Analysis: Fashion Industry Efforts to Verify Sustainability Make ‘Greenwashing’ Easier


Environmental certification programs that claim to verify the sustainability of fashion brands actually facilitate “greenwashing” for the apparel industry, according to a recent report by environmental advocacy organization Changing Markets Foundation. 

The organization, which was founded in 2015 and is based in the Netherlands, seeks to drive change toward a more sustainable economy by exposing what it feels are irresponsible corporate practices. Its analysis of voluntary efforts designed  to reduce fashion’s growing environmental footprint found the programs led to increased pollution instead, and are helping to cement the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“Waste increases, utilization of clothes decreases, and reliance on fossil fuels increases,” said George Harding-Rolls, a campaign manager at Changing Markets and lead author of the report. “Yet, these schemes continue to exist and say that sustainable fashion is just around the corner. This is actually preventing us from taking the more systemic action that we need, such as more regulation and legislation.”

Apparel retailers did not respond to requests for comment from Inside Climate News. Organizations running sustainable fashion certification programs glossed over many of the issues in the report, including the growing use of polymer or plastic fibers used in apparel. Instead, they focused on efforts to reduce plastics used in packaging and displays. 

Fashion retailers “are lauded for working towards the reduction of plastic hangers, bags and other packaging, while their huge and growing use of plastic for clothes passes under the radar,” the report stated. 

The March 24 report evaluated 10 of the most prominent sustainability certification programs for the fashion industry, a rapidly growing sector that produces more than 100 billion garments each year and accounts for anywhere between 2 to 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Changing Markets analysis focused on the sustainability programs that claim to address issues of overproduction, including the rise of “fast fashion”—inexpensive clothing designed to keep up with rapidly changing fashion trends. It also addressed end of life management and the use of fossil fuels and toxic chemicals in production and manufacturing.   

At best, the certification programs provided a “patchy promise of sustainability,” focused on a small section of the supply chain, the report concluded.  At worst, the report found the certification programs, which are often funded by the brands that they evaluate, are “unambitious, opaque, unaccountable and compromised.”

For example, one such program, the New Plastics Economy initiative of the U.K.-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, calls on member companies including Walmart to commit to reducing plastic packaging, but not the plastic, or synthetic, fibers used in clothes. The report noted that textiles, which increasingly rely on synthetic materials like polyester, are the second-largest market for plastics after packaging. Ignoring the use of these synthetic fibers is a major oversight, the report concluded. 

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Walmart did not respond to a request for comment. However, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation defended its program. 

“It is correct that the focus of our plastic initiative is on packaging, as this is the single biggest application for plastics and accounts for huge amounts of pollution, climate emissions, and lost economic opportunity,” the organization said in a written statement. 

The organization added that its fashion initiatives have worked closely with experts from academia, government and industry to drive momentum towards a circular economy for fashion that eliminates waste.

One of the largest programs included in the analysis is run by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which bills itself as the “leading alliance for sustainable production” for the apparel, footwear and textile industry.  The coalition counts more than 250 brands, retailers, manufacturers, academic institutions, governments and NGOs among its members.  

Changing Markets found that the Coalition’s “Higg Index” scored among the lowest of the 10 sustainability programs that it evaluated and did not adequately address issues related to fossil-fuel feedstocks for apparel, overproduction driven by fast fashion and the release of microfibers or microplastics from garments into the environment.  The report also gave the Higg Index low scores on independence, performance and how it drives improvement on sustainability.

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The Sustainable Apparel Coalition declined an interview request but issued a written statement, saying “the Sustainable Apparel Coalition enables organisations to access trusted, credible and scientifically rigorous tools and support to measure the impact of product production. This provides a basis for tracking change, informing and empowering brands to progress on a continuous journey of improvement.

“We work in active partnership with many others in the sector to advocate for greater transparency and substantiation of claims,” the coalition wrote.

The report, however, stated that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s paid membership model provides members the opportunity to sit on the organization’s Board of Directors and vote on key decisions, giving member companies the ability to pursue their own agendas, which may run counter to coalition’s stated sustainability goals. 

For example, the report suggested that Nike, one of the biggest users of synthetic fibers in the apparel sector, may have used its influence as one of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s founding companies to downplay the environmental impact of synthetic fibers. The report suggested that the coalition’s Higg Index, the original version of which was developed by Nike, may not account for the environmental impact of fossil-fuel extraction, including oil extraction used to create synthetic fibers.  

“Due to the fact the SAC was founded by numerous brands and retailers, these organisations such as Patagonia, Walmart, Nike, Target, Gap, H&M Group and Marks & Spencer continue to have a large presence within the coalition,” the report stated. “This is especially the case for Nike, which originally contributed its own MSI [Materials Sustainability Index] to create the [Higg] Index. 

Nike did not respond to a request for comment. 

SAC denied any outsized influence of Nike or other companies over its activities.  “It is misleading and inaccurate to suggest that one member can unduly influence either the strategic focus or the tool development of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition,” the organization wrote. “The Higg Index is a suite of five tools. Nike was involved with an early development of just one of these tools, the Higg MSI [Materials Sustainability Index], before gifting it to SAC in 2013. The Higg MSI went through a significant overhaul in 2016, with changes being approved by over 100 voting members. Nike is not a current Board member and hasn’t been for more than five years.”

One certification program, which was not mentioned in the Changing Markets report, has set its sights on driving measurable change in greenhouse gas emissions reductions where it matters most, the manufacturing supply chains of apparel brands.

The factories, mills and other industrial facilities that produce the raw materials, fibers, and finished apparel sold by leading fashion brands account for the vast majority of the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the third-party companies that produce these goods do so in China, the world’s largest textile-exporting country.

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, China’s largest environmental organization, released a report in October that ranks the sustainability of fashion brands with a strong focus on the greenhouse gas emissions from mills and factories across China.

“We focus on [the] supply chain like a laser,” said Linda Greer, a senior global fellow with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “We do that, first of all, because for many sectors including the apparel sector, that’s where maybe 80 percent of the emissions lie. And then also we focus on [the] supply chain because we’re a Chinese NGO and so many of our factories are manufacturing for export.”

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IPE’s Corporate Climate Action Transparency Index scores brands from 0 to 100 based on their performance in addressing climate change. Points are awarded according to corporate climate policies, monitoring and disclosure of emissions, emission reduction targets and, most heavily weighted, direct action that companies are taking in China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across their supply chains. However, unlike the Changing Markets report, IPE’s index does not consider overproduction related to fast fashion. 

“The way that we differ from a lot of the other indices is that we’re really attempting to follow the pounds of emissions,” Greer said.  “You can’t get a very good grade unless you’re working on [the] supply chain and not just in governance and other things.”

IPE’s index got a major boost in February when China required many of the country’s largest polluters to publicly disclose their carbon emissions for the first time. Details of new regulation, including exactly which companies are required to report their emissions, are still being worked out, but Greer said she estimates it will apply to 80,000 factories, a tremendous increase from the limited number of manufacturers who have voluntarily reported their emissions in the past.  

The new regulation comes as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is proposing a similar regulation for publicly traded companies. The pending U.S. disclosure requirements come as Europe is weighing regulations that would target the low-cost, disposable apparel that fuels fast fashion. On March 30, the European Commission released its proposed Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles that seeks to ensure that apparel sold in the EU is long-lived, recyclable and, to the extent possible, made from recycled fibers.  

At the same time, a bill was introduced earlier this year in New York state that would require large fashion brands to disclose at least some greenhouse gas emissions, as well as water and chemical use, from their supply chains.

Harding-Rolls of Changing Markets said the pending regulations mark a turning point for the fashion industry.

“I think we’re really seeing the death throes of voluntary sustainability in the fashion sector,” he said. “We’ve been experimenting with the sector self-regulating for the last 20 to 30 years and what we’ve seen is that the environmental impact of the sector got much worse. There’s a stick and not just a carrot to sustainable fashion now. The next two or three years will be really critical to see how that plays out.”


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