LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman Bernard Arnault made headlines last month when he addressed one specific breed of climate activism. Speaking at the Paris-based conglomerate’s sustainability event in September, Arnault criticized 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s “catastrophism”-centric approach to fighting climate change, calling her views “demoralizing for young people,” and arguing that she is not “proposing anything, aside from criticism.” Arnault said he “prefer[s] positive solutions that allow us to get towards a more optimistic position.”
As it turns out, Arnault – who is fashion’s richest man and the second wealthiest individual in the world thanks to his arsenal of luxury goods companies, which range from fashion brands like Louis Vuitton, Dior, Givenchy, Celine, Fendi, and Berluti to a long list of Wine & Spirits companies, including Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon, and Hennessy – is not the only high-powered fashion figure speaking out against this approach to addressing the rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Karl-Johan Persson, the CEO of apparel giant H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB is calling out what he says is a pattern of consumer shaming. As Bloomberg reported on Sunday, “Persson, the 44-year-old H&M CEO and son of its billionaire chairman, is speaking out as a pattern of shaming that initially targeted air travelers spreads into more industries, including his.” The publication notes that “the movement has gained traction as Thunberg inspires millions of people across the globe to take to the streets and voice their anger over what she says is a climate crisis.”
Many of the protests are “about ‘stop doing things, stop consuming, stop flying’,” Persson said in a recent interview. “Yes, that may lead to a small environmental impact, but it will have terrible social consequences,” including a lack of new job creation and “all the things that come with economic growth,” a sentiment that echoes Arnualt’s statement that “if we don’t want to go backwards, we still need growth.”
Instead of engaging in a pattern of consumer shaming, Persson – whose company generated $21.7 billion in sales in 2018 – proposed “environmental innovation, renewable energy, improved materials” as better ways address climate change.
In much the same way that Arnault’s approach has been met with criticism, and Persson’s will likely garner even more pushback given the significant ties between the rise of the fast fashion industry – which relies on the consistent manufacturing of huge volumes of largely disposable garments and accessories – and the acceleration of environmental harm. In recent years, in particular, researchers have pointed to the fast fashion model as one of the key drivers of “the [current] era of hyper-consumption,” with clothing production and consumption doubling from 2000 to 2014.
The myth of the fashion industry being the “second most polluting industry in the world” has been debunked, but the fact remains that fashion is still responsible for 20 percent of global wastewater and about 10 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program – with those figures are only expected to increase. And thanks to growing movements like the one pioneered by Thunberg, consumers are starting to pay attention.
The thing is: these mega-brands are not going to reconfigure their operations to prioritize less output over more. As Bloomberg’s Andrea Felsted wrote early this month, “Arnault’s business depends on shoppers, especially young ones, buying lots of unnecessary stuff, from Christian Dior saddlebags to expensive lipsticks from pop star Rihanna’s Fenty range.” This is true for Persson’s H&M, which offers up t-shirts for as little as $4.99 and knitted cardigans for $12.99, as well.
As such, they will need to figure out ways to handle the threat of consumer protests, especially among coveted millennial and Gen-Z consumers. After all, “Fretting about an impending environmental catastrophe, and worrying that your purchases are contributing to it, is hardly conducive to a spot of retail therapy,” Felsted aptly states.