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New investigations find missteps in fashion’s sustainability claims

By Rachel Douglass


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Piles of textile waste. Credits: Ecoalf.

A number of new investigations by two environmental organisations have found areas in which the fashion industry is lacking when it comes to the onslaught of sustainability commitments made by brands and retailers in the sector. US-based Stand.earth and the Spanish subsidiary of Greenpeace each presented reports on notable issues they had individually found in the operations of global brands.

In Stand.earth’s report, titled ‘Biomass Burning: The Fashion Industry’s False Phase-Out’, the organisation spoke on the continued reliance of biomass by industry leaders and the inherent risks and harms associated with the utilisation of the non-fossilised, biodegradable material. Biomass has been positioned by fashion players as a low-cost alternative to fossil fuels, according to Stand.earth, and is often used as a means to claim a reduction in carbon emissions within supply chains.

However, with its report, Stand.earth is hoping to encourage brands to rethink their implementation of the material after finding evidence of its “devastating impact on the health of supply chain workers and their communities”, while further stating that the industry’s claims of biomass being a clean and sustainable solution “[lacked] credible substantiation”. Among the other issues cited in the report, each caused by the use of biomass boilers, were deforestation and biodiversity loss, concerns that arise from the reliance on wood pellets to fuel such processes, resulting in a heightened demand in the selling of timber.

As part of Stand.earth’s investigation, the organisation looked into a number of fashion brands that have integrated biomass into their supply chain as an alternative for coal. Five Asian suppliers for Uniqlo-owner Fast Retailing, for example, were found to have done just that, one of which reported a biomass consumption of 271,052 MWh from April 2022 to March 2023. The group responded to Stand.earth’s alert in an email in which it mentioned that it recognised the issues of biomass boilers and it was “currently acting across [its] supply chain to minimise their use”.

What befalls clothing destined for reuse?

For Greenpeace Spain, criticism fell towards the latter side of the clothing lifecycle, specifically the end-of-use process used clothing goes through. The organisation attempted to map the journey of 29 items of clothing using button-like tracking devices deposited in Spanish municipal containers and in Zara and Mango stores over the course of four months, only one of which it could ultimately determine to have been reused after it was purchased in a secondhand store in Romania.

Others, meanwhile, appeared to have travelled thousands of kilometres before reaching their final destination, while the rest are still currently being tracked or transported, alluding to an unfinished journey. Speaking on the findings, Sara del Río, the individual responsible for the investigation, said in a release: “We have been able to verify that the management of clothing that is deposited in containers is far from the circular economy they seek. The current model requires countries from the Global South to produce clothing and then manage the waste generated when it is discarded, travelling thousands of kilometres. As long as this does not change, the second life of clothing will be more of an industry strategy so that we continue buying clothes without regrets on days like Black Friday than reality.”

While some products had been located in the United Arab Emirates, Chile, India or Pakistan, others appeared in Africa where, according to the European Environment Agency, 46 percent of used textiles are exported from the EU, with just 60 percent then being resold. Greenpeace noted that this practice was “very harmful to local economies” and impacts the development of a local textile industry.

Around half of the tracking devices, meanwhile, had not yet left Spain, despite some moving multiple times. As such, Greenpeace is allowing trackers that have not yet reached their final destination to be tracked from its website, with daily updates provided until otherwise considered inconclusive. In regards to this finding, the organisation said that it had “detected the presence of an irregular textile waste management circuit” within the proceedings of town councils that are responsible for selective waste collection in Spain.

With its research, Greenpeace was hoping to highlight the need to change the clothing production and consumption model, calling on retailers and local councils to avoid or halt issuing false solutions that could delay these changes. While the urgency to adopt circular processes was of course important to the organisation, it noted that such shifts must be accompanied by a reduction in production, as well as the increase in durability of garments.

Read more:
Circular Fashion
Sustainable Fashion