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Is the fashion industry’s sustainability effort only skin-deep?

November 13, 2020, 2:35 PM UTC

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You don’t have to spend much time on Instagram admiring all your friends’ pretty pictures to realize it’s also one of the greatest shopping suggestion engines ever invented. My colleague Kristen Bellstrom got to the bottom of what makes Instagram’s shopping experience so powerful in a great feature story a few months ago.

Lately, my feed has filled with ads for clothes that are organic, sustainably made, resulting from fair trade, or some combination of all three. That made me curious about what’s going on from a tech angle.

Sure enough, behind the environmental movement in the fashion industry, which is responsible for somewhere between 5% and 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a bevy of startups is developing innovations to reduce that impact. The startups are attacking every link in the supply chain, from manufacturing clothes with recycled materials to making dyes without petroleum-derived chemicals to creating biodegradable packaging. Another segment of startups are selling these lines direct to consumers via, you guessed it, Instagram.

I didn’t get very far in my research before I came across Maxine Bedat and her New Standard Institute. Although a human rights lawyer by training, Bedat started an apparel selling company a few years ago called Zady. Coming a little ahead of today’s sustainability movement, its big idea was to tell the story of where the clothes came from and how they were made. Bedat soon started to see firsthand the fashion industry’s harmful environmental and social impacts. As she tried to use Zady to offer products with a more positive impact, she also became a source of knowledge for many other companies.

“I was really torn between the work of reforming the industry, getting people educated to be more engaged citizens, and the work of a fashion brand and selling more stuff,” she told me this week. “I decided to move on in my work and just focus on the educational side.”

That meant selling Zady and opening the institute. As more consumers have made sustainability and fair labor a priority in their buying decisions, the industry has woken up to some degree and pledged to make changes. With many partners, the institute’s goal is to make sure those changes are real. Bedat calls it a “think and do tank.” In the realm of startups, she’s concerned that companies are making claims not supported by rigorous science. And some green automation efforts may be taking away needed jobs.

The biggest elephant in the room, however, is overconsumption. Fast fashion seems to be on the decline, but people in the wealthiest parts of the world still buy and discard too many clothes. “If we don’t address that, incremental reductions of these other impacts are not going get us to where we need to be,” Bedat warns.

It’s yet another reason to stop scrolling through feeds and put your phone down. Have a restful weekend.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

***

In this week’s Brainstorm podcast episode, Fortune‘s Aric Jenkins offers his insight on who is benefiting from the pandemic in entertainment. We also speak with industry veteran Andy Forssell, who now heads HBO Max, and Rob Bredow, chief creative officer of Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic. Bredow talks how the company is producing content under current restrictions (the answer is a newish technology called StageCraft, which was used to shoot much of The Mandalorian). And, of course, Baby Yoda. Listen to the episode here.

NEWSWORTHY

Give me that driving satisfaction. Elon Musk may have rolled out the most impressive sounding car-driving assistance program at Tesla, but Honda says it's about to debut the most capable. Next March, Honda's Acura RLX will include its "Traffic Jam Pilot," capable of Level 3 autonomous driving. Tesla's "Full Self-Driving Autopilot" is only Level 2. Elsewhere in the auto industry, Ford debuted an electric version of its popular Transit shuttle van with a range of 126 miles between charges. Coming a little further in the future, scientists are developing quantum gravity sensors that could allow self-driving systems to detect objects around a corner. And flying cars, yeah, just flying cars.

Wrong number. Security theater is the derisive term experts use to describe procedures that appear to improve security without really do so. It's maybe not quite at that level, but the latest security concern is two-factor authentication systems that rely on text messages. Microsoft warns it is too easy for text messages to be diverted or intercepted. App-based authenticators are much more secure. Microsoft is also grabbing a high-profile star in the world of software. Guido van Rossum, who created the Python programming language, is joining the company's developer division.

Be thankful I don't take it all. After some tech companies said they plan to cut the pay of remote workers who move to less expensive cities, now researchers at Deutsche Bank say remote workers should also be taxed 5% to help support low-income people who cannot work from home. 

Me mad ab something. Some follow-up from Danielle's essay yesterday of the kind you only get with this administration: The Commerce Department announced it would comply with court orders not to ban the popular app TikTok while legal challenges are ongoing. China-based TikTok owner ByteDance originally had until Thursday to sell the app. At the same time, President Trump on Thursday issued a new executive order banning U.S. citizens from investing in 31 Chinese companies, including Huawei and China Mobile, said to have military ties.

Eternal sunshine of the stock-market kind. On Wall Street, things were less bad at Cisco Systems and Palantir's outlook is improving. Cisco said its quarterly revenue dropped 9% to $11.9 billion, better than analysts expected. Its stock, previously down 19% in 2020, jumped 7% in premarket trading on Friday. Palantir's revenue rose 52% to $289 million and raised its forecast for the year to almost $1.1 billion. Its shares, already up 46% from its market debut on Sept. 30, dropped 3% in premarket trading. We'll soon have even more tech companies to report. Startups DoorDash, Wish, and Affirm are all planning to go public by year end, Bloomberg reports.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Smart wearable devices like Fitbits and Apple Watches have given us a blizzard of statistics to track our health and fitness. But in an essay on Medium, writer Maya Kosoff isn't sure all these new metrics are really helping us.

I keep struggling with how to end this one neatly because it’s not like it’s over. I’m still held captive by numbers and I have been for as long as I can remember. My obsession with them has just taken a new form in recent months. Sometimes I wish I weren’t like this, but it’s inextricable from who I am, and I’m not even sure it’s always a bad thing: It’s part of what pushes me to succeed just as much as it’s part of what makes me feel like a failure sometimes. Realistically I’ll eventually get bored of the Peloton, or I’ll finally learn how to ride an actual, real bike on the streets of New York, or I’ll find something else to obsess over. Because it’s not really about the bike, or about my leaderboard ranking in a HIIT class or whatever—it’s about finding a crumb of control in a world that sometimes feels very much outside of my control.

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few great long reads I came across this week:

Elon Musk’s Totally Awful, Batshit-Crazy, Completely Bonkers, Most Excellent Year (Vanity Fair)
In 2020, the COVID-doubting, media-hating Twitterholic CEO became the third-richest man alive, SpaceX launched two astronauts into orbit, and Tesla became the most valuable car company on the planet. Inside the mind of Silicon Valley’s most vainglorious villain.

Ink-Stained Wretches: The Battle for the Soul of Digital Freedom Taking Place Inside Your Printer (Electronic Frontier Foundation)
Since its founding in the 1930s, Hewlett-Packard has been synonymous with innovation, and many's the engineer who had cause to praise its workhorse oscillators, minicomputers, servers, and PCs. But since the turn of this century, the company's changed its name to HP and its focus to sleazy ways to part unhappy printer owners from their money.

Fiona Shackleton: ‘Divorce is either quick torture or slow torture’ (Financial Times)
The lawyer for royals and the ultra-rich on the pandemic boom in break-ups — and why she still believes in marriage.

The Shadow of Humanity and the Spirit of Animals (Orion)
Krista Tippett and Jane Goodall are two pioneering women in their fields. Krista is perhaps best known for her work with On Being, a public radio show and podcast that explores the human experience through spiritual inquiry, science, social healing, community, poetry, and the arts. At twenty-six years old, Jane embarked on a revolutionary sixty-year study of the complex social and family life of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. When the two women agreed to let Orion record them in conversation, we were thrilled.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

What my day on conservative social network Parler was like By Danielle Abril

He’s worried A.I. may destroy humanity. Just don’t confuse him with Elon Musk By Jeremy Kahn

A 6-year-old Chinese electric vehicle startup is now more valuable than GM By Eamon Barrett

How the pandemic has expedited innovation within the film industry By Brett Haensel

In defense of pollsters By Baobao Zhang

The pandemic may be the greatest environment for business fraud in decades By Geoff Colvin

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

Sometimes we'd love to be a fly on the wall listening to conversations of famous people. In the latest Rolling Stone, the magazine has fulfilled that wish for fans of Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney. Read their recent conversation about writing pop tunes, dealing with life under COVID, and everything else. And see you back here on Monday.