Putting Environmental Impacts Labels on Clothing

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies, Human Condition

Published on March 08, 2011 with No Comments

…But what about a Humans Rights label?

The Russian fable of Potemkin Village tells the story of a village leader who, wanting to impress the Tsar, ordered that the fronts of all the buildings that faced the main street of the village be made to look fresh and new.

In reality, however, despite these façades, the buildings of the village were crumbling and decrepit, though the leader was pleased because the Tsar and his entourage could not see them. The village leader was congratulated by the Tsar, and his standing in the empire was duly enhanced by the conceit.

A few days ago I read an article in the Financial Times entitled, “Clothing companies in push for eco-impact labeling.” The article was about a new initiative of some “clothing and footwear manufacturers and retailers” to sew into new clothing and shoes a label stating the environmental impacts of the manufacture and sale of each article of clothing. It noted that “companies backing the scheme include, among others, Wal-mart, The Gap, JCPenney, Levi Strauss, Nike, Marks & Spencer, and Adidas.” Such labeling, which would address the manufacturing impacts on, for example, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and chemical contamination through the release of toxins into rivers or groundwater, would provide consumers with immediate information about the ecological footprint of each item of new clothing they might choose to purchase.

When I first read the article, I was actually happy that such an initiative was being seriously considered. I was unsure if it was just a marketing ploy by corporations to entice consumers to buy their goods because their manufacture would seem ”greener,” but I also thought that just maybe it was part of a sincere corporate plot to save the planet from the undeniable and wanton sullying of the environment by the processes of industrial production.

Then, a sense of reality crept into my thoughts. Corporations today are often engaged in “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is when a corporation or government initiates a project or a program that makes it appear, on the surface, to be concerned with protecting the environment but is typically only just a “look good, feel good” façade. Corporations have engaged in similar forms of ‘washing’ for years, such as when they put a happy face on the working conditions in which their products had been made.

There are so many examples, but so little space to write about them here. Nike, a company vilified only a few years ago for its exploitation of laborers, is apparently one of the leaders of the new environmental labeling initiative. Even enlightened Apple Inc. has recently been accused of allowing oppressive working conditions in its iPad factory in China (see the March issue of WIRED magazine).

Also recently, Mexican children were ‘employed’ in factories to apply glue with addictive properties in the manufacture of well-branded shoes. The problem is that once such conditions have been exposed, we, the consumer public, assume that these are just rogue companies (or just rogue managers) and that such exploitations were corrected through either public outcry and boycott of corporate goods or by government regulation. But these are in no way isolated incidents. The reality is that such manufacturing circumstances are ubiquitous around the world, including in exploitive working environments in the United States.

What I would like to see on clothing labels are statements that inform consumers about the life-conditions of workers who made the garments. What were their ages? Was child labor involved? What was their health status? What were their working conditions (sweatshop or not; working with dangerous chemicals or not)? What were their wages and average hours of work per day?

Positive public responses to such labor information on labels might even spark positive environmental conditions as well. I am hopeful that such clothing and footwear labels would not prove to be little more than a corporate analogy of a Potemkin Village.


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