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Greenpeace on why fashion is at a crossroads

Greenpeace has never been on the best of terms with the fashion industry. The global NGO is known to criticize the fashion industry for its lack of commitment to making its sector more sustainable. However, this is not the case this time. In the new study "Fashion at the crossroads" presented at Milan Fashion Week, Greenpeace criticizes fashion brands for pledging to move to a circular economy, essentially designing out waste and creating an endless lifecycle for their products. Although this is what many sustainability experts are asking for, most fashion brands who have signed the Global Fashion Agenda circular pledge have yet to deal with their enormous resource consumption rate. So how can they be more sustainable while consuming more resources?

The concept of endless garment recycling is tempting for the fashion industry: the endless recycling of products reduces the consumption of raw materials and resources without having to restrict consumers rate of consumption, making sustainability and growth in essence compatible. However, Yannik Vicaire, one of the authors of the Greenpeace study, explains what is wrong with the commitment of many fashion brands and why this study was necessary.

Over the years, Greenpeace has criticized, above all, the lack of commitment many fashion companies showed towards adapting more environmentally friendly practices and better social responsibility within the global supply chain. Now that more and more fashion companies are pledging to develop new, circular products Greenpeace is criticizing them again. Why the criticism and why in a report?

“Greenpeace saw the need to collate and present the best examples of how fashion businesses and other organisations are slowing and closing the loop in their supply chain - and to instigate a change in direction in the current pattern of over-consumption of fashion. The report is mostly a positive acknowledgement of initiatives, however, the research revealed some examples where brands are emphasising recycling, of polyester mostly, without consideration for closing the loop or for slowing down the consumption of raw materials. A small part of Greenpeace’s report (1 and ½ pages out of 48) is dedicated to criticism of the "Pulse of the fashion industry" report due to its limited scope and vision, which promotes continued expansion, particularly for polyester.”

“Many commentators share our concerns about the incomplete and immature narrative on circularity, and some players have also commented specifically about the approach taken by the Pulse report, while welcoming our more holistic approach. This analysis is shared by recent academic studies on how recycling initiatives are dominating the response of big business to the circular economy, whereas other aspects, such as reducing consumption or extending lifespans, receive much less attention.”

What are fashion companies lacking exactly when it comes to moving from a linear system to a circular one?

“Circularity is tackled from the wrong starting point, by addressing recycling first, despite the fact that the waste hierarchy prioritises prevention and re-use before recycling. In general, large fashion brands put much less emphasis on other crucial aspects, such as the durability of garments or changing their business models to encourage sharing or repairing.”

In your opinion, which companies are particularly unbelievable in the development of a closed-loop economy?

“See the report for details on the companies. In general, there is a contradiction in the promotion of the circularity narrative through achieving better eco-efficiency on materials while at the same time flooding the world with too many products (well beyond the realistic needs of most people), many of which are poor quality and designed for a short life , instead of developing what some call a model of eco-frugality, slowing down the pace of material flow through many options.”

How do you assess the cradle-to-cradle principle from the Hamburg EPEA Institute, on which the ideas for the circulation economy are based? Does this have a relevance to everyday life or is it a utopia?

“There are a variety of definitions of the ‘cradle to cradle’ principle and the ‘circular economy’ (see for example the Ellen McArthur Foundation ); Greenpeace hasn’t done an evaluation or comparison of these various approaches. Achieving a circular economy is indeed difficult at the current rate of over-consumption of resources by the fashion industry, which inevitably leads to wastefulness. Most definitions of circularity include the idea that products and materials need to be kept in use for as long as possible and be maintained at their highest value. This is a key part of progressing towards a circular economy, to slow the flow of materials and continuously reduce their environmental impact, as recommended in Greenpeace’s report.”

Greenpeace on why fashion is at a crossroads

You particularly criticize the pace of the fashion industry and propagate Slow Fashion. However, the consumer also comes into play: how should she learn to appreciate quality over quantity?

“Yes, consumers have a big part to play but it is unfair to criticise them and at the same time induce them into guilt-free consumption with a continuous stream of ads, sales and online tools designed to encourage compulsive buying. Consumers need to consider their consumption of clothing in terms of value for money and not of price, and whether it is leading to true happiness rather than immediate - but temporary - gratification. Nevertheless, Greenpeace is also working in parallel at shifting mindsets and engaging people positively towards self-reflection and alternatives to overconsumption, by organising or promoting public events like swapping parties and repair or upcycling workshops.”

Do you see the possible danger of discrediting a possibly good vision for the future with your open criticism of the closing-the-loop engagement of some fashion companies?

“No, on the contrary we see an opportunity to amend the way forward to allow the development of true circularity before too much is invested into the wrong approach, thereby averting a predictable failure. We work with Detox committed brands, and others, towards achieving a realistic and holistic vision of circularity; this is a critical dialogue allowing iterative progress as shown by the progress that has been made during the past 6 years on improving chemical management (a critical element to consider as a circular system is not desirable or possible without the elimination of hazardous chemicals). Now Greenpeace’s challenge is to divert the attention of the fashion industry away from the imperative to make profit though neverending growth and towards slowing down the flow of materials, bringing its environmental and social impacts down to a level that can be sustained. ”

How did Greenpeace work with fashion companies when creating its report? How did you achieve these results?

“Refer to the methodology section: the report is based on desk research of publicly available information about practices, R&D and sustainable plans of companies of all sizes and kinds. We have collected 385 examples from 183 different companies. Each example was categorised under 5 areas of intervention (alternative business model, design for longevity, design for reduced environmental impacts, design for recyclability and recycling systems) and evaluated for its potential to both slow the flow and close the loop - including the tackling of major environmental concerns such as ocean pollution by plastic microfibers, waste, hazardous chemicals and carbon dependency.”

“Two fashion and design specialists, Anne Prahl and Karen Miller, helped us frame our approach and reviewed our research and conclusions. The report was released during an event featuring some of the best practices companies mentioned in our examples.”

“The report addresses many aspects and tries to picture a holistic and inclusive approach of circularity. It highlights the lively biodiversity of initiatives from fashion players beyond the dominant narrative of the large brands. It is primarily meant to create space for a wider debate that dares questioning all the flipsides of overproduction and overconsumption, while identifying best practices and several leads, some requiring further investigation, others, support for scaling up.”

Photos: Yannik Vicaire; Greenpeace Studie "Fashion at the Crossroads"