Fast-fashion brands claim they’re cleaning up their act for the planet, but their premise might be inherently flawed
The fashion industry uses fossil fuels. Up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output is attributed to fashion, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
The sector produces 92 million tons of textile waste each year and consumes 100 billion kilowatts of water. One fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced each year is accounted for by it.
The production of synthetic fibers, which are usually made with materials derived from fossil fuels, is expected to increase over the next two decades, while apparel consumption is projected to rise by over 50% a year.
In light of these figures and a growing number of sustainable fashion brands, the sector is starting to clean up its act.
Cleaning up the Fashion supply chain
Over the past decade, claims about circularity, recycled plastic fibers, and zero emissions have become central to the marketing budgets and business development plans of many high street companies. They have published reports about the issues of sustainable living.
Such initiatives are not significant enough to compensate for the industry's impact. The 1 million square foot solar-paneled roof on the New Jersey distribution center marks a significant step forward in the climate strategy of the fast retailer.
The H&M Group, the fashion giant that has devoted the most efforts to track its climate footprint and ensure transparency across its supply chain, has long been running an array of sustainable programs. In the UK, Norway, and the Netherlands, the retailer is facing scrutiny over its claims of being sustainable, and an investigation published last summer showed that its products were misleading.
With low prices and rapid consumption at the core of these companies, can they ever really mitigate their environmental impact?
The answer is hard to understand.
The New Standard Institute is a think tank working with scientists and researchers to advance accountability in fashion. The marketing is ahead of the game when it comes to shifting things. Greenwashing is what it is.
She says that companies should spend more of their money on the actual programs than on advertising them to the public. Ask yourself how this initiative compares to the scale of progress necessary. That is what matters the most.
Ensuring a tighter supply chain.
The supply chain needs to be cleaned up.
The manufacturing supply chain contributes to a fashion brand's environmental footprint. Over half of major companies don't reveal information about their factories.
There isn't any legislation that requires it. Voluntary disclosures make brands reticent about them.
H&M is an exception The company's suppliers are listed on the Open Apparel Registry, an open source tool that seeks to improve human rights and environmental conditions in and around factories and facilities. Alternative materials that could reduce environmental impact are evaluated by it. Uniqlo didn't comment for this piece.
The H&M Group's climate impact lead says that the biggest emissions happen when they source raw materials. Helping suppliers transition from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives, energy efficiency, and reducing and recirculating water are some of the areas we are focusing on.
The Green Fashion Initiative aims to cut emissions across its value chain by helping factories invest in technologies and processes that can reduce energy needs The Fashion Climate Fund seeks to unlock $2 billion in capital to accelerate decarbonization and drive collective action to tackle fashion's supply chain emissions.
Veronica is a fashion industry analyst and critic of H&M. She believes that these efforts may distract from the damage being done to the planet.
The big-ticket items for greenhouse emissions are manufacturing and source of goods. She says that the manufacturing of yarn, knitting, weaving, dyeing, and finishing is more important than the purchase of cotton because of the different power grids in different countries. China's carbon intensity, which measures how many CO2 emissions are produced per kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed, was 701% higher than France's and 201% higher than the US's.
H&M doesn't have any factories in Europe or France. She says that presenting material alternatives as more eco-friendly than cotton is not a good idea.
She says that the use of synthetic materials is problematic. Cotton and silk have their own environmental costs, of course, but saying that polyester is better and that if you switch out your fibers to fossil-fuel–made ones your production becomes magically sustainable is utter nonsense.
The industry is very opaque.
The Higg Index, the industry's leading suite of tools for assessing the environmental impact of all sorts of fabrics and materials, was founded on data like this.
Almost 150 retailers, including some of the world's largest fashion brands and retailers, from H&M to Amazon, are members of the sustainable apparel coalition. Reducing greenhouse gases, reining in the use of finite resources, and improving the management of chemicals are some of the goals.
Since its launch, it has received a fair amount of criticism from independent experts, particularly for its Materialssustainability index. Even though polyester is a prime source of microplastic pollution, it has been attributed a higher environmental impact to wool. 40% of the industry's emissions come from its manufacturing.
In the wake of the recent investigation into H&M's claims of being sustainable, SAC paused the index and said it would work through "crucial insights and learnings" from the pilot. The Higg is used by retailers and policymakers. The European Green Deal is considering using the HiggMSI data to influence its "substantiating green claims" legislation and Product Environmental Footprint tool.
The full life cycle of each material is not considered by the Higg index, and secondary data from analyses done by trade associations may have a vested interest in synthetic fibers. Most of its findings are very narrow and not peer-reviewed. At its core, it is flawed because it is a critical tool. I don't see a lot of opportunities to move the industry forward until that happens.
She isn't as critical toward the Higg as Bédat is. She says that the fashion industry knows the best information and often these tools come from it.
The fashion industry is mostly unregulated. Consumers aren't educated enough to change it so we can't expect them to. Better ways to keep itself in check is what the system needs to step up.
Those ways may have to come from the top down.
The fashion industry is profit driven. The bottom-line benefit is always important when it comes to the retailers spending on their sustainability efforts.
That limits the degree to which fast fashion can actually push for a paradigm shift. Absent government intervention, brands are likely to keep cranking out new products and stay vague about their climate footprints.
She says that most large fashion retailers won't do enough until tighter policies are put in place. Better legislation is a must. The fashion industry is important to the government's climate goals. I don't know if we're there yet.