Sustainable fashion is no longer a fringe element of the clothing and accessories industry; it’s rapidly becoming the standard — or at the very least an aspiration — for leading designers and manufacturers of all stripes, from Stella McCartney to H&M to Tiffany & Co. These fashion producers are working to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the clothes we buy, and especially of cheaply made items created to be worn for a brief period and then discarded.
The heart of the sustainability movement is a commitment to creating quality products with eco-friendly fabrics, clean factories, and fair labor practices. Millennials and Gen Z are instrumental in demanding these changes. A recent survey shows that 57% of consumers want products manufactured sustainably, and 26% are willing to pay more for them. As a result, the industry is pouring millions into these efforts.
And as with any trend driving consumer spending today, counterfeiters are flooding the market, and especially online shopping channels, with counterfeit copies of branded items that appear to be authentic.
The economy and the planet suffer as a consequence.
How often does it happen?
A quick survey of sustainability leaders suggests it’s a growing problem. Here are just three globally recognized and respected clothing brands whose committed (and expensive) efforts to embrace sustainable manufacturing are being undermined by massive amounts of product counterfeiting.
The North Face
North Face has taken a more aggressive approach to sustainability in recent years, incorporating more recycled materials into their products, designing them for longevity, and working with suppliers to reduce environmental pollution. They have also established "Clothes the Loop," a program that rewards consumers for recycling their North Face clothing by dropping it off at one of their stores.
Sustainable or not, the brand's popularity has made it one of the most counterfeited brands in the world, with 17,995 seizures in 2013 alone.
Levi Strauss and Company is the most well-known denim brand in the world. Their massive production of blue jeans was also particularly hard on the environment, requiring innumerable gallons of water every year. Recognizing their negative impact, Levi execs have taken decisive steps to reduce their ecological footprint. They established supplier water quality standards, a restricted substances list, and financial incentives for suppliers to improve health, safety, and labor standards. Their Water<Less jeans use up to 96% less water to produce than regular jeans.
It’s a safe bet that counterfeiters imitating Levi’s products are not investing in the same innovations. Levi’s jeans are still relentlessly counterfeited around the world, with their classic 501s and 550s among the world's most popular fakes.
Iconic clothing brand Ralph Lauren is known for quality and class and, like other companies sensitive to consumer demands, is working hard to produce its products more sustainably. The company has joined with others to help eliminate the use of certain wood-based fabrics whose cultivation endanger rain forests. They also focus on creating durable, classic fashion that lasts season after season.
Unfortunately, Ralph Lauren also suffers from a huge counterfeiting industry, especially on its logo polo shirts.
Counterfeiting and Sustainability
These and other companies financially suffer from these fake items, but their sustainability efforts do as well. Counterfeiters have no financial or social incentive to follow environmental standards, respect their labor force, or use eco-friendly materials. Counterfeit vegan leather has been found steeped in toxic chemicals, for example, and counterfeit watches and jewelry often use dangerous metals instead of safe but pricier ones.
Adding insult to injury, a shocking number of consumers who buy fake products are being tricked by authentic looking stores and online ads: They truly believe their purchase is supporting a sustainable brand and a greener future.
Siphoning profits away from brands investing in sustainability breaks the critical connection between responsibility, reputation and revenue, with long-term consequences for everyone.
And finally, don’t forget these fakes have to be destroyed, adding bulk to the nation's landfills.
Major companies have made great strides in their sustainability efforts but the road ahead is likely to be long, arduous, and expensive for many. Keeping the industry on track to a safer and more sustainable future will require a concerted, collaborative effort from everyone from designers, manufacturers, and retailers to the consumers who “buy the future” with every purchase.
Stopping fakes from ripping off responsible, sustainable brands and brand customers is an important first step.
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