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Kowtow’s raw material, 100% Fairtrade-certified organic cotton from India (Images: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)
Kowtow’s raw material, 100% Fairtrade-certified organic cotton from India (Images: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)

BusinessJuly 1, 2022

For Kowtow, sustainability standards still matter

Kowtow’s raw material, 100% Fairtrade-certified organic cotton from India (Images: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)
Kowtow’s raw material, 100% Fairtrade-certified organic cotton from India (Images: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)

Fashion labels around the world continue to get away with greenwashing, often using industry standards as ‘smokescreens’. So why does Kowtow still care about certifications?

Fashion is awash with greenwashing. The clothing industry is responsible for as much as 10% of global carbon emissions. In 2018 alone, it produced $206 billion worth of garments in countries using some form of modern slavery, all destined for the world’s 20 largest economies.

A decade ago, brands could have gotten away with simply claiming their products were “sustainably sourced”, or made from “recycled materials” or “certified organic”. But as sustainability has become more mainstream and shoppers have become more conscious consumers, brands are coming under increased scrutiny and pressure is mounting for the industry to address its environmental and social impacts.

Every year since 2013, Christian aid organisation Tearfund New Zealand releases an “Ethical Fashion Guide”, a report card on how well fashion companies are protecting labour rights and reducing their own environmental impacts. Almost every year there’s room for improvement, and almost every year there are brands that don’t respond to the survey. Take the 2018 report, for instance, which graded Karen Walker “C” and Trelise Cooper “F”. Walker said she didn’t participate because she believed she could use her resources in more effective ways; Dame Trelise dismissed the poor score, saying it wasn’t a measure of its ethical standards.

Tearfund’s scheme is just one of many trying to hold the fashion industry to account – yet some designers are ignoring them. The schemes aren’t perfect either. A March 2022 report by sustainability pressure group Changing Markets Foundation concluded most represented “a false promise” of certification for textiles, providing “an industry-wide smokescreen” for fast fashion to continue apace its upward trajectory and “greenwashing fig leaves” that obscure the industry’s scarce progress. New Zealand consumers are experiencing the consequences. Last Christmas, a Consumer NZ investigation into sustainable fashion claims resulted in four brands – H&M, Kate Sylvester, Maggie Marilyn and Ruby – removing their claims after they couldn’t back them up. Another four brands were identified as not following labelling rules.

Kowtow is conscious of the dynamic. An hour before my Zoom chat with Emma Wallace, the homegrown fashion label’s managing director was being welcomed by B Corp, the global movement spearheading responsible, ethical business. Kowtow has been certified B Corp for a mere month, and Wallace readily admits she’s not yet an expert on what it entails. But the latest piece of paper partly makes formal what the label has been doing since owner Gosia Piatek founded it in 2006 – working with Fairtrade-certified organic cotton farmers and accredited manufacturing workplaces; using inks and dyes authenticated as free of toxins and pollutants; and trying to close the loop on circularity, such as taking back end-of-life Kowtow garments and offering free minor repairs. 

Kowtow managing director Emma Wallace (Photo: Supplied)

The label is among the 70 or so other New Zealand companies demonstrating high social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Eligible businesses have to score at least 80 points out of 200 in the “B Impact Assessment” to be considered. The median score for ordinary companies that complete the assessment tool, which evaluates how companies’ operations and business models affect workers, customers, governance, environment and community, is 51 points; Kowtow scored 101.3. By comparison, US outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, famous for its sustainability practices, scored 107.3 in 2011, its first year of certification. Its most recent score is 151.4.

Verification isn’t given easily – it took 15 years for B Corp to certify 5,000 businesses; of the nearly 20,300 new submissions received since 2011, only 28% have been certified. But as businesses and investors have turned their minds to sustainability, more companies have looked to B Corp for guidance. In the last two years alone, some 6,500 applications have been made – an increase of 38% compared with 2018 and 2019. The increased demand is pushing verification times out to an estimated 20 months. Businesses must recertify every three years. 

It may have taken Kowtow 11 months to get certified, but the certificate broadens the label’s focus beyond the supply chain and product. It’s a framework to compare its present against its past, and against competitors, the wider sector and the whole country, Wallace says. “People can say ‘these things don’t really matter, it’s just a piece of paper’. But words are powerful. They’re just like a blueprint.” I spoke with her about why Kowtow still bothers with them. 

This Q&A has been edited for clarity.

The Spinoff: Certification is a tangible way to see whether you’re improving or sliding backwards, would you agree?

Emma Wallace: Certification is really valuable because, in business, you can pat yourself on the back and think you’re doing great things. There’s no one going “actually, compared with other businesses, maybe you’re not doing that great”. B Corp has a benchmarking so you can see where your performance sits in your country, sector and the size of businesses that [are similar]. One thing I’ve learned about B Corp is that the assessment evolves as society evolves, and it takes on company feedback. At Kowtow, we’re cynical about everything because we come from the fashion industry, right? It’s all greenwashing. So we hit the [B Corp Australia and New Zealand] CEO up about it and I said, “some of those questions you could really frame them better. I feel some people could reply and [their answers] are not going to be legit”. And he was going “it’s funny you say that because every time Patagonia gets audited, it gives us this list of things that [say] ‘you need to be better at this’”. And B Corp takes it onboard. It tries to keep improving.

Kowtow uses verified toxin-free dyes on its cotton fibres (Photo: Supplied)

Given the rigour that purportedly underpins certifications, to some extent they push back against that cynicism.

That is true. But over the last couple of years, there have been a lot of certifications starting to get held up as being not as robust as they could be for the industry. You always have to realise that certifications are not perfect and the fashion industry is one of the best at greenwashing them, by using them to put together a message it thinks is aligned with the zeitgeist, which at the moment is about being more and more sustainable and making sure you’re not part of that big greedy machine of fast fashion. It’s really important that people question it and continue to do that.

How do you reassure yourselves that your certifications are still watertight?

It’s been quite a challenge through Covid because our supply chain is based in India. Travel restrictions were challenging because we travel to India many times and we are on the ground being able to build those relationships with our supply chain. But we weren’t able to do that so we were relying on third parties to do what they’re meant to do – and they found it really challenging. Certifications like Fairtrade are realistic about what happens on the ground level. Society is what it is, people are who they are. But Fairtrade has got really good systems to be able to go in there and mediate or moderate the situation and come up with a solution. 

We’ve been involved with Fairtrade for 15 years, we’ve seen it on the ground, at the farms, what it’s doing. On one of our visits to the cotton farmers, we asked them why they chose to be part of it and they looked at us and thought we were crazy asking them that. It gives them support, security, education and it helps them to have a sustainable business too… You know when people are bullshitting you. We’ve never experienced that for ourselves. I don’t think we are completely naïve, but I also know it’s not perfect. I think there’s enough of a system in place that when things aren’t perfect, there’s something that can wrap around to create a solution.

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