This article is part of our special report Exploring farming sustainability options.
Consumers’ craving for ever-increasing sustainable products is leaving its mark on the textile industry, creating a shift toward a ‘greener’ manufacturing process that requires new ways to assess its impact on the environment.
To meet this growing demand, fashion brands and retailers have recently come up with a proliferation of sustainable claims about conscious shopping.
The EU policymaking is going in this direction as well and a strong focus on making the textile industry more competitive and sustainable is included in the European Green Deal, which sets the EU’s new ambition on the environment and tackling climate change
The vision embedded in the Green Deal has been scaled up in the EU’s latest climate legislation package, the Fit for 55, and with a further push on sustainability embedded in the NextGeneration EU, the recovery plan to boost economic recovery after the COVID crisis.
A key aspect of the Green Deal is constituted by the Circular Economy Action Plan, in which the Commission laid out plans for a comprehensive EU strategy for textiles, expected to be unveiled in the coming months.
Lastly, the EU’s flagship Farm to Fork food policy and its complementary relative, the Biodiversity strategy, both aim at slashing by 50% the use of pesticide by 2030, which should require cooperation from third countries in the use of plant protection products.
This could have an effect on the imports of certain materials such as cotton, which has recently grabbed the attention of fashion brands for its already existing and validated sustainability standards and initiatives.
“There is a momentum, a growing awareness and the opportunity there to tackle this,” said Tara Luckman, co-founder and director of the Flourish CSR consultancy, active in the field of sustainability.
However, it’s not all about policies. Consumer attitudes are evolving too and today’s brands and retailers are questioning what the industry is doing to improve on sustainability.
According to a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), 51% of respondents believe that consumers are driving the increased focus on sustainability issues in the fashion and textile industry.
Brands at the test
Brands and retailers understand that a new mandate is coming, from consumers and from lawmakers. In response, they are putting more scrutiny on their own sustainability programs.
According to Luckman, companies are “nervous of invisible risks”, keeping their eyes on what will come next and not just looking to avoid any risk assessment.
Likewise, fashion brands do not want to unwittingly support human rights abuses either. In a nutshell, they want transparency over the whole supply chain.
“Companies are also dealing with the ramifications of what has recently happened in China, which has directly impacted what companies are asking for new programmes,” Luckman said, referring to a strong request coming from the industry for reliable and specific data about impact and lifecycle analysis.
While brands and retailers understand that data can help them measure progress towards sustainability targets, most of them do not collect a wide variety of data, the findings of the EIU report showed.
For this reason, many of the firms surveyed for the EIU study have also called for more standardised data collection techniques, highlighting that if each company continues to adopt its own approach, the result will be not comparable, making it difficult to assess the industry progress as a whole.
According to Luckman, it is important to have actual data on where brands are starting to move towards environment footprinting, direct business operation, and use of raw materials in order to shift towards decarbonisation goals.
But how to measure?
“There’s certainly continued trend of consumer awareness and demand for sustainable products, and plenty of educated and savvy claims on a product,” said Luckman, adding that, however, generic, self-branded claims without any credible evidence may not go a long way.
The challenge is posed, in particular, by the fact that there is no third-party verification on such claims as there is a lack of standardised procedures to collect and evaluate any kind of sustainability data.
“Communicating the complex aspects of a certification scheme is a lot to get in at the point of sale, but on the other hand, oversimplifying loses credibility,” she pointed out.
The EU already tried to adopt methodologies to measure products’ environmental footprint (PEF) as part of the efforts to move toward a green single market.
Several industries have tested the PEF in practice in a Commission-led pilot phase – including a review of t-shirts and footwear – putting in place different approaches in order to identify those that could work best.
As the PEF will make an important part of the sustainable product strategy, the need for measurable data for apparel’s environmental footprint will be crucial in creating a harmonised environmental footprinting methodology for products.
Some programmes have already been launched on the other side of the Atlantic, such as the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, which provides a voluntary way to collect and communicate individual grower management and sustainability practices at the farm level.
This programme enables US cotton producers and industry organisations to document their progress toward continuous environmental improvement, in a bid to demonstrate in practice their commitment to more sustainable cotton production.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]