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Sustainability certifications are often misleading, says Changing Markets Foundation

By Marjorie van Elven


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Sustainability certifications often fail to acknowledge all stages of the product life cycle and thereby mislead consumers into thinking brands are “greener” than they are, according to claims made in a report by the Changing Markets Foundation (CMF) released this week. Entitled “The False Promise of Certification”, the report examines different sustainable certifications available for the textile, fishing and palm oil industries.

A study conducted by Nielsen in 2015 with 30,000 consumers from 60 countries found that 66 percent of them are willing to pay more for products from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. In the UK alone, the market for ethical products reached over 81 billion pounds in 2017, according to Ethical Consumer’s Ethical Market Report.

As more and more consumers rely on sustainable certifications used by brands to make their purchasing decisions, the number of certifications available in the textile industry has grown immensely in recent years. There are more than 100 certifications of sustainability according to the Ecolabel Index, the largest directory of ecolabels, most of which have emerged in the past 20 years. However, despite the proliferation of ecolabels, “there is no overarching scheme that satisfactory addresses sustainability performance across the whole supply chain”, according to CMF’s report.

Certifications of sustainability have shortcomings, claims Changing Market Foundation in a report

Some of the best known certifications in the fashion industry have been criticized by CMF’s report. The EU Ecolabel, for example, fails to cover water pollution indicators in the case of viscose. According to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, cited in CMF’s report, twenty percent of industrial water pollution is linked to wet processing of textiles alone.

The report also disapproves of the CanopyStyle initiative, as it only covers the wood sourcing for viscose, not the pollution from viscose manufacturing and pulp processing. To the NGO, this contributes to giving companies “an unjustified green glow”.

CMF’s report also sees many shortcomings in the Higg Index, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to enable brands, retailers and facilities to measure their sustainability performance. “It is impossible to measure how being part of the SAC and using the Higg Index has improved the environmental performance of individual brands, because reporting on performance has so far been purely voluntary and results kept out of the public gaze”, says the report.

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is mentioned in the report as well. According to a 2017 report by the UN’s international trade centre, the “certified area” for BCI cotton expanded almost ninefold between 2011 and 2015, growing 38 percent between 2014 and 2015. This rapid growth is “largely due to less stringent requirements”. In addition, CMF’s report emphasizes that BCI allows for the use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds. “This weak scheme has grown rapidly at the expense of organic cotton”, says the NGO, as BCI does not encourage its uptake.

The NGO calls for the elimination of schemes that derive from the industry itself, for they are “taking market share away from more effective initiatives”. Greenpeace’s Detox Campaign and the Blue Map Database, set up by Chinese NGO IPE, are among the ones mentioned by CMF as good examples.

Image:Cotton Field, Phot Credits: Kimberly Vardeman, Creative Commons

Better Cotton Initiative