Photo: Parker Burchfield, Unsplash

What’s the real cost of fast fashion?

The clothing industry’s green claims come under scrutiny

As you probably know already, the jacket you just bought cost much more than what’s written on the price tag.

You haven’t paid for the trillions of liters of water and the carbon emissions by the industry that produced it, for example.

Still, you’re reassured when the retailer says its brand is strongly committed to ‘green values,’ or ‘sustainability,’ maybe even ‘circularity.’ Perhaps the retailer claims it has signed some sort of global pledge of environmental awareness and concern.

But do those pledges actually mean anything? Unlikely, says Greenpeace, which warns in a recent report that we should all be very skeptical about most of these claims from big fashion brands.

And regulators, including those in the E.U. and the U.S., are increasingly scrutinizing such green claims and calling out offenders, who are even facing lawsuits in some cases.

They say it’s hard for consumers to know if they can trust retailers’ claims that their products are ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘carbon-neutral’ or part of product ‘circularity,’ which suggests that old textiles are recycled into something new.

Clothes
Photo: Lucas Hoang, Unsplash

“Sustainability sells,” Greenpeace says of the USD 2.4 trillion-dollar global fashion industry as it warns that the industry’s statements don’t always mean much. Often, it argues, they’re nothing more than ‘greenwashing.’ That’s when companies try to appear eco-friendly but continue environmentally harmful practices behind the scenes.

“Marketing by fashion brands can make it seem as if their actions are making a difference – but what’s behind the claims made to consumers of fashion on the labels used to sell the ‘sustainability’ of the garments?” the Greenpeace report asks.

The clothing industry has a massive environmental footprint, contributing an estimated 2 to 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. At least part of that can be blamed on coal-powered factories and petroleum-based fabrics such as polyester, nylon, Lycra and Spandex.

To make matters worse, low-price garments are usually made of synthetics and polyesters, which are derived from oil and petroleum production. Those synthetics don’t biodegrade: instead, synthetic fibers from cheap clothing can pollute water sources after they’re thrown out.

Microplastic fibers used in polyester fabrics can also be released both during manufacturing and when the clothes are washed. These fibers then end up in rivers and, ultimately, the ocean.

“Textiles have, on average, the fourth-biggest impact on the environment and climate change from a consumption perspective,” said Lars Fogh Mortensen, circular economy and textiles expert at the European Environment Agency (EEA), in a recent article in Elle magazine.

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According to Greenpeace, fashion brands often try to confuse customers with false ‘ecolabels’ that are simply named after their own sustainability programs, rather than verified by third parties.

They also rarely disclose information about their supply chain and materials to back up their claims, instead claiming ‘circularity’ by recycling fabrics from other industries, even as used textiles are dumped in Global South countries instead.

To underline the scale of the problem, a 2020 European Commission study found that 53 percent of examined environmental claims in the E.U. were either vague, misleading or unfounded, and 40 percent were unsubstantiated.

In response, the E.U. has developed 16 pieces of legislation designed to crack down on fashion waste and greenwashing and, Greenpeace says, “help make sustainable products the new norm.”

One key proposal, the Directive on Green Claims, aims to tackle greenwashing by setting requirements on how to substantiate environmental claims and by introducing rules on environmental labeling.

Meanwhile, another proposed directive on corporate due diligence aims to hold companies accountable for labor and environmental abuses through their entire value chains.

Textile waste
Textile waste in Niigata, Japan. kiwa dokokano, Panoramio via Wikipedia Commons

In the U.S., at least two states – New York and Washington – have proposed fashion sustainability acts that require companies to report on their impacts and, in New York, report on carbon emissions. The New York act has been endorsed by several public figures, including actors Jane Fonda and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., fashion retailers Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda have pledged to “use only accurate and clear green claims” following a probe by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which is also investigating greenwashing in household products.

Fashion giant H&M – one of several named by Greenpeace, alongside Shein, Decathlon and Zara – says it’s committed to transparency and supports efforts by regulators.

“Transparent sustainability information is crucial because it empowers customers and puts pressure on companies, thus contributing to positive change,” H&M’s media office told ThinkLandscape in an email.

“Although this is a complex area, we are convinced that a carefully crafted regulatory framework can contribute to a positive development for our industry.”

While regulators are making a start, they must do more to demand accountability from a fashion industry “designed to maximize profit at any cost,” says Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion.

“Radical action must be taken to rebuild it to include equity, racial and climate justice,” Williams wrote in an essay published in The Guardian.

“Fashion is something that we all take part in. It’s a social, creative, economic and cultural set of activities that can contribute to the world, not just take from it.”

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