Sponsoring sustainable brands and events is becoming more and more popular - but why? We discuss whether it is greenwashing or whether it is making a real contribution
Author: House of Eden
Current discussions about the fashion industry are surprising. Instead of teasers for upcoming collections or news about the "Who's Who" of the Fashion Weeks, a trend-setting slogan comes to the fore: sustainability. In addition to small labels that have demonstrated sustainable and ethical commitment since their foundation, fashion giants are now also positioning themselves as engines of change. By committing to sustainability agendas, entering into collaborations and sponsoring sustainable brands or events.
The latest example: The Zalando Sustainability Award, which was presented at the Copenhagen Fashion Week . And that, whereby the CPHFW is considered as a pioneer in terms of sustainable fashion weeks, while Zalando is not really associated with sustainability so far. But rather with a wide, constantly expanding range of brands and short delivery times. It is therefore no wonder that this development is provoking controversial reactions. But definitely a reason for discussion. Sponsored Sustainability Events - Greenwashing or a step in the right direction?
Source & Copyright by Copenhagen Fashion Week
Take one step back: Why do brands want to become sponsors at all?
Julia Leifert, designer for sustainable high-end fashion is personally affected and asks herself the same question, due to potential collaborations: Is this greenwashing or real commitment? Her opinion: "As sponsors of certain events, big brands first and foremost hope for a certain image. At the same time, they offer the cooperation partners a platform that makes them more visible, which they otherwise would often not have. Basically, I see this development as positive, if the big players don't try to distort the message for their own benefit and tend to stay in the background as supporters. "
Due to the worsening climate crisis, sustainability is becoming a crucial future issue for many brands. And thus also those who have not anchored environmental protection inherently in their company DNA. This is an important step, because that's the only way climate goals can be achieved. Often, however, sustainable commitments are questioned. Too often greenwashing is becoming the real case - image building and profit seem to compensate for the sincere pursuit of change.
The reason why image building through sustainability is becoming more and more popular is the current Zeitgeist: Target groups request sustainability as part of their modern lifestyle. For some brands the logical consequence for this is, to wash their image green. When it comes to sponsorship, this worry gets even louder. What is the intention of the sponsorship? Do companies really want to become more sustainable or do they want to compensate for their weaknesses by connecting to responsible brands?
"As supporters, sponsors can enable positive change" - Julia Leifert, New Luxury pioneer and designer
Julia Leifert, fashion designer
Collaboration as a win-win situation
In the future it is important to reduce trends: Less fashion cycles, collections and shows. But therefore more collaboration. Through collaboration, brands can only launch one collection with a greater impact. Less costs for the environment, but increased range, ethics and future orientation. While both partners have a certain added value and can benefit from each other. And that also applies to sponsored events.
"Cooperation between different players is not new in the history of fashion. For some time now, I have been observing an increasing number of large companies, that have so far not given much attention to the topic of sustainability and are now trying to benefit from the changing demand of younger customers for transparent and responsible brand messages, who are looking for fashion's answers to the climate crisis. These companies do not have the opportunity to act more sustainably overnight. However, they have financial resources, which small sustainable players rarely have", says Julia Leifert.
So there is also the capital factor. Sponsoring not only funds events, but it can also ensure that sustainable companies are given a platform and financial resources to promote their awareness and growth. "While in the end only time can tell whether industry giants are sticking to their ambitious plans, sponsoring can be a real opportunity now. A real opportunity for small companies, as long as they act on an equal footing and the big players don't try to be something they are actually not", continues Leifert.
Source MBFW, Backstage @ I'VR Isabel Vollrath. Image by Tim Sonntag / büro bungalow
See the gaps: credibility through transparency
However, this model of sponsoring, which adds value to large and small players can only work under the condition of radical transparency. Brands that are realigning their focus on sustainability can commit to a sustainability agenda under public scrutiny. In such scenarios, greenwashing is counteracted by the fact that transparency enables the verifiability of credibility.
Also an expert Mirjam Smend , who is the founder of Greenstyle Munich, is confronted with this issue. In an exclusive statement for Haus von Eden, the fair fashion visionary refers to her experiences: "As the organizer of a fair fashion conference, we also speak to companies that are not traditionally from the sustainable corner. In this context, we are concerned with the intention: Do these companies buy in (= greenwashing) or do they have a clearly defined and recognisable commitment to sustainability."
Source Greenstyle, Copyright by DAWN Denim
But what happens if this transparency is not guaranteed? Without open communication of corporate goals and deficits, only a supposedly empty promise remains. Smend also highlights the risk of collaboration and the responsibilities that come with it. "It is very difficult: On the one hand, as small organizers and brands, we are dependent on financial support, in order to be able to transform the textile industry. On the other hand, if we choose the wrong partner, we give companies visibility and credibility which don't deserve it."
"With our communication we also bear responsibility for how the sustainability topic is perceived by the public", Mirjam Smend Fair Fashion Visionary
Summits as knowledge mediator and sponsorship guide
Mirjam Smend is convinced that collaborations such as Zalando x CPHFW will increase significantly in the future. "The greatest challenge for consumers will be, to differentiate between true sustainability and greenwashing. An important focus of our work is therefore on knowledge transfer - through the topics on our website and above all through our on- and offline conferences like the Responsible Fashion Summit. "
As a potential solution to the lacking transparency, it is essential to close knowledge gaps and to support innovation. Sponsored events also offer a platform for exchanging know-how. More and more summits are proving how this can work. Conference formats like the SDG Summit, the GREENSTYLE (Responsible) Fashion Summit or the 202030 - The Berlin Fashion Summit deal with the transformation to a sustainable fashion economy through existing sustainability innovations and pragmatic guidelines.
In this conference format, experts discuss future issues and sustainability requirements concerning the whole industry. A participation in events like this, can promote the competence of companies and lay the foundation for being a credible sponsor in the future.
No-list statement against greenwashing
In addition, clearly defined guidelines can help to prevent greenwashing. Particularly important: regulations for the qualification of sponsors. Despite the step-by-step mindset and the ambition to become more sustainable, there are practices for which there is uncompromising zero tolerance. Our no-list shows which practices should be involved:
- No tolerance for child labor
- Fair wages and working conditions
- No animal suffering
- No use of toxic pollutants
Plus the reduction of carbon emissions, energy and water consumption as well as waste should be part of the agenda. In addition, strategies for green fleets and digital solutions. This also applies to events. Because even if they are in the name of sustainability, events cause an environmental impact such as energy costs or carbon emissions and maybe even put pressure on designers to produce more styles.
Conclusion: Sponsoring - great potential with great responsibility
Between all the pros and cons, it becomes clear that there is no clear answer to the question of whether sponsorship of sustainability events by major players is greenwashing or commitment. But one thing is clear, namely that sustainability needs more stages and reach. And this can work through financial support and visibility. The prerequisite for sponsoring with a positive impact are transparency, guidelines and exchange.
It is also essential to understand sustainability as a process. Or, in the words of Julia Leifert in an interview: "It is important to start somewhere - 100% is not a short-term goal, but a vision". Since there can be no holistic sustainability from zero to one hundred, it is important to gradually get involved and improve - also through sponsorship. If a large player positions itself transparently, inquisitively and with a strong will to change, sponsoring becomes a legitimate part of the process on the way to sustainability.