Investigation by the Changing Markets Foundation claims a host of industry sustainability initiatives are not fit for purpose

Fashion industry certification schemes, labels, and initiatives aimed at steering the sector towards greener practices have been accused of facilitating ‘greenwashing’, after an investigation concluded that none of the leading sustainability schemes assessed were up to scratch.

The Changing Markets Foundation analysed 10 certification labels and industry initiatives used by fashion brands to measure and promote their environmental credentials. It concluded that all of the popular schemes were failing to adequately address environmental harms, such as rising waste levels, ‘fast fashion’ resource use, and use the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Market research carried out by the NGO found that one in three consumers in the UK are now frequently choosing to purchase fashion items that have green labels or sustainability certifications, but it warned that its investigation had concluded none of these schemes it assessed were fit for purpose.

Fashion industry initiatives assessed in the investigation included those run by some leading green organisations, including waste charity WRAP, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the Textiles Exchange, and Cradle2Cradle.

But that did not stop the Changing Markets Foundation accusing fashion industry schemes of facilitating greenwashing by “acting as a smokescreen for fashion’s continued heavy toll on the planet”, and thereby lulling policymakers and consumers into a false sense of security about the sector’s environmental credentials.

“While fashion brands double down on production and environmental destruction, they’re using sustainability certification schemes and voluntary initiatives as a smokescreen,” said George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation. “These schemes are unambitious, unaccountable, compromised talking shops that result in an industry-wide decoy for unsustainable practices, enabling sophisticated greenwashing on a vast scale.”

A report published yesterday compiling the investigation’s findings claims that all 10 schemes assessed failed to hold the companies they worked with to sufficiently high standards. It also accused the schemes of acting too sluggishly to address issues such as waste, overproduction, the rise of fast fashion, and the sector’s reliance on fossil fuels.

The NGO noted a rise in the number of environmental initiatives in the fashion sector in recent years amid growing eco-consciousness among consumers, and assessed each certification scheme on its level of ambition, its scope for continuous improvement, levels of transparency, and performance track record.

However, it argued that overall the various schemes had struggled to improve the performance of an industry that has seen environmental impacts “worsen significantly” over the past five years, noting an increase in the use of synthetic materials such as polyester, continued reliance on the extraction of fossil fuels, and the expanding mountain of textile waste created.

Harding-Rolls said the findings showed that voluntary industry initiatives were largely ineffective at driving environmental improvements across the sector, and argued such voluntary measures served to delay or derail regulations or reforms that could drive greater transparency and circularity.

“We don’t need any more voluntary schemes,” he said. “Certification and initiatives such as those in the report act as a placebo, creating a false promise that the industry will address sustainability voluntarily. We urgently need comprehensive legislation to change the course of the fashion industry onto a greener path.”

The fashion sector has increasingly come in for scrutiny over its environmental claims in recent years, as consumer awareness over the high environmental costs of ‘fast fashion’ has grown.

The impacts of the fashion sector on the planet are significant. It is estimated that Europeans consume on average 26kg of textiles per person per year, but as each piece is used for only a short period of time, this results in over 11kg of textiles being discarded per person per year, posing a major headache for waste systems and forcing up carbon emissions. The total emissions impact of the fashion sector is estimated to eclipse that of international aviation and shipping combined. 

BusinessGreen contacted several of the schemes and organisations criticised in the Changing Markets report, all of which acknowledged fashion brands needed to do far more to boost the sustainability credentials of the sector and agreed that legislation was needed to help drive further improvement and ambition.

But they disputed claims that voluntary industry initiatives were ineffective, arguing that by working together businesses were helping to increase ambition, establish best practices, and instigate change across the wider industry.

WRAP, which leads the Textiles 2030 voluntary initiative that set out a host of green goals for the sector to achieve this decade, said in a statement that while legislation was important for helping to create change in the fashion industry “it takes a long time to put new rules and regulations in place – time we don’t have”.

“We use business voluntary agreements in the absence of legislation so that systems change can be delivered as quickly as possible,” the charity said. “Our experience with food and plastics, as well as textiles, shows that they work and that businesses can be brought on board to make important steps early on.”

Since its launch less than a year ago, Textiles 2030 has attracted more than 100 signatories from right across the textiles and clothing value chain, including manufacturers, retailers, and recyclers, with firms committing to science-based climate goals as well as targets to reduce waste and drive material reuse.

WRAP said progress against these goals was tracked through annually submitted data backed by interim measures to drive progress, and that firms failing to failing to take tangible steps to help meet the targets could be removed from the initiative.

“We share Changing Markets Foundation’s urgency to accelerate and scale up sustainability solutions,” WRAP said. “WRAP reviews progress regularly by Textiles 2030 signatories and reserves the right to remove those that do not demonstrate adequate action towards these targets. This is openly shared and progress after just six months can be viewed in the interim progress report.”

Echoing WRAP’s response, Laura Balmond, fashion initiative lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said it was important to work with both policymakers and companies in order to drive change in the fashion industry. “Voluntary agreements are an important starting point, but we know they alone are not enough to address fashion’s waste and pollution,” she said, highlighting the organisation’s work in recent months pushing for a global UN treaty on plastic pollution.

“It remains critical that we continue to work with companies however, as they have the power and responsibility to change the materials and business models used at scale,” she added. “We will continue to raise ambition levels and ensure we drive the actions needed to create a circular economy designed to eliminate waste, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate nature.”

Textiles Exchange and Cradle2Cradle were both considering requests for comment at the time of going to press.

But a spokesperson for SAC said its sustainability certification tools were “trusted, credible and scientifically rigorous”, and were also “continuously evolving to align with the latest science and data available”. SAC conceded the fashion sector needed to “transform to better serve people and planet”, but argued that the organisation believed in “the power and collaboration and collective action to achieve this”.

“Empowering change is key – we live in a climate emergency and deep change needs to happen, and fast,” it said in a statement “If organisations are promoting their sustainability credentials to customers and stakeholders it is vital the action sitting behind these stands up to scrutiny. We work in active partnership with many others in the sector to advocate for greater transparency and substantiation of claims.”

The findings come as companies across all sectors face increasing scrutiny over their environmental and climate credentials, as policymakers and campaign groups seek to highlight instances of poor practices or ‘greenwashing’.

The fashion sector, however, appears to be particularly under the microscope at present. In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is currently assessing the scale of ‘greenwashing’ in the industry to determine whether firms are complying with consumer protection laws, while the EU is shortly expected to unveil a Textile Strategy aimed at curbing the sector’s environmental impacts.

Companies will no doubt generally prefer to work with others in their industry to assess what threy can do to reduce their impact on the environment, and voluntary initiatives have certainly been effective in pushing such issues up the corporate agenda and pressuring rival firms to take action.

But until they demonstrate significant, measurable progress on the industry’s overall emissions and waste levels, voluntary industry schemes will continue to run the risk of being accused of being too weak, ineffective or slow, especially when focused on an industry where most businesses remain wedded to high consumption and resource intensive business models. With looming environmental targets and the growing urgency of the interlinked climate and biodiversity crises bearing down on the corporate world in the 2020s, there is not long left for fashion firms to prove themselves.

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