The fashion industry has proven to be adept at spin. It has an enormous environmental footprint, using up more energy than aviation and shipping combined. Thankfully, the public isn’t always gullible. One survey of EU citizens found that 81% don’t trust clothing products’ claims to be environmentally friendly.
But the abundance of information from all sides makes it hard to sort through the exaggerations and the understatements. Here are a few of the ways that clothing companies attempt to portray themselves as more sustainable than they really are, according to the recent “Fossil Fashion” report of the Changing Markets Foundation.
Claim that synthetic fibers are more sustainable than cotton.
Cotton has problems with land, water, and chemical use. But it’s simply untrue that human-made textiles are less environmentally damaging than cotton, as certain fashion brands claim. Fashion’s huge appetite for plastic-based textiles has made this sector the third-biggest consumer of plastic (which of course derives from the fossil fuels industry). A shirt made of polyester has over 2.5 times the carbon footprint of a shirt made of cotton. Synthetic fibers already make up the majority of all fibers used in clothing, and this share is set to grow in the future. Fashion companies like polyester and other synthetic textiles because they’re (unsustainably) cheap and popular; to claim that they’re also green is misleading.
But also: Over-rely on words like “natural” and “organic.”
First of all, there’s no clear, uniform, regulated use of “natural,” “green,” and other terms, so just about anybody can stick them on a package or in an ad. And it’s not always the case that “natural,” however it’s defined, is safe or resource-efficient. Words like these create a green halo that may have little to do with companies’ actual sustainability practices.
Emphasize recyclability, when this only applies to a tiny proportion of their products.
The proliferation of synthetic textiles, including mixtures of natural and synthetic textiles, is creating a recycling nightmare. Natural fibers can’t easily be separated out for eventual reuse or recycling, while polyester clothes are likely to rot in landfills for hundreds of years. So not even 1% of clothes are recycled into new clothes. Brands like Superdry proudly point to the recyclability of their packaging, but that pales in comparison to the carbon footprint of their main product. And when synthetic clothing is made of recycled materials, it generally comes from plastic bottles, which could more efficiently be recycled into other plastic bottles.
Tout certifications and sustainability programs; these don’t always amount to much.
Voluntary commitments abound in the fashion sector, including the Better Cotton Initiative, Global Organic Textile Standard, and New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Some are better than others. Various programs may lack transparency, have limited ambitions, or use confusing measurements that give the appearance of greater progress than what has actually been achieved. This doesn’t mean that sustainability labels are useless; they can be a helpful guide to consumers who don’t feel up for wading through reams of research every time they need to buy a jacket. But these certification schemes certainly aren’t a silver bullet, and don’t let clothing companies entirely off the hook.
Address microfiber pollution…but only at the washing stage.
Patagonia has been doing more on the environmental front than many other companies, but relying on washing bags to limit the release of microfibers in washing machines – as Patagonia does with its Guppy Friend bag – doesn’t get to the heart of the microfiber pollution problem. Tiny bits of plastic from clothing make their way into water bodies not only when the clothes are washed, but also simply when they’re worn or disposed of. And because they’re microscopic, water treatment plants can’t always filter these out.
This litany of environmental excuses popular with the fashion industry might have you wanting to curl up in defeat. But just because fashion houses can’t always be trusted, doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for individuals and organizations to do. Ultimately, consumers can buy less, buy better, pay more, wash less, and research more.
At a larger level, it’s up to regulators to prevent companies from doing what companies so often do: inflate their images. The “Fossil Fashion” report urges the European Commission, for instance, to “prevent companies from making unsubstantiated green claims, particularly related to their use of recycled polyester from plastic bottles and the share of recycled polyester in their products,” and to put in place rules that “address the proliferation of certification and labelling schemes in the sector. To prevent overstated claims of sustainability by fashion brands, only the most ambitious, robust and full life-cycle schemes should be allowed.”