken action on social and environmental issues, three out of four not being able to name a single brand that they felt was genuinely improving social or environmental issues in Australia.
It’s a sad accusation for the entire retail industry, with growing consumer mistrust alongside the dubious and accelerated rise in brand sustainability and ethical claims. Greenwashing is rife – not just in the fashion industry, but in all industries that depend on consumers who are increasingly demanding change. (You can read our guide to spotting greenwashing here.)
“Republic of Everyone research shows that, spontaneously, global warming is the number one thing Australians name as their biggest social or environmental concern,” Pryor tells me. “We are in a climate emergency and we all need to act. The fashion industry contributes to the climate crisis and has a key role to play in promoting climate solutions. Partnerships are important to address industry-wide challenges such as this and drive deep, long-term change… The Climate Fund responds to a clear industry need.
So is this the answer consumers are looking for? An incubator that invests money in other companies rather than their shareholders, and helps these innovators thrive on sustainability and climate change, in the hopes that they will make it ten times better than Country road? Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding – which still needs to be cooked, at this point. But it’s a damn good start.
Bianca O’Neill is Fashion Journal’s senior industry columnist. Follow her on @bianca.oneill.