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.