In the first part of his monthly column, Oliver Balch looks at a series of damning reports on a sector that is trying to play up its green efforts, from plastics content to human rights

Fashion thrives not only on how we look but also how our clothes make us feel. Hence, the surge in eco-branded products in recent years. Consumers crave animal-friendly products on their feet and natural fibres on their backs. Feeding today’s £6.35bn eco-clothing market is a steady stream of novel fads and fashions.

As with everything in the clothing business, the more eye-catching the better. Like news that the Vancouver-based yoga and athletics outfitter, lululemon, is commercialising a “world’s first” (key phrase) yarn made from industrial-sourced carbon emissions. Or developments at U.S.-based lingerie brand Gelmart that will see a bra pad made from sugarcane now appearing on Walmart’s shelves. Or the announcement from Allbirds (whose supplier, Braskem, helped Gelmart refine its environmentally friendly bra foam) that its tie-up with Adidas has resulted in a prototype running shoe with sub-3kg of embedded carbon (10kg less than the industry average). Such is the plethora of sustainable fashion innovations, in fact, the recently opened Amsterdam-based Fashion for Good Museum has a dedicated exhibition to the subject.  

Welcome as all this future-focused thinking certainly is, it regrettably doesn’t mean that the fashion industry’s age-old problems have gone away. Planned obsolescence, multi-layered supply chains, low prices and fixed consumer behaviours are just some of the persistent stumbling blocks towards greater sustainability, according to a recent industry conference on the subject. The conclusion of the meeting’s organiser, Swiss bank UBS: “It’s complicated.”

Even by the sector’s embattled standards, the deluge of critical reports has come thick and fast

Even by the sector’s embattled standards, the deluge of critical reports has come thick and fast this past month. First came a damning report from the World Benchmarking Alliance on gender equality. By the independent analysts’ reckoning, only three companies – Adidas, Gap, and VF Corporation – merited more than half marks in its inaugural Gender Benchmark (the average score for the 35 brands studied was 29 out of 100).

More damning still were the conclusions of an investigation by the Changing Markets Foundation into the amount of fossil-fuel based fibres in the collections of 50 major fashion brands. The study maintains that three-fifths (59%) of green claims by fashion brands are little more than “greenwashing” because they rely on replacing a percentage of synthetic with downcycled polyethene terephthalate (PET) bottles, which could more sustainably be recycled by the food industry, rather than investing in textile-to-textile recycling, and preventing millions of tonnes of textile waste going into landfill.

The worst-performing brands included Adidas, lululemon (see above) Nike, Target, Walmart and, most surprisingly, Patagonia, which “failed to publicly disclose any meaningful information about its use of synthetics and plans to phase them out nor did it engage with us on the questionnaire”.

Gelmart has created a bra pad made from sugarcane. (Credit: Gelmart)

Brands separately singled out for misleading environmental claims were H&M,, and Marks & Spencer, although the use of “vague”, “ill-defined” and “misleading” language is held to be rampant across the industry.

H&M and M&S robustly defended themselves when we asked them to respond to the Changing Markets Foundation report. 

An H&M spokesperson said: “We don’t recognize ourselves in the way we are depicted in regards to misleading claims. We base all our product sustainability claims on credible third-party certification schemes for our materials to ensure sustainable sourcing and integrity.” 

Nevertheless, H&M also conceeded that, in the long term, “textile-to-textile recycling solutions are needed and that is why we are actively investing in recycling technologies, such as Worn Again, TreeToTextile and Renewcell to reach our goal to increase our use of recycled fibers to 30% already by 2025”. 

M&S said: “We take a responsible approach in how we talk to our customers about sustainability. We fully comply with all relevant legislation/guidance and can support all of the claims made on our website.” 

The company said it was “currently investigating how to increase our use of fibre-to-fibre recycled fibre across our product range” and had joined the Circular Fashion Partnership “a cross-sectorial project to support the development of the textile recycling industry in Bangladesh by capturing and directing post-production fashion waste back into the production of new fashion products.” H&M, Target and Primark are also among the brands in the partnership.

From environmental impacts to dodgy pay, the Clean Clothes Campaign recently berated the sector for what it maintains is “pandemic-era wage theft” in seven Asian countries. For example, international brands owe Cambodia’s 784,000 garment workers up to $393m in outstanding wages and severance pay incurred since the start of the Covid outbreak. According to the U.S. campaign group, one of the worst-hit groups are employees at Adidas’s eight Cambodian suppliers, who local trade unions say have seen $11.7m wiped from their wage packets in the last 18 months.

Fair wages also form part of a damning appraisal by the workers’ rights group Fashion Revolution. The organisation’s new Fashion Transparency Index 2021 finds that 99% of the world’s largest 250 clothing brands fail to disclose the number of workers in their supply chains who receive a living wage. A similar proportion (96%) have no public roadmap for how they intend to ensure that workers get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Apropos of Covid-related disruptions, fewer than one in five (18%) major brands are found to disclose the number of orders they end up cancelling.

Simply put, the acquisitive urge to buy is stronger for many of us than the ethical impulse to desist

Of course, in an industry as global and as complex as today’s fashion sector, such inconsistencies are not unusual. As the above examples show, in fact, it is eminently possible for a brand such as Adidas to find itself leading in one area while struggling in another.

But while critics will take such variable performance as evidence of brands’ insincerity in sustainability matters, consumers tend to be less quick to judge. Such hesitancy is partly born from human nature; simply put, the acquisitive urge to buy is stronger for many (or most?) of us than the ethical impulse to desist. But the patience of consumers also derives from their relationship with the brands they buy from. If the latter messes up, the former expects to see efforts to fix it.

Consumer patience is not infinite, however. Indeed, finding out just how far it will stretch is something BooHoo (which also came out worst for polyester use in the Changing Markets report), currently appears intent on testing. After a low-wage scandal engulfed the UK clothing brand last year, it commissioned the retired senior judge, Lord Brian Leveson, to investigate the problem and assess the brand’s response. “Progress is evident”, Leveson concluded in a 13-page report released last month, although campaign groups beg to differ, arguing that Boohoo’s low-price model and price competition practices among suppliers continue much as before. The brand’s change strategy is not in dispute; the question is whether it is being effectively implemented. Policy vs practice, a perennial challenge seemingly without end.  

The Clean Clothes Campaign has highlighted ‘pandemic-era wage theft’ in Cambodia. (Credit: Samrang Pring/Reuters)

The one-step-forward-one-step-back nature of the fashion industry’s sustainability “journey” begs a more profound question. If complexity lies at the crux of the problem, what steps are being taken to simplify things? Systems are not permanent. What’s made can be unmade or, more usefully perhaps, re-made. Re-localising the fashion industry’s globalised supply chain is one obvious measure. Gone would be the layers of third-, fourth-, fifth-level suppliers, where many of the industry’s problems centre. Such a move, say brands, would push prices up (no bad thing perhaps) and deny much-needed jobs to emerging economies (less good).

Tech is another tool for system simplification. Take Instagram’s recent introduction of an option for business owners to add a “black-owned” tag to their company bio. Or consider the adoption of blockchain-based tools to stamp out greenwashing, something software expert Provenance is promoting through a free, new fact-checker service that consumers can use online and instore. Cosmetics e-retailer Cult Beauty is an early adopter of Provenance’s technology, offering its online shoppers a proof point function to double-check claims made by manufacturers on its platform.

Simplicity alone won’t solve fast fashion’s sustainability challenges. Some systems are innately complex. Yet, as a broad principle of management, looking for opportunities to simplify – wherever, whenever, and in whatever ways possible – would keep fashion brands from tying themselves up in quite so many knots.

See also:

Brand Watch 2: FSC slowness to drop Korindo shows need for brands to pull up their socks

ESG Watch: 11 funds join UK campaign for greener pensions

Policy Watch: European Commission heads into open water with climate plan

Main picture credit: Michael Dalder/Reuters


fashion industry  H&M  M&S  Sustainable fashion  eco clothing  WBA  Adidas  Changing markets foundation  textile waste  Clean Clothes Campaign  boohoo  Provenance  Fashion Transparency Index 

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