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Study Reveals Shortfalls in Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s MSI

A review of a leading apparel-industry tool claims to have uncovered key weaknesses that could undermine results with “potentially far-reaching consequences for the environment.”

Stephen Wiedemann and Kalinda Watson, researchers at Integrity AG & Environment, an agricultural service provider in Queensland, Australia, have performed what they call a “comprehensive analysis” of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Material Sustainability Index (MSI), which assesses the sustainability performance of different textile materials.

But while such rating systems are intended to measure and minimize environmental impacts, they could “very well have the opposite effect.”

“It is essential that the textile industry continue to improve its sustainability,” Wiedemann said in a statement. “We need robust, accurate and reliable methods to generate meaningful ratings that can be trusted by all parts of the supply chain, including consumers.”

The MSI, the analysts argue, needs to include the full life cycle of products. Its current iteration excludes both the use phase (which “is generally the highest impact stage”) and end of life. This is insufficient because the way a consumer engages with a garment can vary significantly according to its purpose and fiber content, Weidemann and Watson wrote.

“Without assessing these factors, it is impossible to correctly understand the impacts from different clothing,” they said. “It is also impossible to combat the problem of fast fashion if the amount of time a garment is used for is not taken into account.”

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Microplastics are another concern the MSI doesn’t account for, they note. Because one of the primary causes of microfiber pollution is shedding from synthetic clothing, any “robust assessment” of a material’s impact must include this behavior. Otherwise, the scores will remain unbalanced. This could be tricky, they acknowledged; at present, there are no universally accepted metrics for quantifying these particles.

“While the science for measuring microplastics is still being developed, an interim accounting system could be implemented,” Weidemann and Watson said.

Other improvements the MSI could do with? Higher-quality data—complete with degrees of scientific confidence—and improved transparency regarding the tool’s scoring methodology.

“ The MSI combines environmental impacts into a single ‘score’ by applying different weightings to energy, water, greenhouse gases, etc.,” the researchers said. “There is no agreed scientific way to say which of these is more important, hence value judgements have been made to derive the MSI score.”

Any “raw” information that leads to the score should be reported, “as a matter of good practice,” they added.

Finally, life-cycle-assessment (LCA) results don’t present the complete picture.

“Renewability, biodegradability, carbon cycling and biodiversity are all aspects which, although difficult to integrate into LCA, are part of the equation and need to be considered in a comprehensive environmental measurement,” Weidemann and Watson said. The MSI needs to look beyond LCA data if it seeks to present a more accurate—and holistic—appraisal.

“This review is intended as a constructive contribution,” Weidemann said. “Most of the issues we found can be addressed by adhering to International Standards and guidelines for best practice in LCA. The result would be a stronger tool that would be more likely to improve the sustainability performance of the global apparel and footwear industry.”

Released earlier this month, Integrity AG & Environment’s study was funded by Australia Wool Innovation, the not-for-profit trade group that promotes Australian wool as a luxury product through the Woolmark Company.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition declined to comment on the report.