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Does Fashion Activism Actually Work?

Greenpeace launched its Detox campaign seven years ago. Here's how the industry has changed since then.

In an age in which activism is so much part of the zeitgeist that rallies are appearing as backdrops in ad campaigns for the likes of Gucci and catwalks are staged to look like marches, it can be easy to wonder what's actually being accomplished. Does our urge to use fashion to #resist actually translate to real change, or is it more about making us feel good rather than actually doing good?

Not all resistance-fueled actions are created equal, of course, but a brand-new report from Greenpeace suggests that the right kind of fashion-related activism actually can make a difference. In the seven years since the environmental advocacy group first launched its Detox campaign, aimed at encouraging fashion and retail companies to phase out hazardous chemicals in the supply chain, a real dent has been made in changing awareness, attitudes and practices in the industry.

"The launch of the Detox Campaign in 2011 was a clear wake-up call for the whole industry," head of corporate sustainability for Puma Stefan Seidel shared in the introduction to the report.

Since the Detox campaign's launch, Greenpeace has used a multi-pronged approach to its anti-hazardous-chemical activism. It has conducted original research by testing water near manufacturing sites to prove their contamination and link them to specific companies that were previously unwilling to admit culpability. It has launched creative campaigns to raise awareness of the effects of fashion industry-related chemical pollutants. It has created petitions to prove consumer support for protective legislation. 

And this multifaceted strategy has worked. Since its inception, 80 brands — including H&M, Inditex and Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing — have committed to detoxing their supply chains. Almost all of the Detox-committed brands now implement regular wastewater testing. Legislation has begun to change, too, as Greenpeace research showed that some chemicals banned in the EU were still ending up in EU waterways because they were embedded in the clothing that EU nations had manufactured overseas. And awareness of the importance of supply chain ethics and transparency has begun to take a real foothold both inside the industry and out.

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"The Detox Commitment gave us input to define challenging goals that go beyond single regulations and foster the involvement of the whole supply chain," said head of product compliance and sustainability at Valentino, Riccardo De Pol.

That's not to say that the Detox campaign has been perfect. There are still plenty of challenges facing the industry before it can become truly non-toxic, and the fact that global supply chains are huge, complex and hard to properly track beyond the first or second tier is part of that. That so few luxury brands signed onto the Detox commitment is also frustrating, as high-end labels have the potential to spark great change when they do decide to take action.

Still, that the Detox campaign has accomplished as much as it has is a reminder that fashion activism that's undertaken with strategic planning, commitment and persistence really does have the potential to overturn the status quo.

As the report itself stated, "none of these developments would have happened without the engagement of Detox supporters and activists from around the globe, via creative protests, petitioning and advocacy."

Read the full Greenpeace report here.

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