Ensuring that consumers can easily access reliable information about a garment’s environmental impact and make responsible purchasing choices is key to driving the necessary changes in the fashion industry, Dalena White writes.
In a recent sweep of clothing and textile web pages, the European Commission found that more than half of green claims are unsubstantiated or simply untrue.
That means some of the "green" purchasing decisions you or I made during the past year are not any better than others and could be adding to the mess.
It’s clear that fashion is an industry flooded with greenwashing, facilitated by brand-dominated and self-governed definitions of "sustainability".
Consumers want to make a difference. But can they?
Up until now, retail has been writing the rulebook, and it's clearly not working. The need for regulation and harmonised sustainability language for consumers has never been more important.
We know that many consumers are keen to make a difference and purchase products proven to be better for the environment.
A recent study by Forbes indicates that Generation X and Z consumers are prepared to pay 10% more for a product they deem to be green.
This is a powerful consumer trend and can be applied to do a lot of good, but then we have to be sure our green claims are robust, based on science, and represent the best industry standards.
Let’s be clear: this is a huge business opportunity, but also a massive responsibility lying at the feet of our retail buying managers.
What methodology should we use while deciding on our policy?
On 22 March, the European Commission is due to publish its proposal on substantiating environmental claims.
This is one of the most crucial current policy developments, as we, as consumers, have such a big role to play in turning the tide of textile pollution and saving our valuable resources.
But we can only make a difference if we know how. The critical question lies in the methodology used to underpin the policy.
Some communications indicate that the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) will be the primary tool used, yet in other recent in recent reports, it seems the European Commission may be flexible to other methodologies.
The PEF methodology is the most substantial method currently at our disposal. If the European Commission chooses to open the proposal up to other methodologies, this will create challenges for the single market and could lead to more harm than good.
But the PEF is currently incomplete: the European Commission first started the PEF in 2013, and since then, we’ve had major advancements in research and knowledge around the environmental impacts of the textile industry, not yet reflected in the PEF methodology.
The simplistic application of life cycle assessment (LCA) like PEF does not account for the positive impacts of natural fibres, such as capturing carbon from the atmosphere, being renewable and biodegradable and not adding to microplastic pollution in the environment.
PEF must be updated to include three critical indicators on microplastic release, plastic waste and circularity.
A third of our plastic waste comes from clothing
Clothing is one of the biggest contributors to microplastic pollution. Synthetic fabrics are the biggest source of primary floating microplastics in the world's oceans, accounting for 35% of the total.
Yet microplastic release is not currently measured in PEF.
A clearly defined plastic waste indicator should also be introduced to the PEF, given the significant contribution of synthetic clothing to fast fashion and plastic waste.
The inclusion of a circularity indicator is essential to delivering the EU’s circular economy goals.
The Make The Label Count coalition has been campaigning for the inclusion of these indicators since its launch in 2021, calling for a level playing field for all fibres based on true scientific facts.
It’s critical that the PEF is brought in line with the latest science and made fit for purpose to ensure it helps deliver the EU’s sustainability and circularity ambitions.
We cannot do things half-way
The textile industry has never been regulated by the government, and it is of the utmost importance that we get this right the first time around.
Doing it half-right will result in steering brands and consumers in the wrong direction for decades, by which time we will have duplicated the mess we’re currently dealing with.
Synthetic fibres are highly prevalent in fast fashion due to their low production cost. It is estimated that around 70% of fibres used in clothing are fossil fuel based, and this amount is expected to grow.
The omission of indicators linked to synthetic clothing, including microplastics, plastic waste and circularity, will result in clothing made from fossil materials being shown as more sustainable and will result in misguiding well-meaning consumers.
It is time to clean the house. As clothing designers, retail managers and consumers, we’ve been making green purchasing decisions based on vague claims and shaky data for many years, and the result is clearly not sustainable — and that has to change.
Dalena White is the spokesperson for Make The Label Count (MTLC) Coalition, an international coalition of organisations working to ensure that sustainability claims for textiles in the EU are fair and credible.
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