Many of us - as consumers or textile and clothing industry insiders - wonder how to make sense of confusing garment labels that claim that said garment is “sustainable”, “eco”, “green” or some other term that suggests that buying this garment or textile is in any way less harmful for the environment.
‘If only someone would compare all those and look at how sustainable these claims really are,’ we may have thought. Well, someone has just done that. In its latest greenwashing study, “Greenwash Danger Zone”, environmental organisation Greenpeace has scrutinised popular sustainable labels and collated its findings.
For the study, Greenpeace looked at all 29 Detox-commited members - its supply chain detox commitment launched in 2011 - and selected those for further review with a clearly defined product marketing label that uses any of the above mentioned terms. This left 11 members - Benetton, C&A, Coop, G-Star, H&M, Mango, Primark, Tchibo, Tesco, Vaude and Zara. To widen the approach, Greenpeace added three more companies, German retailer Peek & Cloppenburg, Italian brand Calzedonia and ZDHC member (Zero Discharges of Hazardous Chemicals) Decathlon.
“All the brands assessed have programmes on environmental and social responsibility at varying levels of sophistication, something that they aim to reflect in the various promotional labels which we assess here,” explained Greenpeace
Common areas of concern
The environmental organisation found common patterns of concerns, which are summed up below.
- Tags that are confusing for consumers because they are featured like certified labels, and sometimes named after company sustainability programmes
- A lack of third-party verified or in-house evaluation of compliance with the best available standards on the environment, social and human rights.
- A lack of supply chain traceability beneath the label
- No commitment to changing the business model to one that “slows the flow”, that is reduces production
- Misleading narratives, often about circularity that relies on sourcing recycled polyester from other industries instead of used textiles, and/or the collection of used clothes through take-back schemes that could actually end up as textile waste in the Global South
- The misleading use of “sustainable” or “responsible” attached to materials that are only slightly better than virgin or conventional fibres
- The continued production of problematic fibre blends such as poly cotton that are presented as ‘greener’ due to their recycled content
- Continued reliance on the product-focused Higg Index on Materials Sustainability, which does not take the whole life-cycle assessment of fibres into consideration
- Not providing consumers and third parties with a breakdown of figures per material to substantiate the company’s green claims or its overall direction and long term strategy
- Highlighting a single aspect of improvement only, for example the reduction of water use or the reuse/recycling of pre-consumer waste
- Highlighting small-scale initiatives only without taking the bigger context or larger volumes into account
There are some more positive features of the best labels but one can see how this list is considerably shorter than the one above, or, as Greenpeace calls it so aptly “simply a fig leaf hiding a multitude of sins”.
- Supply chain traceability on product websites and connected to the product itself (Coop, Naturaline). “It’s a positive sign that some other brands, such as Calzedonia and H&M, are in the process of developing traceability, although they are mostly still a work in progress and will need to aim for best practice to be worthwhile,” comments Greenpeace.
- Backing the material’s provenance with independent certifications (for example Vaude’s “Green Shape”, Coop’s “Naturaline”, Tchibo’s “Gut Gemacht”.)
- The specific exclusion of BCI cotton as part of the promotional label (G-Star)
“There is definitely a need for companies to communicate their credentials which should not be discouraged. This just needs to be done more consistently, using independently verified standards rather than in-house subjective assessments, or industry-based assessment tools and initiatives. Most importantly, this communication should consider the aim of shifting linear business models towards a system where materials, workers and the environment are valued more than the volumes that are sold or profits for shareholders,” sums up Greenpeace
So who fared well?
Greenpeace devised a ranking indicator of red (thumbs down), yellow (neutral thumb) and green (thumbs up). To kill the suspense, only two companies got a ‘thumbs up’: Coop’s “Naturaline” and Vaude’s “Green Shape”. Tchibo’s “Gut Gemacht” is in the yellow area while Benetton’s “Green Bee”, C&A’s “Wear the Change”, the Calzedonia Group, Decathlon’s “Ecodesign”, G-Star’s “Responsible Materials”, H&M’s “Conscious”, Mango’s “Committed”, Peek & Cloppenburgs “We Care Together”, “Primark Cares”, Tesco’s “F&F Made Mindfully” and Zara’s “Join Life” all got a thumbs down. Let’s look at why.
Coop’s “Naturaline” and Vaude’s “Green Shape” scored well, that is got a ‘thumbs up’ on six of the following criteria: clear and accessible specification of what qualifies for the label, third-party verification, avoidance of BCI cotton or the Higg MSI Index as a label criteria, ‘slowing the flow’ commitment and initiatives, and having a best practice chemicals list for the supply chain.
There were eight further criteria that only one of them or none got a thumbs up for: while Vaude is in the green for reporting on the percentage of its products represented by the label, Coop is in the yellow. While Coop got a thumbs up for avoiding recycled PE from PET bottle waste as a “sustainable” material for its label, Vaude got a thumbs down.
While Vaude is in the green for disclosing material volumes, percentages and a breakdown of material types, Coop is in the yellow. The same assessment applies to paying a living wage for workers in the supply chain, a transparent supplier list and the publication of Detox wastewater data.
While Coop avoids crossing any red line or any other outstanding concern, Vaude got a thumbs down. Both companies are in the yellow for supply chain traceability on product label and/or webshop.
What does this mean for consumers?
What would consumers do with this set of 14 criteria, were there published on labels attached to a particular garment? Well, they could see which criteria they could compromise on and make their purchasing decision accordingly.
For example, in case of Coop and Vaude, if both had manufactured a comparable garment, but someone’s preference would be to buy from a brand who did not get any thumbs down evaluation in any area, then they would go with Coop - the only one to do so, by the way. However, if somebody absolutely needed to know a breakdown of material types and Detox wastewater management, they would go with Vaude.
Even Tchibo’s “Gut Gemacht” (which means “Made Well” and also “Well Done”), would qualify as it narrowly missed the thumbs up cut-off - compared to Vaude who also got two red flags, Tchibo just has two yellow areas more in terms of a commitment to slowing the flow and living wages for workers; otherwise the ratings are identical with those of Vaude.
As for the others, the most striking difference is that they all rely on recycled PE from PET bottle waste as a “sustainable” material for their labels. As Greenpeace explains, this is problematic because it means using a waste product from another industry while avoiding the larger issue in one’s own industry, which is effective and large-scale textile-to-textile recycling.
Another problematic area is the slowing the flow commitment and initiatives - apart from Vaude and Coop, no other brand got a thumbs up; Tchibo, Benetton, C&A, Decathlon and H&M made it into the yellow area while Calzedonia, G-Star, Mango, Peek & Cloppenburg, Primark, Tesco and Zara are in the red.
Supply chain traceability on the product label and/or the webshop is another area of concern where even the best are in the yellow range (plus Calzedonia and H&M); all others scored a thumbs down.
Areas of hope
Last but not least, there were some areas that stood out for good improvement (compared to a few years ago for example): the most promising being the best practice chemicals list for supply chain (MRSL), no doubt spurred on by the Detox and other initiatives. Only non-members Calzedonia and Peek & Cloppenburg scored a thumbs down; all others received a thumbs up.
The publication of Detox wastewater data also looks promising with again only non-members Calzedonia, Decathlon and Peek & Cloppenburg scoring a thumbs down, all others a thumbs up except for Coop with a neutral thumb.
More than two thirds of the companies surveyed avoid relying on the Higg MSI Index for materials in their labels while G-Star, H&M, Mango & Peek & Cloppenburg do rely on it.
A positive development is also that brands’ and retailers’ sustainable labels are more and more backed by third-party verification, as in this case 8 out of 14 (Coop, Vaude, Tchibo, C&A, Calzedonia, G-Star, Peek & Cloppenburg and Zara.) Benetton, H&M and Primark are in the gray, er, yellow area here, and Decathlon, Mango and Tesco in the red.
Despite (or maybe because of) recent media reports, brands and retailers are doing fairly well when it comes to clear and accessible specifications of what qualifies for the label: only H&M and Primark got a thumbs down, C&A, Mango and Peek & Cloppenburg a neutral thumb and all others a thumbs up.
While brands and retailers have no doubt learned to be more careful with sustainable claims - especially in the last few months when some like H&M, Decathlon and others were called out by industry watchdogs - greenwashing and hiding crucial information is still rife. “Many brands are still reluctant to publish the most basic information that would establish a baseline of the impacts of the materials used; that is, the volume of each material that they use – whether that’s cotton, polyester or cellulose fibres, whether they are organic, conventional, recycled, certified or otherwise – as well as their percentages,” says Greenpeace.
According to the organisation, this necessary basis of slowing the flow - like publishing material tonnages - would enable transparent tracking of the scale of brands’ impact on the climate and biodiversity, and allow progress to be measured on slowing the flow and the shift to better materials to be tracked year-on-year. However, companies can claim confidentiality and not disclose it or only part of it, like H&M does by reporting percentages of individual materials but not total volumes. However, “this information is just as important as reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and should be the basis of sustainability claims,” according to Greenpeace.
The environmental organisation recommends tackling the linear model of the fashion industry and accepting that fast fashion can never be sustainable. There are things that 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.
“Global fashion brands need to completely change their linear business models and become service providers instead of only producers. This involves a fundamental change, where success is not defined by the volumes that are produced and sold, or by shareholder profits,41 but by the high standards in supply chains and beyond – where ‘externalities’ such as impacts on nature and on the people making clothes or dealing with textile waste in the Global South are no longer devalued. This also means innovation in alternative ways to engage with customers on fashion, beyond the model of buying new,” concludes Greenpeace.
The complete study “Greenwash Danger Zone” can be found in the publications section of the Greenpeace website. It is a must-read for anyone interested in making sustainability more transparent.