Hardly any term has been so enthusiastically embraced in recent years as “sustainability” - suddenly everything is “green”, “sustainable”, “eco” or “organic”. Unfortunately, however, it often remains a promising term that holds little water in practice. “Conscious” collections turn out to be minimally recycled and clothing return initiatives are used to boost sales of new goods by giving vouchers to consumers.
The environmental organisation Greenpeace had enough of the promises and a plethora of proprietary sustainability labels from brands and retailers and took a closer look at them for its recent report “Greenwash Danger Zone”. The result? Sustainability sells well and therefore often remains just a clever marketing ploy. FashionUnited has compiled the most common sustainability myths that the report uncovered.
Slowing down vs. circularity
According to Greenpeace, there are two ways brands and retailers can take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products: by slowing down production or by closing the loop through circular design, take-back and recycling.
“The two concepts are interlinked, but to solve the problem, slowing the flow takes priority over closing the loop, because overproduction makes closing the loop impossible to achieve. Simply colouring a linear business model in guilt-free, recycled green can never be sustainable,” states Greenpeace.
Just like “sustainability”, the term “circularity” has also become a buzzword. However, Greenpeace has condensed fashion companies' efforts into three non-functioning elements: Take-back programmes that only distribute textile waste to the Global South; the use of plastic waste from other industries, which sounds good but does not address the problem of textile-to-textile recycling; and so-called recycled and recyclable fashion, which is made of fossil fuel-based polyester and remains the main driver of overproduction.
“Despite the fashion industry hype, the reality is that circularity is virtually non-existent in the fashion industry; while less than 1 percent of clothes are recycled into new clothes, garment production volumes are growing by 2.7 percent annually,” is the sobering reality.
“Every second a truckload of garments is burnt or sent to landfill. Helped by newer online retailers like Shein, the destructive fast fashion fad is speeding up, not slowing down,” adds Greenpeace.
Myth 1: recycled polyester
Fast fashion needs polyester, which is based on PET plastic and thus the fossil fuels of the petrochemical industry. Polyester fibres are not biodegradable; on the contrary: microplastic fibres are released during the garments’ production process and when washed by consumers. They then end up in rivers and oceans, where it can take decades for them to degrade.
“There is no system for the large-scale recycling of used polyester fabric into new textiles. The majority of ‘recycled’ polyester relies on ‘open loop’ sourcing of post consumer PET plastic bottles or collected marine plastics. However, this simply speeds up the conversion of solid material into more bioavailable microplastic fibres, released into rivers and seas when clothes are washed,” sums up Greenpeace.
Myth 2: organic cotton
After polyester, cotton is the garment industry’s most widely used material. While conventional cotton cultivation is associated with various environmental and social problems, such as the use of large amounts of water, pesticides and fertilisers, as well as the use of GMO seeds, which accounted for almost 80 percent of all cotton grown in 2019, so-called organic cotton is not without its problems: it depends very much on which initiative grows it and where it is grown. Also if GMO seeds are allowed and if farmers get paid more for their organic cotton.
“BCI cotton is providing fashion brands with cotton that is only slightly better than the unsustainable mainstream cotton, with the lowest possible effort from the brands. This contributes to continued overproduction and overconsumption of clothes and thereby hinders much needed essential change of the current fashion system,” finds the report.
“Instead of settling for half measures such as Better Cotton, more brands, in particular global brands which hold a significant share of the market, should be prepared to source Organic and Fairtrade cotton and pay a higher price. This is the only way to make a significant positive impact on the environmental and human costs of conventional cotton,” advises Greenpeace.
Myth 3: cellulose fibres
Cellulose fibres are a relatively new but growing material source in the fashion industry. They are made from natural materials (usually wood or other cellulose sources such as cotton waste) that are converted into fibres in a man-made process. Lenzing’s Tencel, EcoVero, Modal Black and Modal Colour, for example, are produced in a 'closed loop' to prevent the release of chemicals. EcoVero has 50 percent fewer emissions and uses 50 percent less water than conventional viscose, and in Modal Black and Modal Colour the fibres are dyed directly during the solvent process, resulting in a 90 percent saving in chemicals and significant savings in water, electricity, heat and wastewater.
Chemical recycling of natural fibres is also possible with a cellulose dissolution technique similar to viscose production, as demonstrated by a VTT Research project in Finland that converts textile waste into new fibres. Similarly, Lenzing uses the Tencel production process to recycle cotton waste for its Refibra recycled cellulose fibre.
“Apart from the need for minimal impacts during processing, cellulosic fibres also rely on forests which could be ancient and endangered forests. The CanopyStyle initiative publishes a ranking guide of cellulosic fibre producers, which ‘provides a path for brands, retailers, and MMCF producers to help address the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, by reducing the sectors’ pressure on forests’ and encourages producers to shift to sourcing materials that would otherwise go to waste and add to our landfills instead. Criteria on forest policy include an independent third party verified audit and traceability,” says Greenpeace.
Myth 4: sustainable labels by brands
Greenpeace examined the sustainable labels of the 29 members of its Detox Initiative (dedicated to reducing hazardous chemicals in textiles), including H&M's ‘Conscious’, ‘Primark Cares’, Zara's ‘Join Life’, Decathlon's ‘Ecodesign’ and C&A's ‘Wear the Change’. These were examined for a number of criteria, including clear labelling of what exactly is being certified, supply chain traceability, workers' wages, whether the internal label is verified by a third party, and whether PET plastic, BCI Cotton or the Higg MSI Index are used.
The detailed overall rating of the individual brands and labels can be found in the Greenpeace report; the main takeaway is that only two brands received a good overall rating, namely Coop's ‘Naturaline’ and Vaude's ‘Green Shape’; Tchibo's ‘Gut Gemacht’ received a satisfactory rating while all other programmes did not stand up to closer scrutiny.
“Unsurprisingly, our assessment confirms that self-assessed marketing labels by brands can be challenged as greenwashing, a trend which has picked up speed in recent years. These ‘fake standards’ ensure that fast fashion giants do not have to adhere to the strict rules of independent standards, but can virtually write the rules themselves. Sustainability has become a communication goal without really putting credible measures in place to realign their linear business models,” is Greenpeace’s sobering verdict.
The environmental organisation therefore recommends tackling the linear model of the fashion industry and accepting that fast fashion can never be sustainable. But there are some things brands and retailers can do right now, such as producing fewer clothes that last longer and that can be repaired and recycled.
In addition, no textiles should be put on the market that cannot be recycled in textile recycling processes; mixed fibres still cause problems in this respect. In general, clothing should also be taken back, with repair and exchange models being offered.
As a rule of thumb, Greenpeace recommends that by 2035 at the latest, only about 40 percent of clothing should be newly manufactured and 60 percent should come from alternative systems such as repair, second-hand, rental or exchange.
Fashion companies should also publish detailed data on the materials used and seek a dialogue with their customers about all sustainability measures.