The fashion industry has been called to centre stage. It must urgently put actions in place to limit catastrophic global warming. In response, many fashion brands are setting science-based targets for decarbonisation and ironing out their ESG strategy. Most fashion brands see up to 60% of their GHG emissions linked to their purchased goods and services in scope 3.

Most fashion brands do not manufacture their own finished goods, instead they rely on a vast supply chain of different players. To get full visibility of the environmental impact of such a supply chain requires an enormous investment in data collection.

Textile Production Process Visualisation

However, the time for climate action is now and brands have to respond. Fashion giants have since formed a number of consortiums and coalitions to tackle their environmental issues, to name a few: -Textile Exchange, The Fashion Pact, Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), Sustainable Clothing Action Plan by WRAP; all sharing similar goals to support the industry’s sustainability journey. The SAC has been supporting the industry with a set of metrics to quantify environmental impacts, known as the “The Higg Index”.

The Higg Index allows brands to measure their environmental impact from greenhouse gas emissions to others like acidification and eutrophication. This provides a prescribed approach, the best uniformity the industry has seen to date and popularly used by notable brands such as H&M and Patagonia. Whilst this has been praised over the recent years, there is a growing awareness that fashion industry measurement tools are vastly open to misinterpretation leading to misleading debates over which textile is the ‘best’.

If a scoring methodology states that cotton is more carbon intensive than polyester, the decision might seem obvious to swap to the least carbon intensive option. However, this is a more complex decision than it seems and it is crucial for brands to see the bigger picture. Sustainability cannot be met simply by promoting one textile over the other. We are facing a significant global overproduction of garments in the fashion industry, to dramatically dial down decarbonisation organisations need to go much further than promoting one textile over another. When it comes to understanding the impact of textiles and decision making, brands must consider the following complexities to inform decision making:

Textiles lend themselves to different use cases

Textiles are functional and lend themselves to a diversity of use cases for different consumer profiles. For example, Lycra is a better choice for gym apparel instead of wool, therefore, if a brand selling woollen jumpers finds that the carbon impact of Lycra is lower, they are in no position to make a change to Lycra because it wouldn’t meet the product functionality and consumer need.

Fossil fuel textiles are also bad for the environment

The carbon emissions reported for most fossil fuel textiles (polyester, nylon, elastane, acrylic) are typically lower than natural textiles. However, this doesn’t mean they should be considered as the best alternative. Natural textiles such as wool, cotton, and alpaca are being penalised because they are linked to agricultural practices. This doesn’t tell the full story of the wider ESG issues though as synthetics also have other issues like microplastics, linkage to oil spillage and a long timeframe to biodegrade. A common example where synthetics are promoted over natural textiles is the so-called “vegan leather”, however most consumers do not appreciate that this is still a fossil-fuel-based product which still has an impact on natural habitats from oil production.

The ‘S’ in “ESG” risks being neglected

Most natural textiles are a means of livelihood for low-income rural farming communities. For example, Alpaca textiles typically manufactured by small herders in Peru were reported to have an incredibly high environmental impact by the Higgs Index without any due diligence carried out on Alpaca farming methods in Peru. This led to the Alpaca farming community seeing declines in their purchases and the international Alpaca association appealing to the SAC to review the measurement methods, as it has a significant impact on the livelihood of 250,000 families.

Stages of the textile lifecycle may be omitted

Land use change (LUC) is largely not yet accounted for in the GHG inventories, but the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi) current consultations on Forest, Land and Agriculture (FLAG) have highlighted that if brands have >20% of emissions associated with natural materials they must include LUC emissions in their scope 3. Meanwhile, the draft GHG protocol for LUC is due at the end of this summer with final guidance published in 2023. Therefore, inventories submitted for SBTi which are not capturing LUC are at risk of not being compliant in the coming years. Another stage of the lifecycle that is often missed out on is the use stage. Typically, some textiles have a longer lifespan than others, thus making comparisons between two textiles of differing qualities without looking at the lifespan may not fully reflect their environmental impacts. The International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO), for example, conducted its first full LCA which revealed that the use phase is key to the sustainability of clothing, with the number of times a garment is worn being the most influential factor in determining impacts.

Fashion brands are left vulnerable to greenwashing accusations

Fashion brands could be risking significant financial impact due to claims of greenwashing. An EU Commission screening conducted showed that over half of 377 claims reviewed, had insufficient evidence to support their ‘green’ claims. Furthermore, changing market foundation identified that the certification schemes and environmental impact tools are not fit for purpose. Brands are gradually starting to see the repercussions, with fashion giant H&M and Norrøna being recently called out by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for publishing potential misleading claims on the environmental impact of its products. This is because the data supporting the measurement tools used by these brands may not be robust enough. For brands to be able to promote a product as more sustainable, they must conduct a full life cycle assessment and improve data accuracy and transparency rather than relying on industry averages to make their sustainability claims.

Whilst the Higgs index provides brands with an immediate and consistent way to calculate environmental impacts and GHG emissions, there is more work to be done. It shouldn’t be seen as a decision-making tool but rather a step to understanding the gaps required to improve reporting accuracy. Higgs are also working on improving their methodology and have identified the outdated data used in the industry scoring methods. Given the current uproar this has caused for major brands, it would be likely that SAC would get the investment and support to improve the accuracy of their environmental indices. Brands and their investors must become critical thinkers in how they assess textile environmental impacts and integrate recommendations from technical experts. In the meantime, brands should take the following considerations to avoid the pitfalls and risks from textile impact assessment:

  • Improve supply chain data collection – brands cannot continue to rely on a prescribed set of figures that are open to misinterpretation and bias. Looking into your supply chain to collect tier 1 and tier 2 data will allow brands to identify where the environmental impact is for the factories associated with their own products and also provide a better way to make informed decisions.
  • Leave no textile behind – set goals and targets on each individual textile rather than phasing out and favouring one textile over another. If there is a target to increase recycled cotton by 50% by 2025, recycled polyester should not be left out, targets should also be set to increase its recycled contents.
  • Adopt circular economy practices – ideally garments and apparel should be designed to last, and consumers should be able to repair, reuse and return them to be recycled back into the supply chain. If garments are given a second life, then the resources consumed and emissions associated with producing a virgin product are avoided.
  • Support local supply chains – the industry is highly dependent on local supply chains made up of farmers and herders. It’s easy for these key people to be omitted from the conversations required to drive change on the ground. Brands should leverage on certification schemes such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and Leather Working Group (LWG) etc that provide insight on supply chain sustainability, and also work closely with trade organisations to understand their challenges on improving data transparency.
  • Stay vigilant with new innovations – the fashion industry is currently faced with a wave of innovations, this is an exciting time for brands to push the boundary. Not just on the textiles they use, but also the business models they adopt to ensure they meet the sustainability demands of future generations. New textiles have been brought onto the market that are manufactured from natural materials and waste, for example pineapple-based fibres, seaweed fab, hemp linen, mycelium leather, ocean recycled polyester and many more. However, staying vigilant also means ensuring that the environmental impact of these new textiles and potential blind spots are understood properly before jumping on a bandwagon.

Instead of getting bogged down with the debate on which textile is better than which, brands need a strategic and resilient approach for decarbonisation and achieving their set targets.

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