Founded in 1984, in Vancouver, Canada, the women-specific fashion boutique operates 96 stores across North America and has a glossy e-commerce presence that ships worldwide. At the upper echelons of the fast fashion market, producing trendy clothing overseas at a rapid rate with a relatively accessible cost –the average t-shirt selling for $40– Aritzia has pivoted itself as one of Canada’s most sought after high street brands for the conscious and fashionable consumer and a bonafide cult-classic amongst Canadian shoppers.
But can a brand that imports all its influencer-approved sweatsuits and puffer jackets from the Global South at an alarming rate, be truly as sustainable as they claim? Or are we consumers seeing the brand through the greenwashing filter?
According to the World Bank:
“The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. At this pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will surge more than 50% by 2030.”
With the Arbor index in place, let’s see how Aritzia’s claims hold up.
- Emissions 2/5
- Environment Care 3/5
- Environmental innovation 2/5
- Materials 2/5
As of 2019, Aritzia claims 100% carbon neutrality; however, the brand’s Arbor Emissions score only rates 2/5. Why does a brand that boasts such high standards for environmental initiatives score so low?
Not to mention an equally low ranking for Environmental Innovations and Materials.
According to Aritzia:
In order to achieve carbon neutrality, we’ve taken a dual approach:
- To compensate for the carbon emitted through our use of electricity, we’re purchasing Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) that go towards wind energy projects in Oklahoma and Manitoba.
- To offset the carbon emitted through our use of natural gas, we’re partnering with EcoAct to invest in Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) certified Carbon Offsets.
Both are common tools of diversification used by companies to lower their emissions footprint without necessarily having to make direct changes to their operations. By investing in off-sets and RECs, heavy-hitting fast fashion brands like Aritzia – that manufacture garments in a myriad of facilities overseas and then ship and distribute their product all over North America– are able to continue to produce and pollute in the same capacity because these off-sets and credit schemes usually take place outside of their production’s line of fire. In the race to reverse the effects of climate change, is this shell game of sustainability worth betting the planet on?
First let’s unpack the business of Renewable Energy Credits. These guys are the currency of the renewable energy market. They represent a company’s legal ownership of the environmental attributes of renewable electricity that is generated. A credit is created every megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity generated and delivered to the electrical power grid from a renewable and clean source such as wind or solar power. These credits can then be sold on the open-market proving a huge incentive for companies to “Go Green.”
According to Aritzia's sustainability program, the credits are being used to invest in renewable energy projects in Oklahoma and Manitoba, but are not necessarily used for supplying clean and renewable energy within Aritzia’s business and supply chain operations.
There is no oversight process required to keep the use of RECs accountable. Once they are bought and sold, the credit itself can be traced, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is going directly to fund a renewable power source.
So that takes us to Aritzia’s second approach: carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is a way for companies to invest in green energy initiatives to balance out their own carbon footprints. This step is typically done to reduce carbon emissions outside of a company’s direct business operations or supply chains. So instead of taking the costly steps to implement permanent changes within their operations, companies like Aritiza can spend less by investing in other industries or in offsetting projects in the Global South. Even though a widely circulated 2017 study by the EU showed that 85% of offsets failed to reduce emissions.
By investing in offsets and carbon credits, Aritzia gets to skirt around actually addressing the issues within their company or their direct supply chain by continuing to emit in the exact same capacity but purchase to balance it all out. Since the fashion industry is the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gas on the planet, their investment of carbon offsets is no different than the oil and gas industry continuing to extract resources from the Earth at a continuously alarming rate but boosting a diversification into wind energy.
Instead of addressing the environmentally devastating rates of production required to keep up with the speed of consumerism in fast-fashion they are relying on band-aid solutions in lieu of finding solutions that directly address the industry’s impact.
- Community 3/5
- Human Rights 3/5
From a Vox breakdown on fast fashion:
“...because of social media, the average person can now publicly document their life in outfits. The rise of influencer culture and marketing has opened up a niche for fast fashion brands, specifically online retailers, to flourish. Thanks to social media’s constantly changing, visually-driven nature, brands have developed a symbiotic relationship with popular celebrities and influencers, like the Kardashians, who have the ability to turn whatever they wear into an instant trend.”
Fast fashion is a revolving door. Garment workers in the Global South produce clothing to meet the insatiable appetite of the more privileged consumer in the Global North, only to be discarded or donated after a few months of wearing. Most charities can only sell up to 25% of donated items, while the rest is exported back to the Global South in either landfills in Haiti or India or in reseller markets like Kantamanto in Ghana –read this fascinating look into Kantamanto for Fashion Revolution here.
With all this in mind, we can see why a mega-retailer like Aritzia has an Arbor Human Rights score of 3 out of 5.
“E-flow tech” and “Green Screen” sounds cool and all, but are they enough? Image Source: Aritzia
Aritzia’s supply change is hard to pin down. A deep dive into their website and not much turns up when it comes to production, manufacturing, transport, or well –much of anything. Sure there is quite a bit about there community partners, organizations, and initiatives they donate to and support (you can find that here and here) and even where their clothing ends up that they can’t sell, like working the Vancouver company, Debrand, which finds alternative end-of-life mechanisms to reuse unsold items that can’t be donated or sold in other markets. But little is listed about the start-of-life. Who are the farmers, weavers, dyers, and sewers –the proverbial threads that hold the fashion industry together?
According to their website:
“We work with approximately 80 finished goods suppliers across apparel and accessories in 13 countries, including China, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Romania, Italy, Peru ,Sri Lanka, Philippines, Portugal, Turkey, USA and Greece. To date our audit focus has been on finished goods suppliers. In 2020, this focus is expanding to include fabric and trim suppliers as we are conscious that certain employment conditions deeper in supply chains may represent a more significant risk of forced and trafficked labour. Aritzia sources from approximately 120 suppliers of fabrics and 40 suppliers of trims globally including key countries such as China, Japan, Italy and others.”
We reached out directly to Aritzia for some transparency intel on their supply chain – like specific locations of the factories, their environmental standards, and the working conditions of the garment workers– and the response: "We currently don’t publicly share specific information on the factories we work with."
Acknowledging the risks and abuses that take place in the fashion industry are crucial and a solid step in the right direction, but responsible sustainability isn’t possible without a corporation’s willingness to be held accountable and to open up dialogue about transparency within their full supply chain.
Like all fast fashion brands, Aritzia is consumer driven and change will only be brought on through us, the consumer. With some tough love, education, and a little elbow grease, it is on us to drive for, and demand that these companies change for the better.