In the current debate on the sustainable economy, the idea that it has become a fad is accompanied by a negative feeling that is mainly attributed to the risk of facade behaviors, which operators summarize with the expression ecolaundering, or green wash. This feeling is confirmed, more and more often, by some sadly controversial cases, and by the growing number of companies, national and international, accused of false advertising for having communicated green characteristics of their products that later turned out to be non-existent. Examples are increasing similar to that of the federal court in New York, which has upheld a class action lawsuit against a European company in the clothing sector, guilty of having advertised its fabrics as organic, and of having declared that it adopts a production process capable of reducing water consumption by 20% compared to usual.
Fashion’s fault, then? Fashion is not a harm in itself. To understand it, more than an economist, a refined linguist and semiotician like Roland Barthes can come to our aid. In his essays on fashion, Barthes reminds us that the garment acquires three dimensions: garment image, written pledge Y royal pledge. The first refers to photographic or visual representation, such as the photograph of a dress in a magazine or the video clip of a fashion show. The written pledge it is the narration of the image, for example, the description of the dress that we usually read under fashion photos: “long dress with beading and sequins”. The royal pledgeinstead, is the act of manufacturing itself.
The same reading key can be used to understand the different dimensions of environmental, social and governance (ESG) sustainability, and can help us better understand the strengths and weaknesses of this new sustainability fad. In our case, therefore, the garment image is represented by the ESG identity of the company or brand; the written pledge by all forms of communication of the ESG identity, and first of all, by the state of non-financial information that many companies are obliged to prepare; the royal pledge represents what is actually done, in terms of the product and the production process.
It is evident that, in the most common cases of ecolaunderingthe written pledge has prevailed over the royal garment, according to a scheme that anticipates the act of communication with respect to that of manufacturing and, through the written pledgetends to create in the consumer/investor an idea of garment image that does not match the royal pledge. What is communicated does not correspond to what is actually manufactured.
Chasing fashion induces companies to chase consumer tastes; In this race, some companies skip stages and, in order to reach the finish line immediately, communicate before manufacturing, giving rise to what we can define as fraudulent ecolaundering. This phenomenon, however, is still limited and is destined to be increasingly penalized by consumers, investors and institutions.
Less obvious, however, is what we could define as involuntary ecolaundering. This is a more widespread and little-known phenomenon, which takes shape when fashion is a search for homologation, when it comes to fashion ready-to-wear. In this case, in fact, fashion is a collective institution that lacks that individual touch that is needed to transform it into a high quality. sewing. In the world of sustainability, fashion ready-to-wear It takes shape in the imitation of products, processes and behaviors already experienced by the market. Fashion ready-to-wear brings with it a positive feature and two criticisms. It is positive, of course, that sustainability is becoming a widespread practice. Less positive, on the other hand, is that the homologation occurs without recutting the suit to size and that this sustainability “mass market” suit is made with the minimum objective of respecting the standards. Basically the fashion ready-to-wear of sustainability fulfills the important task of making sustainability a mainstream culture, but, at the same time, it creates an ecosystem that can lead us to think that jeans and a T-shirt are also suitable for a gala night.
From this perspective, the legislator plays a decisive role. The standards indicate to the market the essential components of a “certain type of dress” in fashion; if the norms are built wisely, so is fashion ready-to-wear it can contribute to sustainable growth; when this element fails, for the contrarythe regulation can favor the involuntary ecolaundering, that is, a sustainability that is not completely metabolized, mainly imitation, and oriented towards objectives of minimum compliance. From this point of view, the critics of the “sustainability purists” of some choices made by the European legislator can be read: is it correct to include activities such as gas and nuclear energy among those eligible for environmental taxonomy? Is it consistent to allow sustainable investment funds not to take ESG indices as market benchmarks? Is a sustainable fund that takes a traditional index (a broad market index) as a benchmark, while following the rules, not practicing a involuntary ecolaundering?
These are aspects that, although they do not represent a ecolaundering fraudulentthey run the risk of feeding into the common perception that sustainability is an ephemeral fad, rather than a substantial change of pace in the way of doing business.
Sustainability fashion can be good for everyone: consumers, investors and companies; and it can also be in the mass market, with a fashion ready-to-wear. However, it is necessary for an enlightened legislator to rely on managers capable of building ESG identities inspired by real cultural change. Standards need to encourage companies to define their ESG identity, before writing and communicating it. We all need norms that stimulate the real garment, before the image and the writing.
mario tower He is a professor at the University of Rome La Sapienza, which organizes the International Conference on Investments with Social Impact on December 1 and 2.
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