Sustainable Fashion and the American Elephant in the Room
It’s time to tie the sustainable fashion conversation to the broader political — and, yes, partisan — conversation taking place in America at this critical moment, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; our handling (or mishandling) of it; the resulting economic fall-out; the looming question of our 2020 Presidential and Congressional elections; and the issues of racial, social, and economic injustice that have taken center stage here over the past several months.
As a New York-based sustainability advocate watching the pace of progress in Europe toward policy-making, aimed at accelerating the EU’s transition to a circular economy and the goal of net zero emissions, I’m eager to see similar progress made in the U.S.
But America is in the middle of an identity crisis.
As most outsiders can see, the situation here has degenerated quickly. We are standing at a historical fork in the road. And the political path we choose in less than a month’s time (assuming a fair election, and a vote count legitimately allowed to run its course) is going to make or break our future as a democracy, either setting us firmly on a path we’ve already begun to slide toward — authoritarian rule, fueled by an ultra (white) nationalist ideology — or pushing us toward the possibility of social, economic, and political reforms that will be more progressive in varying degree (depending on whom you ask), with at least the potential for a green economic recovery and bold(ish) federal action on the climate front.
While some sustainable fashion professionals may see America’s political future as tangential to the work they do trying to clean up the industry and make it more circular, I can’t help but think we are facing a heading-toward-the-iceberg scenario — one that, if Trump, as well as his Senate allies, are not soundly defeated, could make any future incremental industry improvements seem like the proverbial re-arranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.
Where we end up will determine whether America has any chance of keeping pace with other developed countries when it comes to tackling the climate crisis through cooperation among all sectors. Or, whether a federal government hamstrung and co-opted by a strongman with plutocratic enablers will force more conscientious private sector actors, NGOs, nonprofits, and a handful of state governments, to try to “go it alone.”
As encouraging as it is to see how much of the private sector is starting to rally to the climate emergency cause, I worry that, as private sector players, they will always be motivated first and foremost by profit-making as a goal, with public and planetary good by necessity taking a subordinate role.
Given the history of U.S. business interests when allowed free reign to act without federal regulations, oversight, and strategic direction, the latter scenario doesn’t bode well for a meaningful outcome, in my view — at least not within the necessary timeframe dictated by the pace of rising global temperatures.
What follows is admittedly subjective, provisional, and steeped in personal opinion (mine). I am still in the early stages of learning about the circular economy space in the U.S. My knowledge is admittedly incomplete. To some, my concerns may sound hyperbolic. And, frankly, I hope that by January 20th, 2021, they will have proven unnecessarily alarmist.
But if you are paying attention to the American political situation and know something of our history when it comes to the relationship between business and government, as well as our recent historical record when it comes to enacting bold progressive legislation at the federal level, it might actually sound like an understatement.
With the election outcome by no means a shoo-in; with a President nakedly refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses; and with the world’s fate tied to America’s where urgent climate action is concerned; it’s hard not to feel we’re at a do-or-die moment; that we are the big American elephant in the room; and that we should all stop what we’re doing and start shouting from the rooftops.
Over the past few years, American fashion professionals and industry leaders have joined the sustainability conversation with increasing energy, enthusiasm, and engagement. And many in the U.S., myself included, look to the EU as a model to emulate — especially its northern Member States.
Yet there are idiosyncrasies about America’s cultural, ideological, economic, and political underpinnings that I fear may hold us back from making comparably bold, progressive advances, even if we escape the catastrophic fate of a Trump re-election. I hope I am wrong, but I admit to gnawing anxiety.
One of the underlying problems, I think, is the current dysfunctional relationship of government to business in America — a product of the last forty years in particular, but also a long history of anti-government sentiment that has in many ways defined America’s identity as a country: a land of rugged individualism and bastion of unfettered capitalism.
Given the deep corruption of the current political system, many have rightly lost trust in government’s ability to function at all, let alone in the interest of society as a whole. But that should make us want to reform the system, not eschew it, ignore it altogether, or run it further into the ground.
Just a few weeks ago, at the opening of Climate Week, the Prince of Wales spoke of the need for a Marshall-like plan and warlike footing on the part of the entire world to combat climate change.
For the U.S., this of course means harnessing the potentially formidable power of the federal government to create policies, an overarching strategy, and broad frameworks; pass legislation that will impose systems of rules and regulations; provide funding to support R&D, innovation, and infrastructure-building; and create incentives and disincentives — i.e., a combination of carrot and stick measures — that could help guide businesses and consumers alike toward a common path forward.
On the fashion front, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and many other sustainable fashion organizations cite the need for policy-making and coordination among all sectors, including government.
Yet my sense of the typical sustainable fashion conversation is that it takes place inside a private sector bubble, as if the public sector doesn’t exist.
Conversations tend to center around using consumer pressure to push businesses to shift from linear to circular models. They rightly touch on the need for companies to produce less; to encourage the innovation of entrepreneurs and disruptors; and to transform consumer mindsets so that we end the endless pattern of mindless consumption into which we all have fallen. They talk, too, about the need for businesses to take the initiative in leading, independent of consumer pressure. And global coalitions like The Fashion Pact are acting aggressively to set targets and convince other fashion brands to sign on and pledge to act with common purpose as an industry.
And all of this is wonderful. But without the participation of orchestrating governmental hands, is it enough?
Where I do see fashion industry-specific policy initiatives like The Policy Hub[i] by The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), and a fabulous report titled, “Policy Recommendations Towards a Zero Waste Textiles Industry,” published by Circle Economy in conjunction with Fibersort,[ii] the focus is on the EU.
Perhaps it’s no surprise. The idea of trying to harness the Trump administration toward any environmentally progressive policies (other than very recently, in an attempt to greenwash his record ahead of the election)[iii] has been sadly unrealistic.
From Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Accord, to his rollback of nearly 100 environmental regulations and protections, to the appointment of a former coal lobbyist to head the EPA, a climate denialist to head NOAA, and now a Koch-backed Supreme Court nominee[iv] whose presence on the court could “cement the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks for decades,”[v] we have already lost immeasurable ground.
But I also think it goes deeper.
Government has long been the bogey man of American business interests. The enemy of free enterprise. The specter of a socialist takeover, which stymies innovation through excessive regulations and higher taxes and puts a cap on wealth accumulation in order to redistribute it (to the less enterprising among us).
For most of my lifetime, the typical American business attitude toward government has been, “just keep it out of my way, don’t tax me or impose regulations on me, and let me do my thing.” Let market forces solve the problem. The Milton Friedman mantra.
And again, a government characterized by deep corruption has understandably eroded public trust in its purpose and function.
But business is partly responsible for getting us here.
In her piece, “The Business Case for Saving Democracy,” Harvard Business School Professor Rebecca Henderson has written that “One of the reasons that global democracy is in decline is because business has spent enormous sums of money subverting it.”[vi]
“In the United States,” she writes, “businesspeople fought ferociously against the New Deal and against programs like Social Security and Medicare. Corporations have broken unions, clashed with the free press, and flooded the political system with money in an attempt to control policy.”[vii]
But, as Henderson argues, unregulated capitalism hasn’t even led to true, free market competition. It has led to crony capitalism, whereby a very powerful, monied few are able to lobby and/or pour dark (i.e., anonymous) money into the political system in order to tilt the system’s policy-making in their favor (mostly toward further deregulations and corporate tax cuts), resulting in monopolies and robber baron-like gains for a small, wealthy elite.
The very title of Henderson’s article is brilliant but also revealing: “The Business Case for…”
The business ear, which might not otherwise pay attention, perks up. But it also reveals a certain business myopia. You need a business case to want to save democracy?
Apparently. Because as long as sales are strong; the stock market is up; and a company is hitting its numbers, it seems we can have a political system careening toward autocracy, and many businesses will keep chugging along. There’s something disturbing about this picture.
As Henderson goes on to argue, it’s time for businesses to re-evaluate their relationship to government.
While certainly not in the same league as oil and gas corporations, retail fashion has largely adopted the public company business model of shareholder primacy, with brands following a familiar trajectory of declaring IPOs, being acquired through M&As, and becoming part of large, multi-brand corporations and global conglomerates. The Wall Streetification, you might call it, of industry.
For decades, in other words, fashion, too, has been big business.
As climate awareness has filtered into the industry, however, along with issues of equity, inclusion, and racial and social justice, fashion has had to look at its own image in the mirror and has begun taking steps to reform many of its own hyper-capitalist, take-make-waste practices. Yet, inasmuch as fashion is business and business is king, there is an obvious tension between the need to reform and the need to keep growing and selling, following a linear business model.
Again, thanks in large part to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, sustainable fashion advocates understand that a critical goal the industry must work toward is adopting more circular practices, from design to end-of-life.
Two crucial components of this are: 1) shifting to more sustainable materials (less resource intensive; less ecologically destructive; less toxic-chemically processed; more easily recycled); and 2) thinking about product life extension and end-of-life measures, such as resale, reuse and recycling.
But how quickly will companies act if allowed to set their own targets and self-monitor their progress? How quickly can they, when they are bound by financial obligations to produce quarterly profits? Everyone — even Creative Directors and CEOs, whom we’ve all seen kicked to the curb after a few disappointing quarters — seem trapped within the system.
As a hypothetical (and over-simplistic) example, say you’re a luxury brand of a publicly-traded company, and your cash cow consists of bags and accessories made of PVC (poly vinyl-chloride)-coated canvas. PVC is both petroleum-derived but also known to leach dioxin, a highly toxic chemical compound. Its harmful effects are well-known. Yet it’s an open question how quickly you’ll push to stop using it, given your need to meet margin targets and quarterly financial goals.
But if a federal policy aimed at phasing out PVC within five years were passed into law, you, your competitors, and the entire supply chain would naturally act quickly to come up with alternatives and solutions. The government might even partner with the industry to come up with a just transition away from its use.
Now imagine the substance we’re talking about is lead. And imagine your cash cow is lead paint. How quickly would you act in the absence of laws and regulations?
This actually happened. And the difference between the history of lead paint elimination in Europe vs. the U.S. is illuminating.
As early as 1886, Germany began restricting women and children from working in factories making lead-based paint because of its dangers. By 1909, France had passed a law banning the use of lead paint.[viii]
And the U.S.? Not until 1978.
Why? Because the lead industry organized and lobbied against regulations at both the federal and state levels.
From the 1920s on, industry marketing campaigns were waged; and ads placed in family-oriented magazines like Good Housekeeping, showing lead paint to be safe. When forward-thinking cities (New York, Baltimore, and Chicago) tried to enact regulations in the 1950s, lobbyists descended and convinced legislators to lift restrictions.
Only in 1959 was lead paint prohibited at the local level, in New York City, and other major cities began to do the same. And gradually this led to a decline in brain damage among children, which finally led to action at the federal level.[ix]
With climate change, America can’t afford to drag its feet and end up fifty to seventy years behind Europe and other developed nations. Yet that is precisely how far we tend to lag behind when it comes to many reforms viewed as government encroachments upon individual liberties, or the freedom of businesses to pursue profit-making ends.
If America is to look to Europe’s circular economy policy proposals for inspiration, it has to acknowledge Europe’s use of a mixed economy approach.
Looking again at The Policy Hub, its recommendations for the apparel and footwear industry rely on details of the ambitious European Green Deal, launched by the EU Commission in December, 2019. Key fashion-relevant examples are its support for separate collection of textiles for recycling by 2025 and consideration of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for textiles (currently only mandated by law in France).
Described as “Europe’s man on the moon moment,”[x] the European Green Deal has as its goal to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050,[xi] and to work through “a framework of regulation and legislation setting clear overarching targets…alongside incentives to encourage private sector investment.”[xii] While its passage is not assured, and details will undoubtedly undergo negotiation, its eventual adoption seems likely.
Economist and climate policy analyst Jeffrey Sachs has also characterized it this way:
“It is a demonstration of European social democracy at work. A mixed economy, combining markets, government regulation, the public sector, and civil society, will pursue a mixed strategy, combining public goals, public and private investments, and public support.”[xiii]
America, too, of course, has the idea of a Green New Deal — a proposal jointly sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). As is clear from its name, it takes inspiration from FDR’s original New Deal.
But Republicans, and Trump most of all, have spent the past two years vilifying Ocasio-Cortez (“AOC”) as a Latina socialist who wants to turn America into Venezuela. (She was born in Brooklyn.) She is labeled a radical — too outside the mainstream for even Centrist Democrats. Wall Street CEOs poured millions into her opponent’s 2020 primary campaign to try to unseat her.[xiv]
In March, 2019, the Green New Deal was effectively knee-capped by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who forced a premature vote on the proposal in the Senate, with no discussion, in an effort to stymie momentum. The proposal was successfully blocked before it had any chance of being fleshed out.
Since then, following the work of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force in early July, 2020, co-chaired by Ocasio-Cortez and John Kerry, the Biden-Harris ticket has adopted a climate policy platform that many climate activists see as fairly robust.[xv]
But even if Biden is elected and the Senate can be flipped (and the filibuster eliminated), passing legislation on this scale could prove an enormous challenge. And Democrats may have limited political capital to exercise before the possibility of a conservative backlash that re-orients the Congress. At least if history repeats itself.
The pattern of backlash against social and environmental progress has been a constant throughout America’s history.
While pendulum swings are a fact of political movements everywhere, the U.S. version has taken shape as a strange ideological marriage of free market worship, corporate interests, libertarian individualism, and a virulent strain of American know-nothing-ism and magical thinking (frequently tied to religious fundamentalism) that in recent decades has manifested itself as anti-evolutionary belief and climate science denial.
Although Europe has its far-right, climate-skeptic factions, its overall anti-government, anti-science, and free market ideological forces are not nearly as extreme, widespread, and frankly removed from reality as they seem to be in the U.S.
America’s climate denial population percentage is between 13%-18% — the highest in the developed world.[xvi] And while 85% of self-described liberal Democrats believe in human-caused climate change, only 14% of conservative Republicans do.[xvii]
So while EU circular fashion policy proposals can be looked to as models to apply to the U.S., I wonder: how successfully can they be transferred here, and — most importantly, how quickly? — when conditions on the ground are so different?
The analogy that comes to mind — one that leaves me in a cold sweat — is universal healthcare. There are plenty of models of well-functioning universal healthcare systems around the world that America could have adopted by now if there had been public support and political will to do so. Yet how — from an outsider’s point of view — is it possible we still haven’t managed to?
How is it the U.S. can be on the forefront of so many scientific and technological innovations and advances, while so lagging behind when it comes to basic social services like universal healthcare, predicated on the idea that society as a whole is better served when all its members are afforded certain basic human dignities?
Our structure of government hasn’t helped.
Limited government is at the root of America’s founding as a nation. It’s baked into our federalist system, with power sharing split between the federal and state governments. In particular, the doctrine of states’ rights has long worked to curtail the scope of the federal government’s reach.
The 10th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the federal government from interfering with any rights granted to the states or to individuals. And rights granted to the states are further defined as everything other than those specifically granted federal control (whether through the Constitution, or through laws or regulations established by Federal Agencies, Congress, or the Supreme Court).
Much of America’s history has unfolded as a conflict between states’ rights and federal authority — most notably, of course, the dispute over slavery, which led to the Civil War.
This continual push and pull between federal and state authority has yielded certain historical patterns over time — namely, a tendency for major progressive reforms, enacted at the federal level, to be followed by a wave of states’ rights, anti-government backlash.
On key social and environmental issues, in my opinion, it’s one reason we lag so far behind Europe. For every progressive step we take forward, we seem to wait another half-century or more while anti-government political forces drag us a half step back, and progress stalls for decades.
Perhaps the most egregious example in American history is what happened after Reconstruction in the South, when a contested presidential election in 1876 led to a compromise over federal enforcement vs. state sovereignty in ensuring compliance with the 14th Amendment (guaranteeing “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens — namely, recently-freed African Americans).
In exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops deployed throughout the South, states promised to honor these equal protections. Instead, they immediately began to enact Jim Crow segregation laws at the state level. It took a massive Civil Rights movement to finally undo these laws through federal legislation, which didn’t happen until 1964 and 65, under Lyndon Johnson.
Yet, in a familiar pattern (which Johnson predicted), another backlash arose in reaction, and the make-up of the modern GOP began to take shape.
Southern white Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) who still embraced states’ rights — code, at this point, for segregation — shifted from the Democratic to Republican party, attracted by Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of using coded anti-Black language.
Since then, calls for states’ rights have continued as a check against the perceived overreach of federal authority, often in a way that blends laissez faire economics with Lee Atwater racial dog whistling. Reagan famously launched his 1980 presidential campaign in rural Mississippi with the words, “I believe in states’ rights.” And he became famous for the slogan, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” (Not coincidentally, Reagan’s conversion from liberal to conservative grew out of his time working for General Electric, where he was mentored by a strongly anti-labor, corporate CEO.) [xviii]
I delve into this history at such length for a reason.
While states’ rights is not inherently partisan, it’s had a specific history in the U.S. since the Civil War. Under the banner of defending freedom against tyranny, it’s actually been used to prevent excluded groups from gaining freedoms, through wider participatory democracy. It’s been a rallying cry against a specific kind of government intervention; namely, intervention as protection — against disenfranchisement; against attempts to block school integration after Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954; and against legalized segregation after 1964.
In each case, federal authority played the role of protector. And states’ rights advocates lost.
But since the Reagan revolution, you could loosely say that states’ rights champions have had the rhetorical upper hand. Anti-government sentiment has dominated the mainstream, and national progressive legislation has been stymied. America developed an allergic reaction to anything that hinted at collective action. The mere mention of regulations led (and still leads) to charges of “socialism!” from the right.
Meanwhile, anti-government big business voices have used a similar rhetorical jiu-jitsu.
Government authority exercised in an effort to protect workers from being exploited or underpaid; to protect consumers from being harmed by industries intent on profit-making, as in the lead paint example; and to protect the environment from the excesses of extractive industries — is labeled big, bad, and out to get you. Corporations simply trying to exercise their market freedoms are said to be unfairly taxed and regulated.
Somehow, the victimizer becomes the victim.
While it is absolutely true that a powerful central government corrupted and misused, with no checks on its authority, can be a force of great evil, it is also true that a government, restored to health and used well, to safeguard the rights and health of the underserved and excluded, could be a force for good.
Since at least 1980, as well, it’s frankly been difficult for any major progressive reform to get through both houses of Congress and the Presidency.
Even under Center-Left administrations (Clinton, Obama), progressive policies have always had to be balanced against business interests and states’ rights defenders. While Obama’s Affordable Care Act might fall into the category of sweeping legislative change, the reality is that its framework essentially kept the private healthcare industry in place, and with Medicaid expansion, states were given the choice to opt out. At best, then, Obamacare amounted to a first step only, which now needs further reform but may already be on the chopping block if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Partly, I think, because passage of federal legislation can be so difficult, reforms at the state-level are often the default mechanism by which progressive laws are first introduced (the idea of states as “laboratories of democracy.”). Only later (if ever) are they adopted and codified at the national level, whether through Congressional legislation, Federal Agency regulations, or Supreme Court rulings. The lead paint ban is an example. Same-sex marriage is a more recent one, decided by the Supreme Court.
In this way, progressive policy and legislative efforts can take shape as a slow rolling wave that can take decades to move through the American system. Often it requires a seismic shake-up to generate enough of a social movement that national politicians take up the cause and find a path toward legislative consensus.
In the absence of political will at the federal level, though, only piecemeal progress at the state-level remains possible; often restricted to blue states.
And if you want to know what happens when a colossal problem is left to the states to resolve, you have only to look at the current state of the COVID pandemic in the U.S., compared to other developed countries.
Thanks to a President concerned only with short-term stock market gains at the expense of public health and human lives; thanks to a complete abrogation of federal responsibility; the burden fell to state governors and city mayors to establish policies and practices and move ahead with local solutions.
While some acted responsibly, coordinating with other states and local leaders to successfully bring the virus spread under control, a group of Trump-allied governors bucked the science and refused to play in the collective sandbox.
Backed by a percentage of the population that adopted COVID-denialism and anti-mask freedom-from-government-tyranny as an ideological stance, they have allowed the virus to spread uncontrollably, and the country as a whole continues to flounder.
With national collective action toward achieving carbon neutrality, America faces a similar resistance.
So while the progressive in me would love to see the U.S. follow in Europe’s footsteps (or that of other developed nations), the realist in me looks at the condition of our republic; the anti-scientific, anti-environmental setbacks already achieved by the current administration, the ideological leanings of a third of the population, their representatives in Congress, and their increasing dominance of the courts; plus the reality of monied interests still deeply enmeshed in the political system, and it’s easy to despair about our odds for success.
Just as we have failed to keep pace with the rest of the developed world in containing COVID over months, and in implementing any number of progressive measures over decades, there are reasons to feel pessimistic.
Yet isn’t our only chance of overcoming these obstacles first recognizing and acknowledging them aloud?
In America, there is a tendency to put a positive spin on everything; a tacit pressure not to voice uncomfortable truths in public; to call a spade something other than a spade. I find this especially true within the business community.
It’s why I feel American industry, fashion-specific, but more generally, too, is in need of a bigger wake-up call; a bigger jolt to the system; and a bigger shift in mindset, than our European counterparts.
And the world needs to understand the nature of the beast they are dealing with.
We are handicapped by a system that’s meant to protect the individual against tyranny, which doesn’t always work well toward forms of collective action.
We have powerful forces of enormous wealth and influence that are determined to stay the current course or make only superficial tweaks to it; who are unable or unwilling to think about what’s best for the collective whole: planetary health, basic human dignities, and equal rights for all.
And we have an ideology of individualism gone alarmingly berserk (and ironically taking shape as an example of extreme group-think), with a percentage of the population that, even under a Biden win, will remain locked in a bubble of anti-science, anti-government unreality — including an increasingly dangerous contingent that espouses violent solutions to prevent what it sees as a threat to its demographic and cultural primacy.
It’s hard to see how we “course correct” unless enough of us push for systemic government reforms, combined with bold policy changes, centered on the public interest first, and private sector interests only second; a government eager to partner with private sector actors without selling out to the demands of a particular few.
Business leaders inclined to hew to the status quo — to literally maintain business as usual — have to decide if they’re going to become partners to this movement with more than half-hearted commitment. Or if they’re going to continue to vote their pocketbooks because they’re wedded to the idea of lower taxes and deregulation.
As I write, it’s hard not to give in to pessimism. Even with a Biden win, we are already so close to the edge of an anti-democratic cliff that it’s hard to see how we right the ship. Our social fabric is already severely frayed; destabilized by a destructive narcissist who, now anticipating likely defeat, seems bent on taking the entire system down with him if he can’t stay in power. We are in danger of more institutional collapse and even the possibility of violent conflict. The situation feels that precarious.
But if there is ample cause for pessimism, there is also reason for hope.
First, if Biden can pull through and the Senate can be flipped — and this looks increasingly promising — we can at least begin to stanch the bleeding. Biden has already been pushed toward bolder action on climate policy. And according to a Pew Research poll from June, 2020, “nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the federal government should act more aggressively to combat climate change.”[xix]
Second, if America can avert a brush with fascism (let’s call it what it is) and manage a peaceful transfer of power, we are due for another pendulum swing. And many signs point to it.
As (liberal) economist Robert Reich points out, public trust has swung back and forth between government and business over the past century. From the end of World War I, through the administrations of Coolidge and Hoover, business was ascendant, until what was seen as a private sector failing in pulling us out of the Great Depression led to a loss of public faith in business and the election of FDR.
With the New Deal, the social and economic mobilization achieved in World War II, and post-war efforts like the GI Bill and the interstate highway system, a fifty-year period of government ascendancy followed, until it came to an end in the Reagan revolution.
My sense is that we are at a similar, pre-FDR inflection point.
If it takes generational upheaval to create a seismic shift in public consciousness — enough that the pendulum starts to swing in the opposite direction (to mix metaphors) — the signs are there that even the government-averse body politic in America may have reached its limit with the kind of hyper-capitalist engine in overdrive that has given us Big Oil, fast fashion, and a short-sighted, take-make-waste linear business model, with no regard for environmental or human consequences.
The rise of B Corps, the conscious capitalism movement, business for good, and impact investing are certainly beginning to challenge the ideology of putting shareholder profit above all else.
And since the emergence of Bernie Sanders and AOC on the political stage, too, the stigma of the “socialist!” charge has lost some of its sting. Young people especially seem to understand that what they are advocating is more Scandinavian mixed economy than Soviet seizing of the means of production. So perhaps regulations, too, will cease to be a dirty word.
If the pattern of U.S. history is any indication, climate progressives may have the winds at their backs. We are seeing a real moment of cultural change and protest, as the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement has shown.
While not quite at the same level yet, climate awareness is on the ascent, with the intensity of the wildfires on the West Coast seeming to have (no pun intended) caught fire in the American public consciousness.
Perhaps the worm is turning, and quickly, too.
Returning to Rebecca Henderson, she cites the example of Denmark as a country that found a way to combine a competitive free market with a strong welfare state through the collaboration of business with government. She also speaks of the role of the business community in strengthening democracy in countries like Chile, South Africa, and Germany.
Most of all, she warns:
“Business must renounce its political power and lobby hard against money in politics. It must take action to strengthen the very institutions that can oppose corporate interests. Business can be a valued contributor to the policy conversation, but only when consumers, experts, labor unions, and grassroots organizations are all playing a strong role. Otherwise, corporations’ engagement in politics is dangerously destabilizing.”
I hope American fashion companies in particular will heed this call to take action toward reforming government and strengthening our democratic institutions, even knowing those institutions may oppose corporate interests, as Henderson makes clear.
This does not discount any of the collective efforts already underway through private sector channels. But it does mean recognizing that without federal involvement, collaboration, and oversight, it won’t be possible to bring all businesses along in the necessary timeframe.
Ironically, when it comes to fossil fuels, you could argue it was actually the formidable role of federal policy that put us on the wrong footing.
In his article, “2020 Is Our Last, Best Chance to Save the Planet,” Justin Worland beautifully summarizes the history of how we got to the brink of climate catastrophe:
“We find ourselves on the brink of climate catastrophe in large part because of the decisions made during a past crisis. As the world came out of the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. launched a rapid bid to remake the global economy–running on fossil fuels. In the first postwar years, Americans moved to suburbs and began driving gas-guzzling cars to work, while the federal government built a highway system to connect the country for those vehicles. The single biggest line item in the Marshall Plan, the U.S. government program that funded the European recovery, went to support oil, which ensured that the continent’s economy would also run on that fossil fuel. Meanwhile, plastic, an oil derivative, became the go-to building block for consumer goods after the U.S. had developed production capacity for use in World War II.”
“The underlying philosophy of economic development in this time period was a focus on gross national product, a term developed by U.S. government economists during the Depression, which included consumption as a proxy for prosperity: the more we consume, the better off we are, according to this model, which, in the postwar era, the U.S. assiduously spread abroad. The promise of endless growth also required an endless supply of oil to power factories, automobiles and jet planes. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sealed a deal with Ibn Saud, the first King of Saudi Arabia, trading security for access to the country’s vast oil reserves. Every U.S. President since, implicitly or explicitly, has continued that exchange.”[xx]
But while you could say that federal policy (wittingly or unwittingly) set us in the wrong direction toward global warming, it’s hard to deny just how effective federal action was throughout that era, and how it largely worked in the interest of the collective whole. (I say largely, because in many ways, it specifically did not work for African Americans.)
Government has so shifted hands since that period that it has nullified its responsibility toward anything other than plutocracy, oligarchy, and now autocracy. Even the Republican Party of Reagan has morphed within a few short years into the party of Trump.
So, civic minds — including business minds — first need to help the public reclaim government from the corrupt forces that have co-opted it. And then, let’s hope they can cooperate with it, instead of trying to keep it at arm’s length or bend it toward their will.
America was understandably afraid of the tyranny of government at its founding. But the truth is that a cultural and ideological tyranny of anti-government sentiment has kept us from being able to work toward good governance for too long now. Paradoxically, it’s left us vulnerable to the very threat of tyranny it was intended to protect us against.
We desperately need good governance to make a comeback — supported, not thwarted, by business, and restored so that it can again act as a protector of rights and orchestrator of collective action — to enact meaningful environmental and social policy changes before it’s too late.
The consequences for global decarbonization efforts without U.S. participation are too dire.
[ii] https://www.nweurope.eu/media/8244/fibersort-52-policy-recommendations-20191030.pdf, with thanks to Hilde van Duijn, Senior Project Manager Circle Textiles, Circle Economy.