IIn Singapore earlier this month, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a non-profit alliance representing more than half of the global apparel and footwear industry, gathered for its annual meeting. There was one big question on the minds of the participants: How would the coalition respond to greenwashing claims?
In June, the use of a tool that the coalition had taken a decade to build to measure the sector’s environmental impacts was suspended after the Norwegian consumer authority issued a warning that it could not be used to back up claims. on sustainability. By then some major players, including Adidas and Kering, had already opted out of using the tool, called Higg MSI, with Kering expressing concerns over the accuracy of the data.
The coalition’s cause was further hampered by the release of a Stand.earth report which revealed that despite pledges to reduce emissions, the fashion industry’s carbon footprint has increased and continued to grow. Of the ten companies evaluated, nine were members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The fashion industry is responsible for between 2 and 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions and, despite a recent increase in products described as sustainable and a commitment to reduce emissions, according to the World Resources Institute the environmental footprint of the sector is expected to grow by 60%. by 2030.
There is a widespread crackdown on greenwashing across the fashion industry as regulators around the world try to figure out how to address misleading environmental claims about products. For example, describing polyester products as “recycled” when the material cannot be reused again at end of life.
In late November, the European Union will announce rules on how brands should back up green claims, and regulations are expected to follow. In Australia, the ACCC is conducting investigations to uncover deceptive environmental and sustainability marketing claims.
The guidelines from the Norwegian Consumer Authority highlight a key issue for fashion brands. While there is significant commercial potential in advertising itself as environmentally friendly, proving such 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 prevalent in the fashion industry “for a long time,” says Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute. It’s only with a change in methodologies and “better data that we’ll be able to see whether, as an industry, we’re making progress or not.”
“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 must have facts to back up what you are saying.
At the SAC annual meeting, Norway’s guidelines were presented as an opportunity to work collaboratively to improve the Higg tools and to look for ways to bring about systemic change, including the adoption of circularity and renewable energy. “I don’t think these are bad conversations to have,” SAC CEO Amina Razvi told Guardian Australia. “I think they are good because they will push both industry and policy makers and regulators to understand what is that aligned position… that allows industry to move forward.”
However Jeremy Lardeau, the vice president of the Higg Index, has raised concerns. “Is it practical and feasible to implement NCA guidance on every product in this industry to calculate product footprint? Not really. Right? It goes back to supply chain complexity and data availability.
Drevland is outspoken about the criticisms of their viability. “It’s not a human right to say something is sustainable,” he says. “Maybe if you want to make sustainable fashion, you need to change your business models. If you want to make sustainability claims, you need to have control over your supply chains.
Bédat believes the data would have improved if companies had the burden of reporting on what was happening in their 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. He says there are other Higg tools (there are five in total) that offer better insight into a product’s environmental impact. He points to the Higg Facility Environmental Module, which measures the impact of the factories where products are made. “I’d like to know which factory a shirt was made in…tell me if the 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 the industry’s impacts should be measured and communicated to consumers, they have enlisted accounting firm KPMG to perform a third-party assessment of the Higg Index. The SAC is also working with the standards and certification nonprofit Textile Exchange to do more research to create more datasets.
The time-consuming nature of collecting data and waiting for regulators to make decisions leaves consumers somewhat adrift looking to make more sustainable purchases. “Honestly, I wish we lived in a world where consumers don’t have to delve into clothing manufacturing to make ‘good’ or ‘ethical’ purchases,” Wicker says. “It should be a given that you’re not contributing to deforestation or water pollution, if you’re going to grab a shirt from the store.”