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Exactly How Bad Is Fashion for the Planet? We Still Don’t Know For Sure

Fashion brands know they need to reduce their environmental footprint. But misinformation and a lack of solid data to measure progress are hampering the industry’s effort to clean up its act.
Source: BoF
  • Sarah Kent

LONDON, United Kingdom — Maxine Bédat has spent the last two years trawling for hard facts on the fashion industry's social and environmental impact. It's been a struggle.

Bédat plans to launch the New Standard Institute, a database and innovation hub intended to help the industry adopt better practices, in April. She’s travelled the globe and spent countless hours on the phone with experts and industry insiders in an attempt to track down the source of commonly cited industry figures. Some — like the idea that the apparel industry employs one in six people worldwide, or that 80 percent of garment workers are women — seemed to be simply made up. When it came to the industry’s environmental impact, there were more hard data points, but they weren’t necessarily better.

“If it weren’t such important data it would be funny,” she said. “We’re finding less of this fake data loop on the environmental side, but there’s also just more data gaps.”

Fashion certainly ranks among the world’s dirtiest sectors (even if the “fact” that it’s the second-most polluting has been repeatedly debunked). Clothes are made from materials produced by heavily polluting industries like oil and agriculture. Manufacturing processes often involve harsh chemicals and large volumes of water. Merchandise travels further across global supply chains. Unsold and used clothes add to growing piles of waste.

But the fact that the industry’s inner workings remain more-or-less a black box is a stumbling block for efforts to fix these problems. The opacity surrounding environmental impact can be a convenient excuse to avoid tackling the subject in a meaningful way. And though more brands are signing onto global initiatives to reduce their footprint, many lack the information they need to pursue change effectively.

"Ignorance is bliss," said Sanjeev Bahl, founder of denim manufacturer Saitex International, which makes jeans with a lower environmental footprint for brands like Everlane, Eileen Fisher and Ralph Lauren Corp. "You can greenwash the heck out of it and nobody will hold you accountable."

Even as scores of brands lay out targets to improve their environmental footprint, they’re often relying on bad or incomplete information to figure out where and how to focus their efforts.

If it weren't such important data, it would be funny.

As more brands look to improve their sustainability record, groups are developing more tools and databases to help companies approach the issue, from the Council of Fashion Designers of America Inc's guide on sustainability to Bédat's NSI. Brands and activists say that ambitious targets are a useful first step in driving better data collection and accountability, and the industry already has a good enough understanding of the issues to start making significant changes. But these goals become meaningless if they aren't eventually backed up by hard data to make it possible to measure progress.

Last year, a group of major fashion brands came together under the auspices of the United Nations to lay out an industry charter for climate action. Companies including Kering SA, Burberry Group PLC, Hennes & Maurtiz AB and Inditex SA have signed on, committing, among other things, to reduce the industry's emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

One of their first tasks will be figuring out what it is they’re reducing from.

"The need for credible data is certainly crucial and something we are trying to address," said the UN's engagement lead on climate change with the fashion industry, Lindita Xhaferi-Salihu, noting the group is working to gather the necessary information.

Even the best analysis currently available on the industry’s climate impact, a 2018 estimate that it makes up about 8 percent of global carbon emissions, is open to question. ClimateWorks, the group that funded the analysis, took its name off the report, saying more work was needed to “accurately account “ for emissions, though it remained supportive of the research. Quantis, the consultancy which conducted the research, said the issue amounted to a difference in methodology and stands by its work.

Without this kind of information, the fashion industry is flying blind when it comes to operating more responsibly.

“It raises serious questions for companies setting targets,” said Linda Greer, a textile expert who spearheaded environmental non-profit The Natural Resources Defence Council’s work with the fashion industry until late last year. “The data they need to measure what they’re doing and what they need to do in a meaningful way barely exists.”

Kering has analysed its environmental impact for years, from emissions to water consumption and pollution, but it too has blind spots. The company is targeting a fully transparent and responsible supply chain by 2025. Last year, it said it was 95 percent of the way there.

"If you don't have a clear analysis and point of view about which points of impact you have and where your points of impact are, you can't put in place programmes to improve," said Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer at Kering.

Without this kind of information, the fashion industry is flying blind when it comes to operating more responsibly.

The challenges facing Kering — one of the biggest fashion companies on the planet — point to how far the industry has to go to gain an accurate read on its environmental impact.

Measuring a company or product's environmental footprint requires untangling complicated systems that have grown up over decades with little scrutiny or oversight. And despite years of discussion about the need for greater transparency and understanding of supply chains, many brands simply aren't doing the work. According to the Global Fashion Agenda, around half the industry haven't taken any action on sustainability at all.

Companies are quick to embrace trendy initiatives like a ban on fur or intangible long-term targets that can generate positive headlines and drive sales. Data analysis doesn’t create the same buzz.

“Unfortunately, instead of presenting information, people want to present something that’s either a massive number or a sexy story,” said Phil Patterson, managing director at Colour Connections Textile Consultancy. “There need to be metrics and some sort of analysis from start to finish of a product.”

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an alliance of more than 200 brands, retailers, manufacturers and industry watchers, has been working since 2011 to build a unified set of tools that can measure the environmental and social impact of products, factories and companies. But uptake has been sluggish and relies on self reporting, leaving gaps.

“There’s serious holes in the databases available every step of the way,” said Greer, who used to serve on the SAC’s board. “We’ve had the same conversation for seven or eight years, and yet the data is not increasing in quantity or quality.”

Just 7,000 factories completed an assessment in 2017, and fewer than 6,000 have registered for the 2018 assessment cycle. The SAC had originally set a goal to have 20,000 factories on their platform by last year.

The SAC said its work marks the first time the industry has embarked on this kind of initiative and will take time. It said it gained 48 new members last year, which it takes as a sign of the industry’s growing commitment to change.

“We are getting much, much closer to the metrics that are needed to drive change,” said Amina Razvi, the SAC’s interim executive director.

There's serious holes in the databases available every step of the way.

The lack of data is adding to the complexity companies face when trying to operate in a more climate-friendly manner, such as weighing the benefits and costs of using different types of materials.

For instance, cotton’s environmental impact can vary greatly depending on where or how it’s grown, but that nuance isn’t necessarily reflected in tools used to assess the crop’s impact. By contrast, recycled polyester is more water-efficient than cotton, but comes with risks around microfibre pollution.

"There aren't really any tools out there to allow brands to understand their impact," said Claire Bergkamp, sustainability and innovation director at Stella McCartney.

The brand has been at the forefront of efforts to make the industry greener and is looking at ways to commission new research and share its own learnings.

Of course, the current knowledge gaps shouldn’t stop the industry from moving forward with efforts to improve its environmental performance.

“There’s a dilemma around how much you want to be evidence-based and how much you want the industry to get moving,” said Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at the Global Fashion Agenda. “The house is on fire so we have to move fast, but we can’t just do whatever.”

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