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Sustainability in Fashion: Checking the Facts

Transparency has become a top priority for brands today as they adapt to the growing demand for sustainability disclosures. But while sharing supply chain details is a smart brand positioning move, companies must be diligent in disseminating reliable information.

“Brands have brought in this consumer curiosity, so bravo to them for doing that,” said Kathleen Grevers, director of education, global programming at Fashion Revolution, during a panel discussion at the 2nd annual Supima Harvest Symposium moderated by Sourcing Journal founder and president Edward Hertzman. “However…brands need to understand what they mean when they do say ‘sustainability,’ what they mean when they do use ‘regenerative,’ ‘organic,’ all of these other greenwashing buzzwords.” To combat greenwashing accusations and earn the trust of skeptical consumers, she added that brands must ensure that the data they’re sharing is specific and accurate.

Getting the research straight

When industry figures—including brands, nonprofits and the media—discuss cotton in particular, a number of statistics get cited time and time again. But some of these frequently mentioned data points are actually misleading. A recent report from Transformers Foundation used cotton as a case study on fashion misinformation, dispelling some wide-held beliefs about the crop. For instance, the report debunks the idea that producing each kilogram of cotton fiber requires 20,000 liters of water, and that cotton uses one-quarter of all global insecticides.

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Andrew Olah, founder of Transformers Foundation, noted that he’s not sure where some of the misleading statistics came from, but some originated in the 1990s. While they might have been true then, they continue to be repeated three decades later, despite the fact that much has changed. Olah stressed the need for better data responsibility. “People should get their research straight, get their research clear and have peer approval,” he said.

Cotton accounts for approximately 80 percent of the world’s total natural fiber production. Because of the sheer size of the industry and because the crop is grown around the globe, the data gathered on cotton needs to reflect regional differences in environmental conditions. For instance, some plants might get most of their water from rain in a wetter climate, while more arid locations rely more on irrigation. Other factors like whether the soil is made of clay or sand can also impact statistics.

“The nuances of data are still the challenge because there’s been this raking of data across a very large, broad surface and swath, but it isn’t representative yet of the actual on-the-ground data,” said Marc Lewkowitz, president and CEO of Supima.

Along with misleading the market, inaccurate data—such as the 20,000 liters of water figure—provides a poor benchmark for marketing claims as well as advancing sustainability.

Jesse Daystar, vice president and chief sustainability officer at Cotton Incorporated, noted the need for more detailed information for the purpose of driving progress. He compared the current measuring capabilities to trying to determine the width of a hair follicle using a yardstick. “Data…is only so useful. It’s what you do with it, and it’s just a measuring stick,” Daystar said. “If we want to track the impact and improvement through time, we do need a measuring stick. And quite frankly, our measuring stick for sustainability is a pretty rough measuring stick at this point.”

One initiative that is working to provide better data about the American cotton industry is the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, which launched last year. This program aims to collect more and higher-quality information, digging into sustainability statistics at a localized level to account for discrepancies in climate and soil.

“Give it a couple of years’ time and the data set that will come out of this for U.S. cotton and Supima cotton is going to be immensely valuable because it allows [us] to engage further in that conversation of what’s working, what’s not working, where are the challenges and where we can improve,” Lewkowitz said.

Click the image above to watch the video to learn what the industry gets wrong about cotton and how to build better cotton data literacy and integrity.