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Fashion Can Do This One Thing to ‘Defy’ Greenwashing

As fashion’s sustainability claims increasingly come under the microscope, circumventing greenwashing is still possible, one industry expert insists.

“The only way to defy greenwashing is to have information, to dedicate some time to that information and to have the impetus to discover what that information is,” Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, said at the launch of the advocacy group’s annual Fashion Transparency Index in London last month.

The seventh edition of the index, which ranked 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers based on their public disclosure of human-rights and environmental policies, practices and impacts, cracks a window into what these businesses are prepared to say about their supply-chain operations, she said.

Companies are graded out of a possible 250 points across myriad categories, including purchasing practices, decarbonization targets and sustainable materials. This is then converted into a percentage score, with the higher the better.

“Once you speak the language, you can understand the nuances,” de Castro said. “And in terms of greenwashing, this is a really important tool to be able to decipher what brands are actually doing versus what they say they are doing.”

There has been some progress in ferreting out information from firms more used to being tight-lipped than plain-spoken. When the first Fashion Transparency Index rolled out in 2016, only five brands out of 40—a mere 12.5 percent—were prepared to divulge any information about their inner workings. Today, 121 out of 250, or 48 percent, are open to scrutiny, perhaps bolstered by growing calls from investors and policymakers in the United States and European Union for more information.

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With overall progress ultimately remaining “too slow,” however, the industry has far to go before it kicks its secrecy addiction, Fashion Revolution found. Brands and retailers achieved an average score of 24 percent, or just 1 percent higher than last year. Nearly one-third of companies, or 81 out of the 250, scored less than 10 percent. Of them, 17, including Elie Tahari, Fashion Nova, Jil Sander and Tom Ford struck out with 0 percent. Only three brands, OVS, Kmart Australia and Target Australia, scored higher than 70 percent, and no one exceeded 80 percent.

H&M, which is the subject of a class-action lawsuit over “false and misleading” environmental scorecards and advertising, slipped from second to fourth place with a score of 66 percent.

“I think we need to consider the [revenue] of all those brands that are disclosing no information at all,” Liv Simpliciano, Fashion Revolution’s policy and research director, said at the same event.

For Simpliciano, the results show that most clothing purveyors have failed to fulfill what she calls the “bare minimum: to be honest and truthful about your business practices.” Even low-hanging fruit such as publishing a list of Tier 1 suppliers have been plucked by only 48 percent of the 250 companies, although 10 brands that were reviewed in last year’s index have since done so for the first time, including Bally, Chloé, and Guess. And despite the escalating urgency of the climate crisis, less than one-third of brands and retailers revealed decarbonization targets covering their entire supply chain, not just Scopes 1 and 2.

Commitments versus outcomes

Another problem, Simpliciano said, is that brands and retailers are disclosing more information about their policies and commitments than they are about their outcomes and impacts. While 28 percent of companies were forthcoming about the circular solutions they were developing, only 15 percent disclosed their annual production volumes and just 8 percent shared their post-production waste volumes.

“Brands absolutely know how much they’re producing because no business is sustainable if they have no idea what they’re producing,” she said. “It’s clear that they’re choosing not to disclose this information, which really obscures the impact of overproduction and overconsumption. For brands to continue to be untransparent about their production volumes, it signals that they might be more interested in profiting from the problem than actually addressing it.”

While degrowth, she noted, appears to be a “scary word” for the industry, it’s “absolutely” necessary. “We cannot reasonably meet our carbon reduction targets, which by the way are very much not great, by 2050,” Simpliciano said. “We’re in a climate crisis as it is. We’ve been issued a code red warning.”

Other numbers are equally dismal. A mere 11 percent of brands and retailers publish their supplier wastewater test results, “despite the textile industry being a leading contributor to water pollution,” the index said. Only 24 percent of them disclose how they minimize the impacts of microfibers, and a marginally higher 32 percent publish their Manufacturing Restricted Substance Lists.

In terms of purchasing codes of conduct, just 12 percent indicate how their purchasing practices could be affecting suppliers and garment workers. Extending from this, the vast majority of companies reviewed—or 94 percent—do not reveal the number of employees in their supply chains who cough up recruitment fees, painting an “unclear picture of the risks of forced labor.” Equally salient, only 13 percent of the firms divulge how many of their supplier facilities have trade unions.

What’s interesting, said Maeve Galvin, Fashion Revolution’s project manager for the European Citizens Initiative to demand living wages for garment workers, as well as its global policy campaigns director, is that 84 percent of brands and retailers publish a policy outlining their commitment to freedom of association, the right to organize and collective bargaining at the supply chain level.

“This speaks to what Liv talked about earlier, which is well-worded and very straightforward commitments that are disclosed but that are not backed up by impact and progress data,” Galvin said. “So the distinction between the 84 percent making high-level commitments and the 13 percent who have disclosed what the impact looks like on the ground is quite stark. And this jibes with what we know—that the environment for organizing collective bargaining is incredibly difficult in some places and impossible in others.”

When workers are unable to unionize, they’re unable to advocate for better working conditions and higher wages, she said.

“Garment-producing countries are really some of the worst places in the world for trade unions,” Galvin added. “And this is not a coincidence. It’s connected to sourcing strategies and a business model that scrambles for low prices through a mechanism of cheap labor. So again, what we really need here is honesty, so that brands’ stated commitments on freedom of association and collective bargaining are not out of sync with what’s happening on the ground.”

Making unsubstantiated claims

Other discrepancies abound. Another case in point: By Fashion Revolution’s count, while nearly half of brands and retailers (46 percent) published targets on sustainable materials, only 37 percent provided information on what constituted a sustainable material.

This discrepancy is attracting growing regulatory scrutiny. The Norwegian Consumer Authority, for instance, recently took issue with Norrøna’s use of generalized Higg Materials Sustainability Index data to claim that its organic cotton T-shirts were better than conventional alternatives. (It wasn’t rated by the Fashion Transparency Index.) Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority warned Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda last week that it will be investigating whether their green pronouncements actually hold water. (They received scores of 51 percent, 27 percent and 28 percent, respectively.)

“Quite frankly, brands should not be allowed to make claims about sustainable materials without disclosing what they mean by that and backing that up with information,” said Ciara Barry, policy and research coordinator at Fashion Revolution. ”This is the environment we’re in where greenwashing is rampant. And we all know that without scrutiny, greenwashing really thrives, which is why we cannot have unsubstantiated claims from brands.”

Transparency, Fashion Revolution stresses, should not be conflated with sustainability. Even if a brand or retailer scores highly on the index, it doesn’t mean it’s better socially or environmentally speaking.

“Transparency is only a first step, but it’s an important step,” de Castro said. “And it is a first step that has been further and further acknowledged as something that we all need to counteract an industry that is inscrutable, is opaque and has deliberately designed itself to be that way.”

“We cannot fix what we cannot see,” she added. “Keeping brands accountable and keeping the industry scrutinzable and scrutinized is the first step toward understanding what they are saying.”