In an era of ecological crisis, we need experts as influencers

Andrew Martin, Executive Vice President of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, explains the need for academic climate experts to cut through over-simplified, binary campaign narratives to drive policy change. 

woman riding kayak at the middle of the sea

Unicorns don’t exist. Neither do hobgoblins. But when it comes to sustainability narratives, it sometimes seems like we’re living in a fairytale.

In real life, there are no absolute heroes and villains. Things are far more complicated. And yet, one of the world’s main barriers when it comes to meeting essential sustainability goals is a widespread release, and belief, in overly simplistic, binary narratives.

This is where we need academic and expert minds to weigh in. We need you to bring the nuance and clarity that’s needed to achieve progress for our planet and its people.

Flawed environmental claims are holding us back from driving real progress.
When sustainability narratives, claims, and campaigns don’t reflect real-life complexities and nuances, they often lack the integrity and accuracy required to drive credible action. And that’s the last thing we need – especially when facing the fact that global temperatures may exceed 1.5°C for the first time this year.

Flawed environmental claims aren’t just bad marketing, they are hindering our chances of reaching essential sustainability targets. Research by the Forum for the Future on microfiber solutions found that a key barrier to change was ‘over-simplistic comparisons as solutions.’ This is likely to be the case across many topics and industries.

Brands and manufacturers are trying to future-proof their businesses. Policymakers, campaigners, and consumers are hungry to do the right thing. However, a lack of research, rigor, and good practice is resulting in simple claims and campaigns that do not reflect the complex reality. Once these flawed claims are amplified, they can become sustainability ‘truths.’ This is where we need science to step in.

It’s not all black or white.
My expertise sits within the textile and apparel industry. I recently spoke to a room of scientists and academics at the Textile World Institute Conference on the need for sustainability and circularity narratives, claims and campaigns to reflect the complexities and nuances of their reality. A case in point is the idea that conventional cotton production isn’t the wicked witch, nor is organic a charming prince.

The reality, like life generally, is far more nuanced. Sustainability covers such a wide range of issues beyond organic certification – including water usage and fair working conditions, for starters. Spinning methods, dyeing, and finishing processes often change the environmental impact of a textile more than the nature of the raw material. A textile production facility might use natural fibers but mismanage chemical waste. It’s practically impossible for one single process, or textile in this instance, to be equally ‘good’ on all counts.

people walking on street during daytime

Science is critical.
We need scientists and academics to weigh in now. Our world needs these voices to explore nuance, add credibility and spotlight binary framing – as well as to point out where more thought and consideration is necessary.

A comparison could be drawn here to health, where ideas with limited scientific backing can circulate widely on social media. Crash diets, for example, are portrayed as providing quick, easy-fix methods – when the reality is never that straight forward. By following the allure of simplified science, people open themselves up not just to failure, but also health complications. This is why we need doctors, dieticians, and health experts to guide people to balanced and effective choices.

The power of simplified content to drive legislation and business change is strong. The question though is, how can we make sure the information of academia is equally as strong – or even stronger? A framework is critical.

The American Apparel and Footwear Association’s THREADS Sustainability and Social Responsibility Protocol is a good example. It identifies core tenets that enable policymakers to develop practical, workable, and effective regulatory proposals.

We need a similar framework for academics to help shine a light on and give us all the tools we need to assess biased and binary narratives in reports, campaigns and the media.

Experts as influencers.
Now, more than ever, we need to spotlight robust science and credible expertise. Scientists must speak to policymakers, business, and the media – so that everyone can understand that achieving ‘sustainability’ is no fairytale but something more complex. Focusing on false binary narratives promotes flawed assumptions and leads to unsustainable choices. It also takes attention away from the urgent work that we must do together – and at its worst puts people in opposition to each other at a moment in history when we must pull together. Urgently.

Unicorns are legendary. But they don’t exist. Our only hope is science and collaboration. In all its complex, nuanced wonder, it is the only way to transform our industries – and save our world.

More features:

First of A Kind: FOAK thinking is essential in climate technology

WATCH: Can we feed the world without destroying it?

Look up, off world: The satellite tech driving climate action

Image: Mika Baumeister / Kalen Emsley


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