When you love clothes but don’t love what they’re doing to the planet and people, it can be difficult to know which fashion brands to choose. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently announced that they’re to investigate greenwashing in fashion, and will examine claims that individual items of clothing are better for the environment, claims about use of recycled materials in clothing, and entire ranges of clothing being branded as ‘sustainable’. The CMA’s carefully worded statement stops short of implying that fashion brands are greenwashing, but many have interpreted its decision to investigate clothing ahead of other sectors as a clear sign that the CMA suspects fashion brands of dubious green claims. None of this is surprising in a world in which fast fashion companies apply terms like ‘conscious’ or ‘sustainable’ to clothes made with virgin plastics-based materials.
If we can’t always feel confident in brands’ own claims, perhaps independent verification can help? Certification schemes demonstrate companies have met objective criteria for sustainability. In the fashion world, these include Fair Wear, cradle to cradle and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). However, none of these has so far achieved recognition among consumers, and without that their impact necessarily remains limited. B Corp could be set to change all of that: B Corp’s logo is now appearing on everything from wine bottles to holiday companies’ websites and is becoming increasingly recognisable to consumers. Within fashion, brands like Chloé, Sézane, Finisterre, TOMS, JoJo Maman Bébé, Faithfull, Veja and All Birds are all certified B Corps, as is the secondhand platform Vestiaire Collective. That list is set to grow: Spanish brand Indi & Cold is currently working towards B Corp status, as are many others.
Why has B Corp certification become so popular in the clothing industry? And if you’re a sustainability-conscious fashion lover, can you trust B Corp brands to do the right thing for people and planet?
What is B Corp?
B Corp is a non-profit organisation founded in 2006 that exists to ‘make business a force for good’. Their vision is for an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy. This is a radical proposition. GDP per capita has grown in every region of the world since 2000 but economic growth has often come at the expense of the natural environment, and its proceeds have been unevenly distributed, with the result that the gap between rich and poor has become a gulf.
B Corp invites companies to re-imagine what business is for. Rather than serving the interests of a narrow group (most often shareholders), B Corp argues that businesses can and should operate in the interests of their employees, customers, communities and the planet. This is a fundamentally different conception of the role of business versus the conventional economic model.
For-profit companies can apply for B Corp certification. In order to get certified, they must pass an assessment covering five areas: Governance, Workers, Community, Environment and Customers. They must score at least 80 points to gain certification; a typical conventional company scores 50.9.
Why are so many fashion brands becoming B Corps?
Greenwashing is rife within fashion and as a result many consumers are cynical about brands’ sustainability and ethical claims. This is one reason why just a third of consumers say they’re willing to pay more for sustainably made clothes: why spend more on fashion that claims to be ‘sustainable’ when you don’t know whether those claims are trustworthy? One strategy for mission-driven brands looking to distinguish themselves from greenwashing competitors is to use a reliable third-party certification scheme to show that their clothes really are sustainable – and hence justify consumers spending more.
There is a proliferation of sustainability certifications in fashion. However, this can create confusion rather than clarity for consumers. Many of these schemes focus on a very specific aspect of sustainability. For example, Fair Wear certification guarantees that garment workers have been paid a living wage and work reasonable hours among other provisions; the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) ensure that wool comes from farms that have a progressive approach to managing their land and practice holistic respect for animal welfare of the sheep and respect animal welfare. Both these certification schemes are excellent and important, but neither covers all aspects of sustainability in fashion. B Corp is more holistic as addresses how companies are governed, how they treat both customers and workers, and their environmental stewardship.
Probably even more important than its holistic approach is that B Corp is becoming recognised by consumers. There is exponential growth in the number of B Corps (Carvalho et al., 2021) and this could overcome the lack of recognition and understanding that afflicts most sustainability certification schemes. What’s more, B Corp behaves like a brand with a striking monochrome logo, a lively social media presence and a podcast. B Corp member businesses often are effectively marketing the B Corp ‘brand’ – examples below from Finisterre and Coutts bank. This is making B Corp much more recognisable, showing consumers that there is an alternative to companies that are solely seeking profit.
Are all fashion B Corps sustainable?
Not quite. To attain B Corp certification, companies must score 80 points across five areas, of which the environment is just one. It’s possible for companies to have low scores in one more area but compensate for this with a high score on something else. Consequently, some fashion companies have surprisingly poor scores on the environment. As seen below, Bombas (the socks company) scores a measly 3.9 on the environment, while Chloé gains 25 points and outdoor clothes company Finisterre 35: B Corps have a wide range of performance on the environment.
Certain B Corp brands don’t come out well in other respected independent assessments of sustainability in the fashion sector: Chloé is rated ‘not good enough’ by sustainable fashion experts ‘Good On You’, and scored <20% in the Fashion Transparency Index.
What’s more, B Corp companies have committed some high-profile faux pas recently that undermine the B Corp ethos of business as a force for good: 250 Brewdog employees signed an open letter claiming they were ‘bullied and treated like objects’, while fashion company Sézane was implicated in a deplorable and crass instance of exploitative cultural appropriation concerning an indigenous Mexican woman.
B Corp certainly has its critics: Michael O’Regan of Bournemouth University claims that Corp certification won’t guarantee companies really care for people, planet and profit. He points out that B Corp commitments are non-binding and therefore cannot be enforced, and implies that B Corp is – ironically – driven by money-making having generated over US$32m to date.
Scholars have concluded that by laying out clear measures within a framework the B Corp Impact Assessment can enable small and medium enterprises to conduct an assessment of sustainability performance, set goals, and know what to monitor for ongoing sustainability reporting (Shields and Shelleman, 2017). Undoubtedly, many companies have benefitted from the clarity B Corp provides on what sustainability really means.
B Corp is one of the few sustainability certifications that has any level of recognition among consumers and as such the organisation is contributing to raising consumers’ expectations of what businesses should deliver and how they should behave. While improvements are needed, not least a robust process for dealing with incidents such as those concerning Brewdog and Sézane, overall B Corp is a force for good.
And yet B Corp certainly isn’t perfect. There is a strong argument in favour of introducing a minimum score in each of the 5 impact areas so that companies with a really poor score for, say, the environment couldn’t qualify for certification. Consumers should be able to see a B Corp logo and know that this is an environmentally sustainable product. At the moment, they can’t. This is a particular problem in fashion, given the sector’s enormous environmental impact.