Greenpeace and Textile Industry Pollution: The Dirty Laundry Case

Last week I ventured from the cosy walls of Geography and Environment over to the Management School at the University of Southampton. There, Dr Doris Merkl-Davis from Bangor University, presented a seminar on ‘Rhetoric and Argument in Corporate Social Responsibility Communications: The Dirty Laundry Case’. Merkl-Davis’ paper explored the use of rhetoric and argument between CSR communications using, as a case study, an existing conflict between Greenpeace and six textile organizations in the sportswear/fashion industry over wastewater discharge of hazardous chemicals.

The research is based on the ‘Dirty Laundry’ report published by Greenpeace in 2011. The report profiles the problem of toxic water pollution that results from the release of hazardous chemicals by the textile industry in China. This water pollution poses serious and immediate threats to both our ecosystems and to human health. Honing in on two manufacturing facilities in China, the scientific analysis of the samples found that both facilities were discharging a range of hazardous chemicals into the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas. These facilities, Greenpeace found, supplied a range of major brands, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Bauer Hockey, Calvin Klein, Converse, Cortefiel, H&M, Lacoste, Li Ning, Meters/bonwe, Nike, Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation (PVH Corp), Puma and Youngor.

Armed with their evidence, Greenpeace called on these brands to ensure that they do not continue to have commercial relationships with these suppliers. They said, “Brand owners are therefore the best placed to bring about change in the production of textiles and clothing – through their choices of suppliers, the design of their products and the control they can exert over the use of chemicals in the production process and the final product”. Six brands responded publically and all 14 eventually agreed to commit to the cause; Puma were the first to commit to eliminating hazardous chemicals by 2020, followed by Nike, G-Star Raw, Adidas, whilst H&M were last.

What interested me initially to the seminar was the Greenpeace/CSR/fashion story, but Merkl-Davis’ account of communications between the corporations and Greenpeace were equally fascinating. The speaker defined CSR not as ethical trade awareness or ethical engagement but simply as a form of persuasive communication. Using press releases from Greenpeace and six fashion/sportswear brands, Merkl-Davis’ concluded that Greenpeace were the winners, at least for now because they had succeeded in singing up all 14 brands to the cause. Is 2020 a target to be proud of however? And will the brands actually do what they say they will, after all signing up doesn’t necessarily lead to continued participation.

Greenpeace won, according to Merkl-Davis’, because they effectively mobilised their capital, adopted a clever use of language and knew how to mobilise their supporters and the media to the cause. The brands could do nothing less than sign the commitment, or they would look like the ‘bad guys’. Had then, Greenpeace won from the start? And did they only pick a battle they knew they could win? These were the questions we were left to ponder.

What can you do to help?

Legitimacy and accountability became a key topic of discussion in the seminar. The corporate brands, Merkl-Davis believes, are responsible for ethical sourcing. But what about the suppliers? And the Consumers? Even the Government?

Whatever demons you struggle with (or don’t) as a consumer, one simple thing you can do is to sign the Greenpeace Detox Fashion Manifesto
Click here to read the Dirty Laundry Report yourself.

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Politicising Consumption: The Ethical Consumer

“Ultimately everyone thinks about themselves I think and it saves you money, affects your local environment, you go for it, but it’s very hard to see the effects of fair trade; you don’t know . . . They are all selfish acts really, ultimately, because you’re doing something to make you feel better, even you said didn’t you that you felt better for it. That is a kind of selfish act isn’t it? You make yourself feel happy about an issue.”

(Barnett et al. 2011 pg. 135)

This text is taken from the book, Globalizing Responsibility, and is a quote from one of the interviews set up by the authors to tackle ethical consumption. One of the authors is my supervisor, and I went to a seminar that he run last week, in which he discussed his findings.

This quote really jumped out at me because I found myself feeling quite defensive about what the participant was saying. Is ethical consumption a selfish act? ALL of it selfish, as the subject states? I don’t think anyone can deny that making ethical choices makes you feel good, but I would argue that when I make ethical choices it is less to make me feel good, and more to not make me feel bad. I would argue that there is a difference. I know I feel guilty when I don’t make the ethical choice, so I guess that it is still a selfish decision because I don’t enjoy feeling guilty.

But there is also the political stance behind my decisions, because by making an ethical purchase, I feel like I am making a point. I want to show the retailers that there is a demand for ethical choices and do my bit for the good of society. It is this political aspect which Barnett et al. focus their study on, looking at the way in which consumption can be a vehicle for political action. Organisations like Ethical Consumer and Traidcraft don’t just want to help individual consumers; they use this link to consumers as a way to influence policy. They generate data sets and use them to get stories into the media, aiming to become involved with global trade policy at the highest level.

A number of studies have proved that consumers find it very difficult to relate to the concept of fair trade, because the producers involved are simply so far away. That said, the majority of people will understand that something marked FAIRTRADE is good. The biggest consumption of Fairtrade actually comes from situations where consumers aren’t given the choice. The Fairtrade cities campaign works by targeting procurement officers in schools, museums and tourist attractions so that all of the products sold to consumers are Fairtrade. This is probably the best way forward as it boosts the demand for Fairtrade and helps to boost the reputation of the organisation. But with consumers struggling to understand the full significance of Fairtrade, the biggest challenge still remains.

Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P. and Malpass, A., 2011. Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

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