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LONDONConsumers’ purchasing decisions determine what fashion brands will make and how. Making consumers aware of environmental impacts is a highly laudable goal. Luxury fashion platform Farfetch already has a Fashion Footprint Tool. Zalando and H&M plan to introduce them. The EU aims to launch consumer-facing labelling based on its Product Environmental Footprint (PEF).

Behind these tools are data.  The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) is favoured by H&M and Zalando. Ecoinvent apparently underpins Farfetch’s tool. There are others.

An index, however, is only as good as its base data. If the base data is wrong, consumers will be given the wrong advice. That is what is happening at present, with the databases all suffering from the same major flaws.

Measuring impact to factory gate – and no further

Existing indices only measure impact up to the factory gate. But the most important metric in determining an item’s impact – both impact on the planet and impact on the buyer’s wallet – happens later. This metric is the number of times an item is worn or used.

If a dress “costs” 10, whether that’s US dollars or an environmental metric, and it is worn once, the cost is 10 per wear. If another dress “costs” 1,000, and is worn 100 times, the cost/impact is also 10 per wear.

The difference is that at the end of those 100 wears, in the first case there are 100 dresses to dispose of, and in the second, only one.

If the cheapness of fashion encourages consumers not to value and retain garments, if poor quality diminishes usable life as well as potential for resale and repair, then indices based up to the factory gate are reporting the wrong thing.

Solution: Extend the metrics so that consumer behaviour is reflected.

Sustainability is environmental and social

Sustainability rests on two pillars. Existing indices measure only environmental impacts. Social impacts must also be considered.

Farmed fibers like silk, alpaca, mohair, and cotton are produced by some of the poorest people on the planet, and across all countries, small farmers are some of the poorest in the community. Small farms provide livelihoods, dignity, and a route out of poverty for millions of people. Worldwide, 21.5 million people are engaged in the silk industry, and more than 100 million people in cotton.  For many regions, a single fibre is the key to their prosperity – cotton, for example, provides 50% of Benin’s export income.

Environmental impact advice for textiles must be aligned with policy that supports the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Many brands and governments have commitments to the SDGs.

“Ontological aspects (i.e., the interconnectedness) of the SDGs also brings a serious case to support a preference towards natural fibers,” says Tom Gloria, who serves as the Higg MSI Gatekeeper. “Preferable purchasing is not just about SDG 12, sustainable consumption and production.”

Solution: Social impacts must be counted.

How blindly plugging in data fails us all

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) of textile products are the sources of the data for environmental measurement tools. The tools take data from LCAs and, ultimately, compare them.

The glitch in the system, however, lies in the fact that LCAs have some freedom of choice when it comes to boundaries and methodology. Different boundaries and methodologies yield radically different outcomes. Only LCAs with identical boundaries and methodologies can truly compared. But in the textile apparel sector, there is no suite of uniformly produced LCAs.

Moreover, when LCAs are not representative of a sector as a whole, some very misleading conclusions result.

Two case studies illustrate these points.

Case Study 1: Organic Cotton

Farfetch’s tool offers the claim that compared to conventional, organic cotton provides an 80 per cent saving in water impact. The Higg MSI claims the saving is 90 per cent.

The only  LCA comparing organic and conventional cotton, grown in the same place at the same time found, that organic cotton’s water impact was 10 per cent higher.

Farfetch, the MSI, and others arrive at the organic cotton water saving claim by comparing two LCAs. The conventional LCA looked at predominantly irrigated cotton (rainfed Brazilian and African cottons were not included). The organic LCA  looked at predominantly rainfed cotton.

It is self-evident that the low irrigation rates shown in the organic cotton LCA are due to rain, not to organic cultivation practices.  However, the leading indices support their water-savings claims with the rainfed cotton LCA.

Note that 32 per cent of 2019’s global organic cotton came from Xinjiang and Aral Sea states, with some of the highest cotton irrigation rates in the world. These locations were not included in that LCA.

Solution: Base conclusions on sound comparisons.

Case Study 2: Organic Silk

The same applies, but in reverse, for silk. The MSI says that silk has a water impact 73 times that of organic cotton. Farfetch says a silk blouse consumes 174 times the water of an organic cotton tee. The data for both comes from an LCA based on the practices of 100 silk farmers in Tamil Nadu, India, in 2006.

Note that 2006 is considered very old by academic standards. The general rule for research is at most five to six years old.

Almost all silk used in the apparel sector now comes from China. Chinese silk is 100 per cent rainfed – as is 30 per cent of Indian silk, but the 2006 Tamil Nadu LCA covered farmers using 100 per cent irrigation of the most wasteful kind.

Global silk today has hardly any water impact. The use of this old and unrepresentative LCA gives a very misleading result.

Solution: Ensure that data is representative and reflects current practice.

Achievable solutions

The solutions proposed above are achievable. Environmental footprinting is no small task, but cutting corners will, as seen above, only result in misguidance.

The answer lies in fully transparent, peer reviewed, comparable LCAs, with matching social and economic impact analysis (SEIAs).

Veronica Bates Kassatly an independent analyst of sustainability claims in the global apparel sector.

IWTO’s worldwide membership represents the wool pipeline from farm to retail. By facilitating research and development and maintaining textile industry standards, IWTO ensures a sustainable future for wool (www.iwto.org)

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