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From Boohoo to Versace, Fashion Industry Still Lags on Cleaner Viscose

High-street retailers and luxury brands alike have “failed to deliver” on sustainable viscose sourcing, according to a new report released Wednesday by Changing Markets Foundation, a social and environmental advocacy group with headquarters in London.

Although 10 major brands and retailers—the “Frontrunners,” which include Asos, C&A H&M, Inditex, Marks & Spencer and Next—have signed a roadmap committing to clean up their viscose supply chains, most have yet to do so.

In fact, more than a quarter (27) of the companies Changing Markets surveyed have no viscose-specific policy of any kind. And where they do exist, viscose manufacturing policies are often “piecemeal or vague, addressing only a portion of the supply chain through ‘sustainable’ collections or offering lofty promises of more responsible viscose without evidence of concrete action,” the report’s authors wrote.

There has been some improvement, Changing Markets acknowledges. Of the 91 brands the nonprofit contacted this year, almost two-thirds (54) engaged with “some kind of response” compared with a third of 53 brands last year.

Several brands have shown improvement when it comes to transparency as well. Four of the Changing Markets roadmap signatories, for instance, now publicly list their viscose suppliers, down to factory names.

Viscose producers such as Aditya Birla Group, Enka and Lenzing have also made strides by setting targets in line with the European Union’s Best Available Techniques and investing in circular techniques using pre-consumer waste.

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But the industry, as a whole, still has far to go in terms of both policy and transparency.

“Sustainability is not just a buzzword but must lead to a fundamental shift in the way companies operate,” Urska Trunk, campaigns advisor at Changing Markets, said in a statement. “Our findings show that many brands and retailers are still paying lip service and making lofty promises, rather than actually delivering transformative change.”

Changing Markets’ report drew a “clear divide” between U.S. and European brands. Not one American company entered the “Frontrunner” category, for instance. And only one U.S. brand—Victoria’s Secret”—made it to the second-tier “Could do better” category.

The lowest-rated “Laggards,” Changing Markets noted, are low-cost retailers such as Boohoo, Forever 21, Matalan, TK Maxx and Walmart. They stand shoulder to shoulder with high-end houses like Armani, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Versace, “proving that this problem is not confined to the cheaper end of the market.”

Still, brands can “no longer turn a blind eye” to their environmental and social impacts, Trunk said.

An Ipsos MORI poll commissioned in January by Changing Markets and the Clean Clothes Campaign found that three-quarters (75 percent) of some 7,000 respondents across five countries said clothing brands should be responsible for what goes on in their manufacturing. More than half (56 percent) said they would be turned off from supporting brands associated with pollution from production.

“With increasing awareness of the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, people expect clothing companies to take responsibility for their supply chains,” Trunk said.

Viscose is currently the third most commonly used textile fiber in the world. It starts off as wood pulp, which can originate from ancient and endangered forests if companies fail to conduct due diligence. The process of creating viscose relies on caustic chemicals, which can escape into lakes and rivers in the form of untreated wastewater, harming subsistence agriculture and exposing local populations to potentially cancer-causing substances.

Self-regulation by businesses has proven to be insufficient, according to Changing Markets. Even initiatives such as China’s Collaboration for Sustainable Development of Viscose lack ambition by requiring producers to adhere to less rigorous standards.

“The fact that the majority of brands and retailers still only pay lip service to responsible viscose manufacturing or ignore it completely points to the fact that governments need to introduce legislation that will focus the entire industry’s attention on delivering fashion that is better both for the environment and for people,” the report noted.