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Watchdog Says There Are No ‘True Leaders’ in Sustainability, Transparency Among US Retailers

Every industry has its leaders and laggards, and the fashion industry is no different. A review of 14 major American clothing companies by environmental watchdog Green America, however, uncovered “much room for improvement” on transparency, chemical, waste and water management and workplace conditions across the board.

Green America discovered a dearth of “true leaders” in the field. Take Target, which along with The North Face, Nike and Gap Inc., rated “better than average,” for example.

Despite scoring highly for its plans to reduce its water consumption by more than 500 million gallons by 2025, the possession of  both a public manufacturing restricted substances list (MRSL) and a public restricted substances list (RSL), and a commitment to sourcing 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2022, the big-box retailer fell short of Green America’ s standards regarding factory safety and waste and recycling.

Among the problems? While Target has a standards of vendor engagement and shares its process for ensuring social compliance, it shares neither its audit findings nor goals about improving factory conditions, Green America said.

“Target also has a goal for all clothes to be designed ‘for functional durability to last the life cycle of the product’ by 2020, which sounds great in principle,” the authors of “Toxic Textiles,” which was published Wednesday, wrote. “But there isn’t an indication of what the life cycle of a product is or how the goal will be achieved in practice.”

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Similarly, Green American gave The North Face middling grades for factory safety and waste and recycling, Nike (which owns Converse and Hurley) for alternative materials, factory safety and waste and recycling, and Gap Inc. (which operates the Athleta, Banana Republic and Old Navy brands) for factory safety, water management and waste and recycling.

Many of these less-than-perfect scores, Green America said, have to do with companies’ lack of specificity, resulting in vague commitments without “concrete plans, metrics or timelines.”

Nike, for instance, has a goal of sourcing only from factories rated bronze or higher based on its sustainable manufacturing and sourcing index, yet it doesn’t explain how compliant a factory must be to receive that rating. Gap Inc. has pledged to manufacture 25 percent of Athleta’s products using water-saving techniques but hasn’t extended that same ambition to its other subsidiaries. The North Face offered up “ambitious goals” to boost circular design but failed to produce a time-based roadmap.

“Companies often say that they have a policy addressing an environmental or labor issue without going into detail about what they are doing to measure their progress or achieve their goal,” the authors noted.

Chief among the report’s worst performers were Carter’s (which also owns OshKosh B’Gosh and Skip Hop), J.Crew (which owns Madewell) and Forever 21 for offering little to no corporate policy on chemical management, factory transparency, factory safety, water management, alternative resources or waste and recycling. Forever 21, in particular, distinguished itself by having no chemical-management plan, no water-management plan, no plans to source alternative materials and no specifics about how it enforces its supplier and vendor social compliance policies.

Green America also damned Ann Taylor, Walmart, Abercrombie & Fitch, America Eagle, Ralph Lauren, The Children’s Place and Urban Outfitters Inc. (which also runs Anthropologie and Free People) with the faint praise of being “behind the curve but not the worst.” These companies, it said, tend to claim to have policies but shy away from details, which can be seen as a form of greenwashing.

“Consumers want sustainable clothing, and the market is responding,” Caroline Chen, Green America’s social justice campaigns manager, said in a statement. “But too often, many of the promises we hear from conventional companies are token sustainability initiatives that are band-aids to one small part of the problem, or empty platitudes without a plan to achieve real change. Sustainability shouldn’t just be a marketing trend.”

In May, Green America launched a campaign urging Carter’s to publicly adopt a strong and transparent chemical-management policy—beginning with a public MRSL—and issue public updates as it phases out the most hazardous chemicals in favor of safer alternatives.

Despite offering Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified clothing as a valiant “first step,” Carter’s still sells predominantly conventionally produced clothing that places workers and consumers at risk from various harmful chemicals, Green America said.

“Carter’s customers deserve to know what toxins may be in their children’s clothes and what Carter’s is doing to eliminate those toxins,” it noted.