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Is your clothing really sustainable? These 5 clues will tell you

Fashion brands are bragging about how sustainable they are—but how can you tell if they’re really making a difference?

Is your clothing really sustainable? These 5 clues will tell you
[Source Image: BorisRabtsevich/iStock]
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Over the past five years, references to “sustainability” at major fashion companies has more than doubled. There’s a good chance your favorite labels are bragging about how they’re saving water or cutting carbon emissions. But the fashion industry is harming the planet in myriad ways, and fashion brands must tackle many aspects of their environmental footprint.

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The fashion industry resource Business of Fashion has created a methodology to assess a fashion company’s practices, then uses this system to rank 15 of the largest companies in the industry, including Nike, Gap, Hermes, and the parent companies of Louis Vuitton and Uniqlo. None of the companies fared particularly well, since the average score was 36 out of 100; Under Armour came in last with a score of 9 while Kering, the parent company of Uniqlo, came it highest at 49. But this index can be useful to you, the consumer, even beyond these particular fashion companies. It can help you ask the right questions when you’re shopping and help you see past any greenwashing claims.

“Consumers are getting more sophisticated about how they think about sustainability because it’s a growing part of the cultural zeitgeist,” says Sarah Kent, Business of Fashion‘s sustainability lead, who spearheaded this study. “I think there is a greater appetite to understand the nuance and complexity of the problem, and reports like this—and others out there—can help break things down for them.”

What to look for

Over the past decade, consumers have become increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of their purchases. McKinsey found that nearly a third of Millennial and Gen Z consumers are willing to pay more for products that have the least negative impact on the planet. This has stayed consistent throughout the pandemic.

In response, fashion brands have begun to advertise their sustainable practices. Often, brands highlight their strength in one or two areas, conveniently staying quiet on others: Gucci reduces and offsets its carbon emissions; Adidas is creating a 100% recyclable shoe; Levi Strauss & Co is cutting its water usage. But being laser focused on one environmental impact ignores the diverse and often interconnected ways a brand is harming the planet.

“There are valid reasons why a company might choose to focus on a specific topic within sustainability, perhaps because it’s something they’ve analyzed or determine they can have the most impact,” says Kent. “But fundamentally, brands do need to tackle many issues when it comes to their environmental footprint, so if they’re only looking at one area, you do need to question why they aren’t addressing the others.”

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The report lays out five areas to focus on when considering how sustainable a brand is.

Emissions

Experts believe the global economy has 10 years to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. In response, many fashion brands are talking about how how they’re offsetting their carbon emissions, by doing things like planting trees. But it’s often unclear exactly what this means. A typical brand only tracks direct emissions from stores and offices, which generally account for just 10% of a fashion brand’s total emissions; the rest come from its supply chain and raw material production. So brands must track and offset their suppliers emissions, not just their own. Gucci began doing this in 2018, at a cost of $8.4 million. But even offsetting the supply chain is not enough because it is effectively undoing damage the brand has already caused; it’s better not to cause that damage in the first place. So consumers should look out for brands that are working to reducing their overall emissions.

Waste

Today, 40 million tons of textile waste is sent to landfill or incinerated every year. This waste comes from many sources. Companies over-produces clothes, expecting a percentage of inventory not to sell. They also buy bolts of fabric that they may never use. And then many consumers wear a garment just a few times before throwing it away. All of this wasted material required natural resources to create. An important question to ask as a consumer is what brands are doing to cut down on waste, from using “deadstock” materials to better managing their inventory to recycling fabrics.

Materials

Fashion’s top materials are polyester, which comes from oil, and cotton, which is water- and chemical- intensive to produce. Scientific innovation over the past decade has led to better, more eco-friendly alternatives such as Lyocell, a biodegradable material made from wood pulp that can replace cotton, polyester, silk, and more. Consumers should look out for these materials.

Water and chemicals

Making clothes has a terrible impact on the world’s water supply, from water-intensive cotton farming to using toxic dyes and chemicals that pollute local drinking water. Some companies have developed systems that reduce this impact. Levi’s now uses lasers to create a stonewashed aesthetic that would otherwise require gallons of water; Pangaia dyes garments with plants using a technology that concentrates the pigments, creating vibrant color. Consumers should pay attention to what brands say about their water use.

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Workers’ rights

There is a human cost to making clothes. Around the world, child and slave labor are more common than you think; so are unsafe working conditions and wage theft. Many brands don’t manufacture their clothes directly but work with factories, which allows them to distance themselves from the problem. It matters where brands are making their products and how workers there are being treated.

[Source Image: iStock]

The transparency problem

While consumers should hold brands’ feet to the fire on all of these fronts, it’s worth recognizing that it is currently very hard to assess their performance. While public companies must report their financial data to the government, there is no comparable way for companies to report their sustainability metrics. So consumers have no choice but to rely on companies to voluntarily report their sustainability goals and disclose their progress. Of course, this means that brands can make claims about their practices that are hard to track or verify. “If a brand is not measuring their progress and not disclosing data to other people, there’s no accountability,” says Kent.

To add another layer of complexity to the problem, many fashion brands outsource their manufacturing to factories and suppliers, then fail to stay on top of their partners’ environmental impacts. Business of Fashion found that not a single one of the companies they examined was willing to disclose details about their suppliers: “Fewer than half of the companies disclosed a full list of their direct suppliers, and none provided a complete catalog deeper in their manufacturing.”

Consumers can play a role in pushing their favorite brands to be more transparent about their supply chains. And if they’re not, you should be skeptical about any claims they’re making. For instance, H&M has said it will switch to sourcing 100% “more sustainable” materials by 2030, but is has been very vague about what that means and has not provided comprehensive details about its suppliers or materials. Many industry analysts have called H&M’s claims greenwashing, since it is not backed up with any data.

Unfortunately, the Business of Fashion Sustainability Index reveals that the fashion industry has a long way to go to cleaning up its act. But the first step to fixing the problem is understanding it and this research helps both brands and consumers know what to look for. “We only have a decade to achieve many of these goals,” says Kent. “Now we need to pay close attention to whether they’re improving every year.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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