In 2019 Circle Economy was commissioned by the Dutch Ministry for Infrastructure and Waterways to investigate the accuracy of composition labels in clothes. Using the Fibersort machine, over 10.000 garments were tested: in 41 percent of cases the garment composition labels did not match the composition of the garment. As Fashion Revolution week launches a new campaign this week – #whatsinmyclothes – the answer to the question is not as straightforward as expected.
How do we know the labels will tell us what is in our clothes?
We rely on the legislation that obliges apparel brands and retailers to disclose the necessary information to consumers, so they can make informed choices when shopping. In the European Union, apparel brands and retailers are required to inform their customers adequately on the composition of textile products at the time of purchase. The European Textile Regulation states that textile products sold in the European Union need to be labelled or marked in a durable, easily legible and visible way. There are some exceptions to this rule for more complex products (like bras) on the materials that need to be included in the composition claims. However, this Regulation should ensure European consumers know what is in the garments they buy most. National governments are responsible for the enforcement of this Regulation in their territories.
To make sure they provide reliable composition claims on the products they sell, apparel brands and retailers (especially larger ones) have established extensive quality control systems to test the actual composition of their products at several stages in their supply chains. In case of inaccurate composition claims, products would be relabelled or stickers added to correct the composition claims on the labels. A brand selling textile products on the European market with inaccurate labels could face legal repercussions and/or financial claims. We now focus on Europe, however, similar regulations apply in most countries worldwide.
Do labels actually tell us what is in our clothes?
In 2018, doubts were raised regarding the accuracy of composition claims on garment labels on the Dutch market. Why? With the introduction of Fibersort, a technology able to categorise textiles based on their composition, misleading claims on labels became apparent to sorters of used clothing. The Fibersort machine scans individual garments using near-infrared light to detect their actual composition, which turned out to often differ from the one stated on the garment label. Dutch Parliament, therefore, urged the national government to investigate these discrepancies.
In spring 2019, extensive testing by an external lab showed Fibersort is able to recognise textiles' composition in a very accurate way. Circle Economy was therefore commissioned by the Ministry for Infrastructure and Waterways to execute a larger scale research using the Fibersort machine. Based on a sample of over 10,000 garments, the results of this research show that consumers are likely to be misled by inaccurate composition claims on labels in 41 percent of the cases. Deviations between claimed and actual composition of garments were found for all material types, with the strongest deviations found in garments that consist of multiple fibre types (especially combinations between cotton and polyester).
Why can labels be inaccurate?
What do these conclusions tell us? Allegations of fraud are easily made. However, the truth - as always - is less black and white than you might expect. Fraud would imply labels claim a higher content of expensive fibre types like cotton than the garment actually has to maximise the product price. However, the results of the research were far more nuanced than that... Let's have a closer look at the deviations between claimed and actual composition of garments made of cotton-rich cotton and polyester blends, bearing in mind that cotton is a more expensive fibre.
Textile supply chains are global, long and complex. While brands have established and implemented extensive quality control mechanisms, product information on intermediate products like yarn and fabric is transferred from one supplier to another before a garment manufacturer or product trader will attach a label. Considering the speed and volumes of production, inaccuracies easily arise. The study sample shows that for 11 percent of cotton-polyester composition claims deliberate fraud is not likely: the claimed composition of the more expensive material is lower than the actual one. In this case a garment with a label that claims it has 50 percent of cotton 50 percent of polyester actually would have more than 50 percent cotton content. No industry player would deliberately under-claim a more expensive fibre.
Of course the opposite is also true. For around one-third of the cotton-rich cotton-polyester garments analysed for this study, cotton content claimed was much higher than it actually was. These outcomes suggest that intentional exaggeration of cotton content is plausible.
Garments with inaccurate labels should not be allowed to enter the European market - as stipulated by the European Textile Regulation. And still, the full sample analysed consisted of textiles discarded by Dutch consumers, which were therefore most probably bought in the European Union. While enforcement of the Regulation is the responsibility of national governments, we found the accuracy of composition claims on garment labels not to be a high priority topic on the agendas of responsible authorities, as indicated by their representatives and illustrated by the lack of information on the topic. As the product portfolio these authorities must oversee also includes more risky topics like food safety, and as capacity for on-the-spot checks is limited, accurate textile composition claims are not deemed a priority.
Unreliable consumer information on labels can lead to more unused items piling up in closets and ultimately more textile waste.
Why should you care about what labels (do not) say?
Generally speaking, consumers show an increasing awareness for the impact of their purchasing behaviour. They buy products from brands and retailers they trust and relate to, investigate the pros and cons of material types, take care of their garments and ensure to find the best destination for products they dispose of. Inaccurate labels will thwart even the sustainability efforts of the most dedicated sustainable fashionistas.
Dishonest composition claims mislead people into buying products with a different impact than anticipated for. For instance, cotton is a more expensive raw material and has twice the environmental impact of polyester (according to the industry's HIGG Index). However a consumer might be willing to pay a higher price for a natural fibre when he or she aims to live plastic-free. While a buyer might consciously be choosing to purchase the more expensive cotton shirt, he might still end-up owning a (partially) synthetic garment instead.
At time of purchase, we all want to ensure the product is fit for use. One checks the label to make sure the product has the properties you are looking for, and the buying decision is based on the information provided - even more so when buying online without the opportunity to feel a product. It’s also very likely that unreliable consumer information can lead to even more unused items piling up in closets and ultimately more textile waste.
Garments come at a price. They also have a value at the moment they are disposed of. Ideally they will be suitable for reuse by a next consumer and after that sooner or later they might become feedstock for recycling. Products made of one fabric could be recycled into new ones, mainly if they consist of one fibre type - ideally wool, cotton or acrylic. A conscious consumer might consider this a driver to choose specific products. Unfortunately, as the labels research with the Fibersort showed, the only destination of these carefully selected items after they can no longer be worn might be downcycling or incineration because the labels were inaccurate.
So, what is in my clothes?
Consumers have a right to know the composition of textile products they buy to be able to make conscious choices and go for truly more sustainable products. Therefore, industry and governments should continue to play their role to ensure product information is reliable and accurate. Meanwhile, consumers should care about the materials and garments they buy, and call for reliable product information to base a smart purchasing decision on. The best way to motivate industry and governments to take action is by asking your favourite brands, for instance on social media, #whatsinmyclothes?
Circle Economy supports apparel brands work towards circularity through training programmes, masterclasses, circularity assessments, and more. Learn more here
Top image: Andrey Popov | Dreamstime.com