Sustainability ratings company Good On You started a first-of-its-kind data project in 2021 to get a sense of how the fashion industry is working to address its impacts on the planet. In time for Cop27, Good On You expanded the scope of the project and looked at the ratings of 4,180 brands, bypassing their own claims and analyses and rated their actions across more than 100 key sustainability issues on a scale of 1 to 5, from “We Avoid”, “Not Good Enough” and “It’s a Start” to “Good” and “Great”.
Despite observing some positive steps forward, most of the biggest brands are not taking urgent action while smaller sustainable brands lead the way. Overall, Good on You’s verdict is quite clear: “It’s too much greenwashing, too little action.”
“The average fashion consumer could be forgiven for thinking their favourite brands have responded robustly to climate concerns. From environmental mission statements to promises of cutting emissions and eliminating waste, the fashion industry outwardly seems to have transformed into a custodian of our collective future,” explains Good On You.
A closer look reveals, however, that claims can be deceptive, misleading or simple advertising - greenwashing, in other words. The sustainability rater advises to avoid those claims and to be fully transparent instead - about a brand’s impact and how they are addressing the key issues in their supply chains.
Here are some key stats from the report:
Greenhouse gas emissions
Good On You found that 51 percent of large brands with greenhouse gas emissions targets do not state whether they are on track to meet them, “This underscores the need for governments to mandate reporting on greenhouse gas emissions.”
“We can’t just rely on consumers because consumers can’t be deeply educated in all of these things. That’s way too much of an expectation to put on regular people,” says Maxine Bédat, author of “Unraveled” and director of the New Standard Institute, about taking environmental action. “And so, what we’re seeing is tightening legislation.”
In addition, only 21 percent of large brands have a science-based greenhouse gas emissions target. This number should be higher according to Good On You as only those are set in line with the internationally agreed 2 or 1.5 degree warming limit.
The wrong base year can also greatly skew the picture: “When I first started working in climate change, loads of brands were setting 2007—the year before the global financial crisis—as their base year. Emissions were quite high and then they dropped, so if they set a target of a 30 percent reduction compared to 2007, they were already there, they didn’t really have to do much,” explains Kristian Hardiman, head of ratings at Good On You, adding that he expects 2019, the year before Covid, to become the next base year.
Majority of brands receive sub-standard rating
Using FashionUnited’s annual Index of Most Recognised Fashion Brands, Good On You looked at the ratings for the most profitable brands, considered by many to be the benchmarks of profitability across private and public brands. However, of the top 40 brands analysed, the numbers paint a picture of the most powerful brands doing the very least.
None of the 40 most profitable brands analysed receive Good On You’s top rating—“Great”—for the environment. “This means these brands are not demonstrating leadership in environmental policies, transparency, or managing material issues across their supply chains,” finds Good On You.
Overall, only 8 percent of the brands analysed received the top score while 64 percent got the lowest environmental ratings, either “Not Good Enough” or “We Avoid”.
Profit and environmental efforts seem to be opposing poles
The data found that 70 percent of the most profitable brands analysed get the two lowest ratings for environment, “Not Good Enough” and “We Avoid”—meaning these brands publish little or no concrete information about their sustainability practices and are not adequately managing their impacts across their supply chains. In some cases, these brands may make ambiguous claims that are unlikely to have a material impact.
Smaller brands lead the way
Twenty-one percent of brands scored “Good” or “Great” across all areas (environment, labour and animal welfare), demonstrating how the industry can do much better. This includes a large share of small and independent labels along with a few major brands showing leadership.
“If we remove the more sustainable brands from the mix, you’re looking at a much bleaker picture. In other words, the sustainable brands in this sample demonstrate it’s possible to do much better,” sums up Good On You.
Not surprisingly, Good On You’s advise to brands is to be more transparent - about targets, policies, suppliers, even about what did not work. The main point is to act now rather than later.
“We’re at a critical tipping point for our future, and the pervasiveness of greenwashing means we simply do not know whether brands are acting on their own self-promoted plans. Updates and ambition are a key metric for Cop27 and indeed a habitable climate in future, yet fashion brands who play a key role in protecting that future are obfuscating reality. Some major brands are being more transparent than they were a few years ago. We need to accelerate this change,” finds Good On You.