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Fashion greenwashing problem starts with bad data | Intelligence, BoF Professional

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London, United Kingdom – Fashion has a problem with fake news.

Want to know how many people are employed in the industry, where they work, or how much they are paid? What about the amount of clothing produced each year and the amount of water used to make them?

Good luck in finding a definitive answer to any of these questions. The conversation around the social and environmental impact of fashion is riddled with vague claims and untraceable statistics. More famously still, fashion has been called the second most polluting industry on the planet, a regularly cited “fact” that has been widely debunked.

The lack of good data is a major obstacle to improving fashion’s track record on climate change and improving the lives of millions of garment workers, advocates say. Opaque working practices and fuzzy definitions of sustainability provide a cover for companies to engage in high-level, green marketing that is not accompanied by real efforts to improve. They also make it difficult for even well-meaning brands to choose the right suppliers and materials.

“If you can’t get the right data, you can’t get the right results,” said Tamara Cincik, founder and CEO of UK industry lobby and advisory group Fashion Roundtable.

There are long-standing reasons why hard facts about the fashion supply chain are so hard to come by. For starters, many companies aren’t sure exactly how and where the materials used to make their clothes come from. Some companies collect data from their suppliers, but they don’t always disclose it to the public, and when they do, it’s rarely standardized to facilitate comparisons with competitors. In many cases, exactly what to measure and how remains a matter of debate.

Sort facts from fiction

There are signs that things are gradually improving. A growing number of independent initiatives are striving to provide better information in order to educate consumers and industry.

“To make concrete and demonstrable progress, we… must help clear up the blunders that are sustainability,” said Maxine Bédat, founder and director of the New Standard Institute, a think tank that aims to demystify the subject. “It’s always shocking to look up and see how little we invest in actual research before jumping to conclusions that we should be doing X, Y, and Z, or saying cotton is the best or the worst thing. . “

If you can’t get the right data, you can’t get the right results.

On Wednesday, the organization launched a roadmap providing advice to consumers, media and industry on how to navigate today’s landscape, avoid misinformation and drive change. It presents guidelines on how to read between the lines of press releases, critically explains the value of commonly used standards, and provides a framework for a more factual approach. It is accompanied by a masterclass in six parts. Later this year, NSI is rolling out a fact-checking database that will score commonly cited facts based on the reliability of their source.

The NSI is part of an increasingly urgent effort to provide high-quality and accessible information on the impact of fashion to a wider range of stakeholders. As brands struggle to understand the best course of action, consumers are equally confused and increasingly wary of potential greenwashing. As the industry is increasingly monitored by regulators, the need for good information becomes even more pressing.

“If we are to make progress on sustainability commitments, we need traceability and transparency,” said Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Remake. “It’s not a quick fix, but it’s the first step.”

Before Bédat ran NSI, she co-founded Zady, one of the early entrants into the ethical e-commerce space. She had previously worked at the United Nations, finding in the neoliberalism frenzy that characterized the early 2010s, that businesses could more effectively and quickly drive change.

Although Zady was originally a platform dedicated to responsibly sourced products, Bédat was frustrated with the difficulty of finding brands that knew enough about their manufacture to truly support sustainability claims. The company launched its own private label to try and produce clothing with a fully traceable supply chain and has started publishing its results.

“Brands much, much bigger than Zady would contact privately and say, ‘The information you share is so helpful to our team,’” Bedat said. “I was shocked, because I thought the average person doesn’t didn’t know, but I assumed industry insiders did.

She shifted gears, deciding that the best way to turn things around was not to make more clothes, but to help fill knowledge and research gaps in the industry.

A roadmap for understanding commonly used standards | Source: NSI

It took Bédat two years to consult with experts and comb through the documents to build a solid evidence-based, peer-reviewed program for NSI. It was a trip that brought her to China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to better understand fashion supply chains. She traveled to Ghana to research the fate of donated clothes and to Texas where she met cotton farmers. She has worked with climatologists and consumer psychologists, labor experts, toxicologists and agronomists, as well as economists, political theorists and experts in intersectional environmentalism, which advocates the protection of people and the planet.

“The industry cuts across so many things that, until now, existed in silos,” Bédat said. Even now, the hard truths remain elusive. “We are not God, we do not have that, but what we can say is’ it is a more reliable source, and it is a less reliable source” ” .

Industry joins the effort

The industry is also promising change. Last month, an industry advocacy group World Fashion Agenda and consultancy firm McKinsey has launched a report analyzing and quantifying greenhouse gas emissions from fashion. The prognosis was not good. Fashion accounts for around 4% of global emissions, according to the report. On its current trajectory, it is on the verge of exceeding levels aligned with global goals to prevent catastrophic climate change by 2030.

The fact that this type of base did not already exist is “alarming,” said Karl-Hendrik Magnus, senior partner at McKinsey. The GFA will present the report to members of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action later this month. The initiative was launched in 2018 with signatories committing, among other things, to reducing industry emissions by 30% by 2030, despite the lack of a baseline.

It’s not a peer-reviewed academic report, but GFA and McKinsey said they seek to be transparent about their sources, consulted with experts, and devoted significant space to showcasing their methodology.

Elsewhere, many industry players see the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index as a promising sign of progress. The widely used suite of tools designed by the industry alliance promises a standardized and comparable set of sustainability performance measures. According to the SAC, almost all of the top brands have assessed themselves using Higg tools and have been used to collect environmental data at more than 18,000 factories.

“The fashion value chain is the most opaque, distributed and outsourced of any product type in the world,” said Amina Razvi, Executive Director of SAC. “For impacts such as the amount of CO2 emitted by the fashion industry, the number of workers employed by the industry, the amount of water used by this industry, these types of totals are elusive and continue to grow. be, but we are getting closer to establishing better baselines. “

Of course, such initiatives are not without criticism. They argue that the SAC and the Higg Index are not transparent enough. It is supported by industry and businesses self-reporting their data, which for the most part is not made public.

Without good data, you end up in greenwashing.

“SAC gives industry coverage,” Remake’s Barenblat said. “It’s like Exxon measuring its fossil fuel footprint.”

The SAC argues that it is a multi-stakeholder organization and that academics, non-profit organizations, governments and other organizations have all contributed to the development and implementation of the Higg index. Many of its tools are open. More and more brands and manufacturers can choose to share their results and it is important to have a standardized set of metrics.

“There are many academic or NGO-based measurement tools for the garment industry, but most of them have failed to gain traction,” said Razvi.

Transparent and independently verified information is important because data is powerful.

During the pandemic, Remake led a campaign to force companies to pay for canceled production orders. The panicked withdrawal of many fashion companies sparked a humanitarian crisis as garment workers lost their jobs and wages. As a result of this campaign, 21 brands pledged to pay in full for orders completed and in production. Remake estimates that it has released $ 1 billion for suppliers in Bangladesh and $ 22 billion globally.

“Pay up was such a success because we had really good data,” Barenblat said. Although many brands initially refused requests, it was difficult to dispute the evidence of canceled orders and their devastating financial impact.

As the issues of climate change and global inequalities become more pressing, it is increasingly important to ensure access to reliable information.

Without good data, “you wind up in greenwashing,” Fashion Roundtable’s Cincik said. “So many people are drawn to social media, which is a series of opinions rather than facts… we clearly need experts, otherwise we are just living in a world of fake news.”

Related Articles:

How Fashion’s Sustainability Goals Are Measuring Up

Will fashion ever be good for the world? His future may depend on it

How bad is fashion for the planet? We still don’t know for sure

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