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Why Fashion Should Take Sustainability Talk from Checkmarks to Concrete Claims

Environmental responsibility has become a shared ideal and goal for much of the fashion and textile world, and as a result, companies have ramped up their outward communication about their efforts to reach consumers and industry partners. But this desire to market sustainability could be complicating the conversation.

According to Marc Lewkowitz, president and CEO of U.S. pima cotton promotional organization Supima, how fashion speaks about sustainability needs an overhaul to weed out noise, get away from greenwashing and better reflect the complex nature of the topic. Many companies are leading with claims that either are not backed up or cannot be proven. Blanket statements about being “sustainable” are unfounded, and a lack of standardization further confuses matters.

“All terminology that’s being used to promote sustainability is suspect, because there’s no consistency, no unity among the industry,” Lewkowitz said. “It is all arbitrary, and I think that’s the biggest challenge.”

Per Lewkowitz, one claim without footing is that organic cotton requires less water to cultivate than non-organic cotton. This is misleading, in part because feeding a cotton plant less water than it needs could actually be detrimental to sustainability efforts, since a plant might yield less cotton relative to the amount of resources consumed. In order to achieve the positive environmental impacts of cotton—including carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emission reduction—the plant also needs to be healthy. “To use this marketing noise conversation point that organic uses less water is irresponsible, and ultimately it’s going to hurt the growers that are trying their best to actually grow true organic cotton,” he said.

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Further complicating claims about water usage, the volume of water needed for cotton crops varies greatly depending on the environment in which plants are grown. For instance, drier climates rely more heavily on irrigation, whereas in other areas cotton is grown using rainwater. Water usage needs can also differ from year to year depending on weather cycles.

Because of the regional differences between cotton cultivation areas, there is no singular idea of what sustainability means in cotton, and Lewkowitz sees a need for more nuanced, localized communication. Otherwise, it is not comparing apples to apples, but rather “apples to cabbage.” The formula for calculating sustainability also has to be flexible to account for fluctuating variables such as pest pressure.

While some sustainability claims are vague or deceptive, others—such as organic designations—have more regulatory frameworks surrounding them. Organic cotton producers in the United States have to follow strict state- and federal-level guidelines regarding chemical usage, farming practices, seeds, land management and water use.

However, even certifications can’t always be trusted. In 2020, organic cotton certification agency GOTS reported it found evidence of forged transaction certificates in India, and had identified a total of 20,000 metric tons of fake organic cotton.

Getting away from the overreliance on certifications, Supima is working with Oritain to physically verify its fibers. By scientifically testing the fibers, the legitimacy of Supima cotton can be proven at any point in the supply chain.

Supima’s supply chain visibility is also aided by its compact size. Only 0.5 percent of the world’s cotton yield is Supima cotton, and all Supima cotton is produced in the U.S. With concerns surrounding forced labor in the textile supply chain, companies now have even more incentive to know exactly where their fibers are coming from. Without it, products could be delayed or barred from entry into the U.S.

Clearing out the clutter

Sustainability is a complex subject. Companies cannot simply point to one piece of the puzzle as proof they are having a positive impact. Aside from production, there are a number of factors that go into a firm’s total carbon footprint—from facility energy use to logistics.

“There’s a lot of good intention in principle, but to do the right thing for sustainability and responsibility and to be authentic is not easy,” Lewkowitz said. “It’s not as simple as checking a checkbox. It actually takes a lot of work and investment in time and energy and resources to understand the subject, to understand the relationships associated with that, as well as the breadth and engagement of sustainability matters.”

To build a more authentic sustainability communication strategy, Lewkowitz says that companies should ask themselves what is meaningful and important. At Supima, this has translated to simplified talking points that focus on provable concepts. Making a comparison to the slow fashion movement, Lewkowitz described it as a “slow conversation” and suggested that brands should pause, consider their specific goals and what’s feasible, and then take “baby steps” starting with what they can speak to.

“If you can dial back the conversation to the salient and demonstrable, verifiable, supportive aspects of the things that you’re doing, then you’re not creating noise anymore; you’re actually building a foundation of what work is actually going into the efforts that your company is doing,” he said.

For Supima, it also comes down to data. The organization is a partner of the Better Cotton Initiative and the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, both of which give it access to more data on the impact of cotton growing. The Trust Protocol also measures the effect of changing farming practices, helping guide the industry’s progress.

Sustainability is a constantly moving target, and companies should show that environmental responsibility is a persistent activity in their communications.

“Cotton has been around for 7,000 years or so, and the farming practices that were employed centuries and millennia ago are vastly different than they are today,” Lewkowitz said. “And even 50 years ago or 20 years ago, they have changed substantially from then. So that sustainability conversation is a process. There’s no end point and there’s no finish point.”

For more on the sustainability developments in Supima cotton, watch the 2021 Supima Harvest Symposium, including presentations, virtual tours and talks.