men Singapore earlier this month, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a non-profit alliance representing more than half of the global apparel and footwear industry, came together for its annual meeting. There was a big question on the minds of those in attendance: how would the coalition respond to claims of greenwashing?
In June, use of a tool the coalition had developed over a decade to measure the industry’s environmental impacts was halted after the Norwegian Consumer Authority issued a warning that it could not be used to support sustainability 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 release of a Stand.earth report that revealed that despite committing to cut emissions, the the carbon footprint of the fashion industry has increased and continues to grow. Of the ten companies assessed, nine were members of the Sustainable Clothing Coalition. The fashion industry is responsible for between 2% and 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and despite a recent rise in products describing themselves as sustainable and committing to lower emissions, according to the World Resources Institute, the environmental footprint of the sector is it is expected to grow 60% by 2030.
There’s a extensive crackdown on greenwashing across the fashion industry, as regulators around the world try to figure out how to tackle misleading claims for environmental products. For example, describing polyester products as “recycled” when the material cannot be reused at the end of its useful life.
At the end of November, the European Union will announce rules on how brands must support green claims and they are expected to follow the regulations. In Australia, the ACCC is conducting sweeps to uncover misleading environmental and sustainability marketing claims.
The Norwegian Consumer Authority guidelines highlight a key issue for fashion brands. While there is significant business potential in promoting yourself as environmentally friendly, proving those claims is much more difficult. More and more consumers want to know how sustainable their consumption choices are. A recent UK survey by Deloitte found that 34% of shoppers had stopped buying products from certain brands. due to environmental or ethical concerns.
Greenwashing has been around the fashion industry “for a long time,” says Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute. Only with a change in methodologies and “better data, we will be able to see whether or not we as an industry are making progress.”
“Bad data is worse than no data,” says Tonje Drevland, head of the supervisory department at the Norwegian Consumer Authority. “You have to know that what you are saying is correct. You have to have facts to back up what you’re saying.”
At the annual SAC meeting, the Norwegian guidelines were presented as an opportunity to work collaboratively to improve Higg tools and look for ways to effect systemic change, including the adoption of circularity and renewable energy. “I don’t think these are bad talks,” Amina Razvi, chief executive of the SAC, told Guardian Australia. “I think they are good because they will push both the industry and legislators and regulators to figure out what that aligned position is … that allows the industry to really move forward.”
However, Jeremy Lardeau, vice president of the Higg Index, expressed concern. “Is it practical and feasible to implement the NCA guidance on every product in this industry to calculate a product footprint? Not really. Right? It goes back to the complexity of the supply chain and the availability of data.”
Drevland is blunt about the criticism of its viability. “It is not a human right to say that 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 get control of your supply chains.”
Bédat believes that the data would be improved if companies had a responsibility to report on what happens in their own supply chains. “Companies are not required to do this work…and that dynamic needs to change to improve the tools.”
Alden Wicker, editor-in-chief of EcoCult, agrees that more specific data is of better use to consumers. She says there are other Higg tools (there are five in all) that offer better insights into a product’s environmental impact. She points to Higg’s Facilities Environmental Module, which measures the impact of the factories where products are made. “I would prefer to know in which factory a T-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 fewer pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers.”
As the coalition waits for regulators to clarify how industry impacts to consumers should be measured and communicated, they have contracted accounting firm KPMG to carry out an external assessment of the Higg index. The SAC is also working with the Textile Exchange, a standards and certification non-profit organization, to conduct more research and create more data sets.
The slow nature of collecting data and waiting for regulators to make decisions leaves consumers looking to make more sustainable purchases a bit adrift. “Honestly, I wish we lived in a world where consumers didn’t have to dig so deep into clothing production to make a ‘good’ or ‘ethical’ purchase,” says Wicker. “It should be assumed that you’re not contributing to deforestation or water pollution if you want to buy a T-shirt at the store.”