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How the fashion industry is misusing sustainability metrics

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Image: Cotton via Pexels

Despite the fashion industry’s progress in tackling sustainability, a lack of vital metrics makes it challenging to define. Current definitions veer toward a narrow scope that fails to assess the impact on the entire value chain.

In the report the Great Green Washing Machine Part 1: Back to The Roots Of Sustainability, its authors argue sustainability assertions in fashion are based solely upon purported environmental impact, whilst the impact on farmers is not accurately captured, if at all.

Authors Veronica Bates-Kassatly, Dorothee Baumann-Pauly and The Geneva Center For Business and Human Rights (GCBHR) in the second report, The Use And Misuse of Sustainability Metrics In Fashion, demonstrate that even the environmental impact of fashion is not being correctly assessed, neither broadly, nor narrowly.

“The leading brands and their funded initiatives are focusing on the wrong thing. They look at impact at the factory gate when what matters is impact per wear. They are conflating sustainability with environmental impact when climate justice must have human rights at the core. And the one thing that they do look at - environmental impact - they aren't even measuring correctly.” - Veronica Bates Kassatly told FashionUnited.

Current assessments are broadly incorrect for two reasons. Firstly, because measurement is cradle to gate rather than cradle to grave so the harmful outcomes in some garments’ use and disposal are ignored. And secondly, because impacts are calculated per kilo, when what really matters – what is key – is impact per wear.

Clothes are supposed to be worn multiple times, and if garments of some fabrics are worn many times more than others – and that does appear to be the case – then that should be included in sustainability calculations. If a dress “costs” 12, whether that is US Dollars or an environmental measure, and it is worn once, the cost is 12 per wear. If another dress “costs” 1,200, and is worn 100 times, the cost/impact is also 12 per wear. The difference is that at the end of those ‘100 times’, in the first case there are 100 dresses to dispose of, and in the second, only one.

Throughout this report, an associated action point for each concern is provided for policymakers and corporations, ensuring that in meeting the needs of the present, organisations are not compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

"We need to instil scientific rigor in the sustainable fashion debate. Unless sustainability claims of fashion brands are backed by data from independent scientific studies, they should not be made public to guide consumers, investors and policy-makers.” - Dorothee Baumann-Pauly told FashionUnited.

Unravelling fact from fiction in organic fibre claims

In the context of cotton, fashion brands are increasingly advertising garments that are made of organic cotton and claiming that organic cotton farming needs less water, when in fact organic cotton consumes 10 percent more water per tonne of seed cotton than conventional production.

Despite this, brands including H&M, have recently claimed on their websites that clothes made of organic cotton uses 87-88 percent less water than those made of conventional cotton - based on the Higg MSI. The Great Green Washing Machine report states this claim is misleading because it asserts that it is the organic production system that accounts for the difference in water consumption, when in fact it is just rainfall.

##Lower yields versus pollution Fashion avidly promotes organic farming as a solution to many of the industry’s impact problems. Switching to organic production, however, means lower yields and so higher prices.More land will have to be put under cultivation for crops, as well as for the livestock needed to produce organic fertilizer. More land under cultivation will, in turn, reduce biodiversity.

Another overlooked issue with organic farming is the animal manure that is widely used as fertilizer. Indeed manure - animal dung used to fertilize land - is a key overlooked aspect in most calculations of what makes different fibers sustainable or otherwise.

The report iterates it is unacceptable that sustainable fashion simply whitewashes the negative impacts of the use of manure in organic cotton production from the picture and presses farmers to convert to organic systems without ever having undertaken any studies whatsoever of the potential for such cultivation to impact negatively on sustainable development goals.

The paper argues that sustainability is complex and multi-faceted and that in fashion sustainability is not currently measured comprehensively or scientifically. Only environmental impact is examined and even that is not being accurately. The current simplistic system considers only one aspect of sustainability and assumes that anything that is either produced organically, or has the prefix ‘re’ (recycle, resale, rental), is automatically more sustainable. There is, however, no data to substantiate any of these claims and the reality is far more nuanced.

The simplest and quickest way to reduce the negative impact of fashion would be to increase the number of wears for every item produced. At present this is not considered in any system and it is self- evident that if consumers believe that as long as they rent, or purchase second-hand, or only choose ‘sustainable’ fibers, they can churn through as many different items as before, any improvements will be marginal at best (rental items “worn more than 40 times are not an improvement on the average of 80 wears per owner.

Moving towards meaningful criteria of sustainability measurement, the authors make five recommendations:

  1. Fashion corporations and global policymakers must assess the socio-economic impacts of fiber production and place these front and center in any and all sustainability, claims, rankings, and labelling.

  2. Regulatory frameworks must include living wages. It is unscientific and illogical to assert that a garment is ‘sustainable’ based on fiber choice, when said garment was made by workers who were not paid a living wage.

  3. Governments must require fashion brands to provide comprehensive, accurate and verified sustainability information. Private corporations cannot be allowed to unilaterally decide upon the impact of different fibers.

  4. Global resources must be better managed to promote the use of farmed fibers and co-products.

  5. Reduce the use of plastic fibres.

For further information and to read the full report go to www.eco-age.com.

Article source: The Great Green Washing Machine Part 2: The Use And Misuse of Sustainability Metrics In Fashion

Eco Age