Hardly any term has been so enthusiastically embraced in recent years as “sustainability” – suddenly everything has become “green”, “sustainable”, “eco” or “organic”. Unfortunately, it often remains a promising term that has little to do with practice. ‘Conscious’ collections are shown to be minimally recycled, and garment takeback initiatives are used to increase sales of new goods by giving consumers vouchers.
The environmental organization Greenpeace was fed up with the promises and plethora of proprietary sustainability labels from brands and retailers, and took a closer look at them in its recent “Greenwash Danger Zone” report. Result? Sustainability sells well and therefore often remains just a clever marketing ploy. FashionUnited has collected the most common sustainability myths that have been exposed in a report.
Slow vs. circularity
According to Greenpeace, brands and retailers can take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products in two ways: by slowing down production or by closing the loop through circular design, take-back and recycling.
“The two concepts are related, but to solve the problem slowing the flow takes precedence over closing the loop because overproduction prevents the loop from closing. Simply coloring a linear business model with guilt-free, recycled green will never be sustainable,” states Greenpeace.
The roundness of the trendy word
Like “sustainable development”, the term “circular” has become a buzzword. However, Greenpeace has condensed the efforts of fashion companies into three non-working elements: Take-back programs that only distribute textile waste to the Global South; using plastic waste from other industries, which sounds good but does not solve the problem of textile recycling; and so-called recycled and recyclable fashion, which is made of fossil-based polyester and remains a major driver of overproduction.
“Despite the hype in the fashion industry, the reality is that circularity is virtually nonexistent in the fashion industry; while less than 1 percent of clothes are recycled into new clothes, the volume of clothing production is growing by 2.7 percent a year,” is a sobering reality.
“Every second a truckload of clothing is incinerated or sent to landfill. With the help of newer online retailers like Shein, the destructive fad of fast fashion is accelerating instead of slowing down,” adds Greenpeace.
Myth 1: recycled polyester
Fast fashion needs polyester, which is based on PET plastic and thus on the fossil fuels of the petrochemical industry. Polyester fibers are not biodegradable; on the contrary: microplastic fibers are released during the production process of clothing and during washing by consumers. They then end up in rivers and oceans where it can take decades to degrade.
“There is no system for large-scale recycling of used polyester fabric into new textiles. Most “recycled” polyester is based on “open loop” sourcing in the form of post-consumer PET plastic bottles or harvested marine plastics. However, this simply accelerates the transformation of the solid material into more bioavailable microplastic fibers, which are released into rivers and seas during laundering,” concludes Greenpeace.
Myth 2: organic cotton
After polyester, cotton is the most commonly used fabric in the garment industry. While conventional cotton cultivation is associated with various environmental and social problems, such as the use of large amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers, as well as the use of GMO seeds, which accounted for almost 80% of -called organic cotton is not without problems: it depends very much on which initiative grows it and where. Also if GMO seeds are allowed and if farmers get more for organic cotton.
“BCI Cotton provides clothing brands with cotton that is only slightly better than unsustainable mainstream cotton, with the lowest possible effort from the brands. This contributes to the continued overproduction and overconsumption of clothing, and thus hinders the much-needed fundamental change of the current fashion system,” the report reads.
“Instead of settling for half-measures like Better Cotton, more brands, particularly global brands with a significant market share, should be prepared to source organic and Fairtrade cotton and pay a higher price. This is the only way to have a significant positive impact on the environmental and human costs associated with conventional cotton,” advises Greenpeace.
Myth 3: cellulose fibers
Cellulose fibers are a relatively new but growing source of materials in the fashion industry. They are made from natural materials (usually wood or other cellulose sources such as cotton waste) that are converted into fibers through a man-made process. For example, Lenzing Tencel, EcoVero, Modal Black and Modal Color are produced in a “closed loop” to prevent the release of chemicals. EcoVero has 50 percent less emissions and uses 50 percent less water than conventional viscose, and in Modal Black and Modal Color, the fibers are dyed directly in the solvent process, resulting in 90 percent savings in chemicals and significant savings in water, electricity, heat and wastewater.
Chemical recycling of natural fibers is also possible using a cellulose dissolution technique, similar to the production of viscose, as demonstrated by the VTT research project in Finland, which converts textile waste into new fibres. Similarly, Lenzing uses the Tencel manufacturing process to recycle cotton waste into recycled Refibra cellulose fibers.
“In addition to the need for minimal impact during processing, cellulosic fibers also rely on forests that can be ancient and endangered forests. The CanopyStyle initiative published a guide to cellulosic fiber producer rankings that “provides a route for brands, retailers and MMCF producers to help address the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss by reducing sectoral pressure on forests” and encourages producers to switch to sourcing materials that would otherwise go to waste and end up in our landfills instead. Forest policy criteria include independent, third party verified audit and traceability,” says Greenpeace.
Myth 4: sustainable labels by brands
Greenpeace investigated the sustainable labels of 29 members of its Detox Initiative (dedicated to reducing hazardous chemicals in textiles), including H&M’s ‘Conscious’, ‘Primark Cares’, Zara’s ‘Join Life’, Decathlon’s ‘Ecodesign’ and C&A’s ‘Wear the Change’ . They were examined against a number of criteria, including clear labeling of what exactly is certified, supply chain traceability, employee compensation, whether the internal label is third party verified, and whether PET plastic, BCI cotton or the Higg MSI Index are used.
A detailed overall assessment of individual brands and labels can be found in the Greenpeace report; the main conclusion is that only two brands received an overall good rating, namely “Naturaline” by Coop and “Green Shape” by Vaude; Tchibo’s “Gut Gemacht” received a satisfactory rating, while all other programs failed close scrutiny.
“Unsurprisingly, our assessment confirms that brands’ self-evaluation of marketing labels can be challenged as greenwashing, a trend that has gained momentum in recent years. These “fake standards” ensure that fast fashion giants don’t have to follow the strict rules of independent standards, but can practically write them themselves. Sustainability has become a communication goal without putting in place credible measures to align their linear business models,” reads Greenpeace’s sobering verdict.
Therefore, the environmental organization recommends facing the linear model of the fashion industry and accepting that fast fashion can never be sustainable. But there are some things brands and retailers can do right now, such as making fewer clothes that last longer and that can be repaired and recycled.
In addition, textiles that cannot be recycled in textile recycling processes should not be placed on the market; mixed fibers still pose problems in this respect. In general, clothing should also be returned, offering models for repair and replacement.
In general, Greenpeace recommends that by 2035 at the latest, only around 40 percent of clothing should be new, and 60 percent should come from alternative systems such as repair, second-hand, rental or exchange.
Fashion companies should also publish details of the materials used and seek dialogue with their customers about all sustainability measures.