The fashion industry is currently at a crossroads. While most brands and retailers welcome sustainability and related issues and are making efforts to reduce their environmental impact and improve conditions for their workers throughout the supply chain, there are stumbling blocks along the way.
Global rules and regulations for one, from extending the lifecycle of products to ensuring worker safety, must be respected. In addition, a company's own efforts should neither be under-communicated nor over-communicated, to avoid coming across as a greenwasher. For product providers, this means walking a tightrope. Those who succeed in doing so, however, have the chance to pave the way for a new era of retail.
Product intelligence and compliance platform Compare Ethics, in collaboration with Apparel Insider, hosted a discussion that looked at the greenwashing landscape in the fashion industry and those brands that are doing it right and have managed to keep up with the ever-faster changing demands.
The discussion began with a look at the requirements that brands and retailers are facing with regard to their environmental claims, such as the Green Claims Code in the UK, the upcoming EU Green Deal and the proposed New York Sustainable Fashion Act. In addition, countries that are part of the EU such as France and the Netherlands are drawing on their individual consumer protection laws as well.
For Lili Dreyer of Danish upcycle start-up Vaer, which makes sneakers from old jeans, transparency is very important. “We tell our customers what is in the sneakers, who made them. You have to communicate more,” said Dreyer.
Sabinna Rachimova from the sustainable London fashion label Sabinna agreed and stated that she explains not only to customers but to everyone involved why she has made certain decisions. For example, in terms of raw materials or processes and how they fit into the sustainable framework.
What terminology to use?
When asked about the right terminology, Rachimova pointed out that sustainability is a spectrum that stretches to include anything from raw materials to living wages. “We didn't call ourselves ‘sustainable’ in the beginning, and now we tend to use the term ‘conscious’. I'm still getting lost in the linguistic conversation a bit, but we have to call it something, after all.”
Dreyer echoed this, sharing that Vaer has not used the term ‘sustainable’ much yet, as the brand focuses more on the aspect that the product is upcycled and made from textile waste products. For her, there is an opportunity in storytelling, which aligns with the experiences and demands of the younger target groups. “But of course we want to show up when someone is looking for ‘sustainable shoes’,” she said.
Abbie Morris, co-founder and CEO of Compare Ethics, noted that searches for terms like “sustainable” and “organic” have indeed increased, but that the claims brands and retailers make need to be concrete and the terminology used needs to be comparable to that used for a similar product, at least in the UK. Also, claims should be backed up with data and nothing should be left out.
These considerations led to the question of how to avoid greenwashing, which in many cases is quite unintentional. For Rachimova, the answer lies in collaborating so that brands can find solutions together with others, but also within different divisions in larger companies.
Dreyer noted that all stakeholders, regardless of the size of a company, struggle with the problem of data sourcing and verification. “Honesty is important and communication about what data you may not have,” she advised. For Dreyer, compliance is not just a requirement, but “an opportunity to make products better”.
Other points of discussion were life cycle assessments and how to standardise them and get the most out of them, but also the question of the most suitable operating models for businesses - all great topics for future discussions.