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LONDON – Sustainability in fashion has become an “elitist,” “imperialistic” concept in which the interests of the Global North “define the conversation” while voices of cotton and other fibre farmers in poor producing countries are barely heard. This is one of the conclusions of a new white paper – the first of a series – looking at how efforts to make fashion more sustainable continue to rely on flawed methods to measure environmental impact, while completely failing to embrace social issues.

Authored by the Geneva Centre for Business and Human Right (GCBHR) and independent consultant Veronica Bates-Kassatly, the paper calls on fashion corporations and global policymakers to assess the socio-economic impacts of fibre production in producer countries and place these “front and centre in sustainability claims, rankings, and labelling.”

The white paper, entitled The Great Greenwashing Machine Part 1: Back to the Roots of Sustainability, was also supported by leading sustainability consultancy Eco-Age.

It says: “In paper, we demonstrate that far from prioritising the needs of the global poor, in fashion, sustainability appears to have become an elitist, even imperialistic concept in which the interests of the global north define the conversation. These interests are both those of the present generation, whose right to purchase and discard clothing in volume the system seeks to preserve (by switching to ‘circularity’ and ‘more sustainable’ fibres), and the interests of future generations whose needs are to be secured at the sacrifice of producers whose fibres do not meet the global north’s unilaterally declared ‘sustainability’ standards.”

The paper adds: “Despite well-meaning industry efforts, the perceived holistic sustainability benefits do not appear to be trickling down to the producers, some of the least represented and underpaid in fashion’s global value chain.

“The vast majority of those living below the social foundation are to be found in the global south. Yet not only are their needs not given priority, but the global south does not even appear to be represented in any of the major sustainability initiatives and groups. Nor do Zambian or Burkinabe cotton farmers, Brazilian silk, or Peruvian alpaca farmers appear to be consulted at any of the major fashion weeks or conferences.”

The paper points out that the fashion industry is considered as a major contributor to air, water, and soil pollution, as well as an enabler of exploitative sweatshop conditions for garment workers.

“This reputation is bad for business, so in response, fashion brands have created sustainability programmes to assure governments, consumers and investors that they are addressing their social and environmental impact,” it says.

This white paper outlines the definition of sustainability, going back to the roots of origin in the 1987 United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development – also known as the Brundtland Commission – that underpins the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to this day.

It then delves into a critical assessment of how current sustainability claims in fashion deviate from the Brundtland definition and exposes the vast consequences and outcomes resulting from fashion’s failure to meet it.

Veronica Bates Kassatly, independent analyst said: “At the present time there does not appear to be a single initiative or brand that is measuring sustainability correctly. They all appear to conflate sustainability with environmental impact – which they don’t even calculate accurately.

“And they all make claims and recommendations without once considering the repercussions of these assertions on the livelihoods of millions, primarily in the global south. This is a direct violation of commitments to the UN SDGs and has potentially profound adverse consequences for both planet and people.”

The full paper can be found here – it’s well worth a read.

Full review in our next magazine.

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