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Fashion’s Achilles Heel? Greenwashing.

Fashion’s greenwashing problem is threatening to unravel the progress it’s made to become more sustainable, a new report says.

As the world’s biggest brands face intensifying pressure to clean up their polluting ways, many are resorting to nebulous, unsubstantiated or outrightly false claims to assure consumers, investors and governments that they are making progress, according to the authors of “The Great Greenwashing Machine,” which was published on the Eco-Age website last month.

By exaggerating their efforts and distracting from the root causes of the industry’s, brands may even be obstacles to meaningful change, the paper noted. But even the most well-meaning companies are struggling—and indeed failing—to achieve their goals because they’re employing bad data and a flawed definition of sustainability.

The latter is especially tricky, said Veronica Bates Kassatly, a former World Bank economist and co-author of the report. As a term, “sustainability” is neither regulated nor legally significant. It has no universally agreed-upon definition, though it came close with the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Report, which served as the basis for the United Nations Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs). As such any corporation or country that claims to adhere to the SDGs is also claiming to uphold the Brundtland definition of sustainability, which states that the environment “does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions and needs” and that sustainability “implies a concern for social equity between generations.”

Many brands, Kassatly said, are focused on tackling sustainability from an environmental angle, forgetting that it has a socio-economic component with millions of often fragile livelihoods at stake. Yet it’s the needs of the industry’s lowest rung of workers, the majority of whom reside in the global south, that Brundtland says must be given overriding priority.

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“Instead we have this top-down approach where billionaires have been brought together to decide how they’re going to measure sustainability,” said Kassatly, an outspoken critic of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), which frames synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester as better for the planet than their more natural counterparts, including silk, cowhide and alpaca. “We’re talking about people’s livelihoods. You cannot go around making claims that what they’re producing is unsustainable or less sustainable without even consulting them.”

Much of the data the platform uses, she said, is outdated, overly generalized or unfit for comparison. “If all these major companies want to make fiber sustainability claims, they must commission a suite of [life-cycle assessments] which are identical in terms of their methodology, their boundaries, the weather, how they’re allocating grants—all of these things all be identical,” Kassatly said. Otherwise, making blanket statements about whether one fiber is more or less sustainable than another is unhelpful at best and harmful at worst, especially if people are left out of the equation.

The SAC says that the Higg MSI is only one tool in the broader suite of tools that measures social and environmental indicators to “provide businesses a holistic view of their impacts on a global scale.” The MSI methodology and data have been thoroughly reviewed by independent LCA experts and use state-of-the-art databases and tools, it added.

“The SAC is not the source of any LCA data; we simply consolidate the best available LCA data in a single place and rely on the industry sectors and their LCA practitioners for the most current data,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “The SAC is in contact with and working with various material industries that are willing and open to collaborating with industry partners. We will continue to invite collective action and collaboration across the industry to improve existing data and drive positive action across the industry on both social and environmental impacts, as we have since we were founded.”

One way out of this morass is better standards that prevent greenwashing and allow companies to demonstrate how they’re making improvements, said Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, director of the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights and the paper’s other co-author. “I think many brands are really well-intentioned and truly want to become more sustainable,” she said. “But there’s also an industry that projects a version of sustainability that probably has the wrong foundations in the first place, and there’s data that is being repeated over and over again, where you can have a second look and ask, ‘Is that actually true?’”

Without science-based metrics, green claims create a “false sense of security for investors and consumers,” she said. “And they also portray things in a way that does not allow any investor or consumer to distinguish between different brands. There are a million different ratings and rankings because there’s no common standard in terms of what’s expected.”

There have been efforts to crack down on inaccurate or misleading assertions. The Competition and Markets Authority in the United Kingdom recently warned businesses they have until New Year’s Day to ensure their environmental claims comply with the so-called Green Claims Code. Similarly, a new European Union initiative will soon require businesses to use standard methods to quantify claims they make about the environmental footprint of their products or services. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission is planning to update its Green Guides for marketing claims in 2022.

“I do believe that regulation could really help everyone have a level playing field,” Baumann-Pauly said. “And then if the same expectations are communicated and enforced, it could help individual companies to implement their ambitions.”

Green skepticism

Greenwashing is “essentially talking and not doing,” Zinnia Kumar, founder of sustainability and diversity consultancy The Dotted Line, said last week at CFS+, the digital version of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “Greenwashing is a PR or marketing spin that deceptively promotes a company and its products or services as eco-friendly,” she said. “It’s viewed as a marketing gimmick to save on CSR, quell investors, gain fake eco-reputational capital, whilst not actually doing the work.”

The problem with greenwashing is that consumers are an increasingly savvy bunch, and “green skepticism,” once triggered, reduces the chances of purchasing green product because of the “ecological risk associated with buying that product,” such as logging in the Amazon. Some of the main factors that promote green skepticism include ambiguous information, limited transparency, misleading claims and lies, a lack of tangible evidence and a lack of diversity that contributes to “Euro-centricity and white saviorism” in advertising imagery.

Brands can overcome these challenges, however, in several ways. Companies can, for instance, create “harmony” between the image and the message. “Instead of claiming greenness while presenting a disconnected stereotypical marketing image, for example models frolicking in grass with zero explanation, instead create harmony between the message, science and image,” Kumar said. Bringing a science communicator onboard can help by presenting evidence in a clear and precise manner, dispelling ambiguity and increasing consumer knowledge.

Another power move: take action. “You can’t make molehills into mountains any longer,” Kumar said. “So you need to prove your green commitment with tangible actions that create change and demonstrate a reduction in risk, for example reducing water usage, investing in waste treatment plants, increasing wages and support for workers supporting conservation projects and many other things. Don’t just talk about it in your annual report—show us, tell us; we want to understand it and we want to see it.”

Ramping up diversity is also important—90 percent of the world isn’t white, yet more than 95 percent of sustainability conversations are centered around white people “and there is no difference in the fashion industry,” Kumar said. “People of color have historically been excluded from eco-issues that concern them, for example, labor practices, promotion of indigenous textiles, land management degradation and pollution. By moving away from Euro-centrism and white saviorism, you can create non-greenwashing perceptions.”

A ‘false solution’

One category of fashion that has drawn criticism of greenwashing of late is clothing made from recycled plastic bottles. While the garments are frequently presented as reducing the industry’s reliance on virgin fossil fuels while diverting waste from the landfill or incinerator, environmental campaigners say they’re actually creating more plastic waste.

Recycled polyester is a “false solution,” the Changing Markets Foundation said in a recent video, because once bottles are “downcycled” into clothes, the material cannot be recycled again and must instead be thrown away. Intercepting bottles this way takes them out of a truly circular system that allows them to be remade into new ones multiple times, reducing the amount of new plastic required.

“Making clothes from bottles is a one-way ticket to landfill, incineration or being dumped in nature,” the think tank said, adding that one garbage truck worth of clothes winds up in the landfill or environment every second. “Using plastic bottles for clothes does nothing to solve this problem. Bottles should be remade into new bottles and clothes into new clothes rather than relying on another sector’s waste.”

All polyester, whether recycled or virgin, also generates microplastics that inundate the world’s waterways, harm wildlife and foul up the food chain. These tiny fragments of plastic have been found in the furthest reaches of the Antarctic and the deepest marine trenches, in table salt and tap water, in bottom-dwelling starfish and even human stool.

“Instead of tackling microplastic pollution at the source by reducing reliance on synthetic fibers, brands choose to greenwash recycled synthetics as one of the solutions,” Changing Markets Foundation said. In any case, it added, fashion’s token use of recycled synthetics is a “drop in the ocean” compared with its enormous reliance on virgin synthetics, with the production of new fibers growing exponentially over the past two decades.

“Making fashion from plastic bottles is just another greenwashing tactic by brands to encourage people to buy more clothes in the belief they are more sustainable,” the organization said. “It’s time to end the greenwashing.”