Fashion firms using ‘zombie data’ to mislead on sustainability claims

The fashion industry is relying on "zombie data" that lacks credibility in order to promote products and services as sustainable, a move that could create reputational damages for the brands and see investors back unsustainable corporate practices.

Fashion firms using ‘zombie data’ to mislead on sustainability claims

Planet Tracker warns this “ambiguity has a number of negative ripple effects” for businesses and investors

New findings from the financial thinktank Planet Tracker have warned that the fashion industry has a “serious misinformation problem”, with companies relying on zombie data to badge products as sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Zombie data refers to collected data that can be deemed false, unverifiable, or lacking creditability. Planet Tracker warns that this type of data as “become all too en vogue” amongst corporates attempting to demonstrate commitments to sustainability.

One sector notably susceptible to this type of greenwash is the fashion sector, Planet Tracker states. The think tank found that fashion firms are using zombie data in marketing claims around the impact of the textile supply chain.

Using cotton as a reference point, Planet Tracker notes that some data points to the material needing 2.4 litres of water per gram of cotton for a shirt, but that the amount could be closer to 20 litres per gram. Additionally, the amount of water can vary depending on the region of cotton production or which specific type of agricultural water footprint is used in the analysis.

Planet Tracker warns this “ambiguity has a number of negative ripple effects”, including reputational damage for the company and regulatory scrutiny, while investors face “significant financial risk” if exposed to zombie data.

“Notably, fashion brands and companies may (sometimes unintentionally) use zombie data in their marketing claims, in effect leading to greenwashing and misleading consumers. The growing market for green products presents an attractive opportunity for the industry, promising substantial gains for those claiming sustainability credentials,” Planet Tracker said in a blog post.

“The risk to investors arises when a brand or company bases their environmental assumptions, and perhaps even projections or analysis, on these zombie data. If exposed, this could negatively impact image and market share with their customers as well as investors.”

Planet Tracker is calling on fashion brands to focus on “full supply chain traceability and transparency” that negates the use of zombie data.

Fashionable fakes

Last year, a study of the websites of 12 of the biggest British and European fashion brands, including Asos, H&M and Zara, found that 60% of the environmental claims could be classed as “unsubstantiated” and “misleading”.

Across all of these brands, 39% of products assessed by the Changing Markets Foundation came with sustainability-related claims such as “recycled”, “eco”, “low-impact” or simply “sustainable”. The Foundation assessed whether these claims stood up against the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) new guidelines on avoiding greenwashing; 59% did not.

The CMA’s guidelines cover accuracy; the avoidance of ambiguity; not hiding or omitting important information; enabling comparison between products; covering impacts across the product life-cycle and ensuring claims can be substantiated. Brands that fared worse on greenwashing than the average among the group were H&M, with 96% of claims flouting the CMA guidelines, and Asos and M&S, with 89% and 88% of claims failing to measure up respectively.

Fashion Declares

In related news, some of the biggest names in the sustainability space have joined forces on a new sustainability declaration for the fashion industry.

People including Farfetch’s global director of sustainable business Tom Berry, former director of sustainable business at M&S Mike Barry and product director at Finisterre, Debbie Luffman have launched the Fashion Declares campaign.

The campaign aims to transform “one of the most polluting and unjust sectors in the world” by generating more than 50,000 signatories to an open letter, which pledges support for five commitments. The commitments are: speaking out for urgent action on the climate crisis, delivering decarbonisation, restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity, working for a just transition, ensuring radical transparency and adopting a “regenerative fashion model”.

The campaign will be led by Safia Minney, founder, People Tree, alongside Mariusz Stochaj, head of product and sustainability at London-based clothing manufacturer Continental Clothing; and Ben Tolhurst, director of climate action non-profit Business Declares and the aforementioned names.

Matt Mace

Comments (1)

  1. Ian Byrne says:

    The Planet Tracker blog is interesting, and draws quite substantially on a report called "Cotton: a Case Study in Misinformation" that is itself an excellent read. It seeks to debunk a lot of myths around the environmental impact o growing cotton, yet may itself be creating more…

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