Fashion brands grapple with greenwashing: ‘It’s not a human right to say something is sustainable’

In Singapore earlier this month, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition – a non-profit alliance that represents more than half of the global apparel and footwear industry – met for its annual meeting. There was a big question in the minds of the participants: how would the coalition respond to the allegations of greenwashing?

In June, use of a tool the coalition had spent a decade building to measure the environmental impacts of industry was halted after the Norwegian Consumer Authority issued a warning that it could not not be used to support durability claims. By then, some major players – including Adidas and Kering – had already opted out of using the tool, called Higg MSI, with Kering citing concerns about the accuracy of the data.

The coalition’s cause was further hampered by the publication of a report which found that despite the pledge to reduce emissions, the fashion industry’s carbon footprint has grown and continued to grow. . Of the ten companies assessed, nine were members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The fashion industry is responsible for 2-8% of global greenhouse gas emissions and despite a recent increase in products described as sustainable and promises to reduce emissions, according to the World Resources Institute, the environmental footprint of the sector is expected to increase by 60% by 2030.

The fashion industry is under a broad greenwashing crackdown as regulators around the world try to find a way to deal with misleading environmental claims on products. For example, describing polyester products as “recycled” when the material cannot be reused again at the end of its life.

At the end of November, the European Union will announce rules on how brands must make green claims, and regulations are expected to follow. In Australia, the ACCC conducts scans to uncover misleading environmental and sustainability marketing claims.

The guidelines from the Norwegian Consumer Authority highlight a key issue for fashion brands. While there is significant business potential in marketing yourself as eco-friendly, proving these claims is much more difficult. More and more consumers want to know how sustainable their consumption choices are. A recent UK survey conducted by Deloitte found that 34% of shoppers had stopped buying products from certain brands due to environmental or ethical concerns.

Greenwashing has plagued the fashion industry “for a long time”, explains Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute. Only with a change in methodology and “better data will we be able to see whether, as an industry, we are making progress or not.”

“Faulty data is worse than no data,” says Tonje Drevland, head of the Norwegian Consumer Authority’s monitoring department. “You need to know that what you are saying is correct. You must have facts to back up what you say.

At the SAC annual meeting, Norway’s guidelines were presented as an opportunity to work collaboratively to improve Higg tools and seek ways to bring about systemic change, including embracing circularity and renewable energy. “I don’t think these are bad conversations to have,” SAC CEO Amina Razvi told Guardian Australia. “I think they’re good because it will push both industry, policy makers and regulators to figure out what is that aligned position…that allows the industry to actually move forward.”

However, Jeremy Lardeau, the vice-president of the Higg Index, raised concerns. “Is it practical and feasible to implement the NCA guidelines on every product in this industry to calculate a product footprint? Not really. Right? It comes down to the complexity of the supply chain and the availability of data.

Drevland is candid about criticizing their feasibility. “It’s not a human right to say something is sustainable,” she says. “Maybe if you want to do sustainable fashion, you have to change your business models. If you want to make sustainability claims, you have to control your supply chains.”

Bédat thinks data would be improved if it was up to companies to report on what was happening in their own supply chains. “Companies are not required to do this work…and this dynamic needs to change in order to improve the tools.”

Alden Wicker, editor of EcoCult, agrees that more specific data is of better use to consumers. She says there are other Higg tools (there are five in total) that offer better information about a product’s environmental impact. She mentions the Higg Facility environmental module, which measures the impact of the factories where products are made. “I would prefer to know in which factory a shirt was made… tell me if the T-shirt is made in a solar-powered facility, or if the cotton comes from a cooperative that uses less pesticides and base fertilizers oil.”

As the coalition waits for regulators to clarify how industry impacts should be measured and communicated to consumers, they have engaged accounting firm KPMG to perform a third-party assessment of the Higg Index. The SAC is also working with the nonprofit Textile Exchange Standards and Certification to conduct more research to create more datasets.

The cumbersome nature of collecting data and waiting for regulators to make decisions leaves consumers looking to make more sustainable purchases somewhat adrift. “Honestly, I wish we lived in a world where consumers didn’t have to go that far into producing clothes to make a ‘good’ or ‘ethical’ purchase,” says Wicker. “It should be obvious that you are not contributing to deforestation or water pollution, if you want to buy a t-shirt at the store.”

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