Report: Fashion sustainability schemes ‘not fit for purpose’ and allowing greenwashing

The report argues that consumers are choosing clothing because they believe brands are doing better

Conducted by campaign group the Changing Markets Foundation, the analysis assessed whether the world’s most popular fashion certification schemes and multi-stakeholder initiatives required brands to set and achieve ambitious enough targets. It also looked at what level of disclosures the schemes require from brands, and how much information on product sustainability the schemes provide themselves.

Other factors assessed were the initiatives’ track record of delivering progress and their scope for continuous improvement – in other words, whether they planned to tighten their own requirements, and have mechanisms in place to encourage brands to go further.

Initiatives assessed included those run by WRAP; those run by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation; the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index; Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC); Cradle2Cradle and Oeko-Tex. Collectively, the initiatives assessed have thousands of brands signed up, including some of the biggest high street and online retailers in Europe.

The report resulting from the analysis, published late last week, accuses the schemes of broad, poor progress across the board. The report, entitled ‘Licence to Greenwash’. concludes that no scheme assessed is “fit for purpose”.

Across all factors assessed, no initiative was found to be delivering quantitative progress in more than two areas. Initiatives deemed to be delivering inadequate progress in all areas were the Higg Index, ZDHC, WRAP, Textile Exchange and The Microfibre Consortium.

Plastic problems

The Higg Index faces particular scrutiny, as it has from green groups and textiles specialists for several years. The report accuses the framework of “allowing brands to cherry-pick” the issues they want to report against, while also highlighting issues with its ways of assessing which materials are sustainable. Several groups have called on the Higg Index to downgrade the sustainability rating of fossil-fuel-derived materials like polyester and acrylic in recent years.

According to previous research from the Changing Markets Foundation, the global production of virgin polyester has doubled since 2000, largely driven by the fashion industry. While pure polyester is technically recyclable, it is often used in hard-to-recycle blends. Moreover, it is regarded as environmentally harmful across the lifecycle, with a high carbon footprint from extraction, microfibre shedding throughout its lifecycle and the fact that landfilled polyester will not degrade.

None of the certifications assessed were deemed to be helping brands to decrease their reliance on fossil-fuel-based materials, except the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Several were deemed to be actively encouraging the use of synthetic fibres.

Consumer misconceptions

The report concludes that customers are being lulled into a false sense of security by the ever-growing number of sustainability certification schemes for fashion, and the ever-growing number of brands signing up.

Market research by the Changing Markets Foundation has found that 1 in 3 (34%) of consumers in the UK either “always” or “frequently” choose fashion products with one ecolabel or more. The same proportion said they see third-party ecolabel schemes as trusted sources of information.

“These schemes are unambitious, unaccountable, compromised talking shops that result in an industry-wide decoy for unsustainable practices, enabling sophisticated greenwashing on a vast scale,” said the Foundation’s campaign manager George Harding-Rolls.

“We don’t need any more voluntary schemes. Certification and initiatives such as those in the report act as a placebo, creating a false promise that the industry will address sustainability voluntarily. We urgently need comprehensive legislation to change the course of the fashion industry onto a greener path.”

The lack of environmental regulation for the fashion sector has been much-discussed in recent years. Following the dismissal of all recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) ‘Fixing Fashion’ inquiry in 2019, the UK Government is now mulling extended producer responsibility rules for fashion producers. The Competition and Markets Authority has also published a ‘green claims code’ and will this year begin holding fashion brands accountable when they breach the code.

Green groups have continued to push for a more joined-up approach. The EU Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, due out later this week, could be one of the world’s first examples of such a policy approach. It will set legally binding requirements for companies aimed at addressing both post-consumer waste and excessive material use across the rest of the value chain.

Report responses

edie reached out to all of the initiative operators named in the report for comment.

A WRAP Spokesperson said: “WRAP wants to create a world in which climate change is no longer a problem. But, with the global fashion industry being responsible for creating more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, we won’t achieve this if we don’t tackle the way clothes are produced, used and disposed of.

“We agree that legislation is important for creating change, but it takes a long time to put new rules and regulations in place – time we don’t have. We use business voluntary agreements in the absence of legislation so that systems change can be delivered as quickly as possible.

“[Textiles 2030’s 100+ signatories] have committed to achieve challenging evidence/science-based targets for reductions in carbon emissions, water use and circular textile use. Progress of individual businesses is tracked through annually submitted data as well as actions taken against each stage of the product lifecycle.  We have a Roadmap with interim milestones to drive forward this work and hit key stages before 2030.

“WRAP reviews progress regularly by Textiles 2030 signatories and reserves the right to remove those that do not demonstrate adequate action towards these targets. This is openly shared and progress after just six months can be viewed in the interim progress report.”

A Sustainable Apparel Coalition spokesperson maintained that its methodologies are “trusted, credible and scientifically rigorous”, and that its tools are “are continuously evolving to align with the latest science and data available”.

The spokesperson said: “Empowering change is key – we live in a climate emergency and deep change needs to happen, and fast. If organisations are promoting their sustainability credentials to customers and stakeholders it is vital the action sitting behind these stands up to scrutiny. We work in active partnership with many others in the sector to advocate for greater transparency and substantiation of claims.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s fashion initiative lead Laura Balmond said: “Voluntary agreements are an important starting point, but we know they alone are not enough to address fashion’s waste and pollution. This is why we also work with governments and policymakers.

“For example, in recent weeks, the Foundation played a significant role in securing a mandate for a UN treaty on plastic pollution. It remains critical that we continue to work with companies, however, as they have the power and responsibility to change the materials and business models used at scale. We will continue to raise ambition levels and ensure we drive the actions needed to create a circular economy designed to eliminate waste, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate nature.”

ZDHC’s executive director Frank Michel said: “The report makes many good points. The visualisation of how the multiple certifying and multi-stakeholder initiatives link together is powerful. While every organisation has their role to play, the synergies between each are essential and important.

“Still, I do wonder whether this report sends out the right signals to the industry. If engagement in our programmes is [called] greenwashing, what it may actually do is to provide an excuse for not taking action now – which we all agree is vital. Waiting for legislation is not a good alternative from my point of view as it will always be limited to the borders of nations and their jurisdictions.

“Further, it often comes with a big question mark as to how changes will be implemented and to whom they might apply. We believe that to create change we need to start somewhere.  At ZDHC, we accept that we may not be perfect in what we are doing. However, we improve continuously and as we do so we are gathering tangible evidence of improvement. Reports such as this give us the opportunity to learn with other organisations, NGOs, policymakers and governments on how we can do even better work to change the fashion industry’s impact on the environment for the better.”

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s president and CEO Dr Christina Raab said: “The Institute welcomes the call for ambitious regulatory intervention expressed in the report. Time is of the essence though, and a systemic change in the fashion sector is required with urgency. This is where the opportunity and responsibility of voluntary sustainability schemes comes in – accelerating tangible action, surpassing regulatory requirements and spearheading the uptake of industry leadership.

“While we understand and clearly support the intention of the report to drive faster progress in the industry, it does not justify what we believe is an inaccurate reference of Cradle to Cradle Certified®’s approach and impact, evidently based on outdated and incomplete second-hand information.

The latest Version 4.0 of Cradle to Cradle Certified has set a new ambition level for companies to take action on a holistic circular economy and implement transformation on materials, products and business models. The global standard and continuously evolving guidance documents are available on the Institute’s website for general public access, providing full transparency on underlying science-based methodologies and comprehensive, third-party verified performance requirements.

“The Institute continuously welcomes concrete suggestions for improvement and is fully committed to moving the industry to leadership at scale in the most accountable ways. In line with our approach to rigour and continuous improvement, Cradle to Cradle Certified is built on demanding ascending achievement levels and a two-year renewal cycle that mandates measurable improvements by companies.

“While certain research in the report will have to be updated and corrected, we hope that the report will have the desired effect of collectively taking bolder action in the fashion industry, communicating progress in the most credible ways to consumers and making systemic change a fast reality in partnership with all relevant stakeholders.”

edie will update this article if any additional comments come in.

Sarah George

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