OSLO – Current tools used to score textile fibres on sustainability are misleading consumers as they fail to account for the use phase of clothing, claims new research. The researchers argue that the limited scoring criteria of tools such as the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) and MADE-BY Fibre Benchmark means recycled polyester scored favourably, while textile fibres that have long life and low environmental impact, such as wool and silk, lose out.
Writing in the Sustainability journal, the researchers argue that, “many clothes are used only once and sometimes not even that. The different fibres not only have different environmental impacts, but also different functionality. To compare clothes in different fibres without taking use into account is like comparing apples and oranges; they are fundamentally different and, therefore, not suited to comparison.”
The researchers add that scoring tools such as Higg MSI are influencing the wider sustainability debate, including the Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse report. They argue: “The Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse report presents a cradle-to-gate environmental impact analysis based mainly on the MSI, and gives a ranking clearly identifying natural fibres as the least sustainable and synthetics, particularly recycled polyester and some other non-conventional materials, as the best choice for the environment. Recommendations in the Pulse report do not take into consideration all the reservations around ranking garments on material scores alone. This report has been widely read and referred to, but also criticised, inter alia, for favouring polyester and not addressing growth in production and consumption.”
The researchers also suggest a focus on textile production not use ignores concerns around microplastics. They add: “When use is omitted, major environmental problems associated with this stage, such as spread of microplastics, are also excluded. This one-sided focus on material production impacts also excludes the importance of product lifespans, quality, and functionality. The consequence is that short-lived disposable products are equated with durable products. Comparing dissimilar garments will not help consumers to make choices that will reduce the environmental burden of clothing. We need an informed discussion on how to use all materials in the most environmentally sustainable way possible.”
They conclude: “It generally requires less environmental and economic inputs to produce clothing for short lifespans. By not including lifetime and use, products with short life are favoured; plastic and man-made cellulosic fibre clothes will be favoured over those of natural materials which have higher environmental costs at the material production stage. The most effective solutions for reducing the environmental impacts from the production and consumption of clothing most likely lie within reducing consumption and making fewer and better clothes. It is a paradox that the tools can favour change in the opposite direction. A Pulse report that is based on the Higg MSI recommends increased use of recycled polyester, mainly to replace cotton.”