Amplifying Misinformation - The Case of Sustainability Indices in Fashion


January 2023

Following on three earlier reports: The Great Greenwashing Machine - Part 1: Back to the Roots of Sustainability; The Great Green Washing Machine Part 2: The Use and Misuse of Sustainability Metrics in Fashion; and The Rise of Life Cycle Analysis and the Fall of Sustainability - Illustrations from the Apparel and Leather Sector; Veronica Bates-Kassatly and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly now publish a fourth report: Amplifying Misinformation - The Case of Sustainability Indices in Fashion (PDF).

This paper examines what the fashion sector itself defines as sustainable, and how it measures this. One index in particular - The Business of Fashion (BOF) Sustainability Index - is examined in detail. As the resultant analysis demonstrates clearly, the apparel sector will never reach either of the internationally agreed 2030 targets - the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement’s 45% reduction in 2010 Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs) - if it continues to pursue current misguided notions of what constitutes a sustainability metric, and to rely on reporting to measure achievements.

“Greenwashing” and “SDG Washing” are ubiquitous, and ‘sustainability’ focuses almost entirely on a red-herring. Namely that fashion and apparel can become sustainable simply by switching fibers, and that the most important determinant of sustainability is whether an item was produced from ‘preferred’ materials. This conclusion is neither correct nor supported by the industry’s own data. For climate change, the most important stage is manufacturing - representing roughly 60% of lifetime GHG emissions and around 80% of production emissions. Given the vast difference between countries in the carbon intensity of their energy systems, it is clear that the most important determinant of any item’s environmental impact at the factory gate is where it was manufactured.

As for other metrics commonly used to define and measure sustainability, the notion that transparency is the cornerstone of meaningful change is belied by the evidence. Until December 2019, Textile Exchange listed the standing director of the currently sanctioned Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) Cotton Association as a Board Member. Until February 2020, Patagonia equally openly listed XPCC farms as the main source of their organic cotton. Whilst the Better Cotton Initiative made no secret of the fact that the XPCC was an implementing partner. In the past 18 months two documentary programs claim to have identified the release of hazardous chemicals from viscose plants owned by Lenzing and Aditya Birla, respectively. Both companies are top ranked on the industry funded Canopy Hot Button Report. Both appear to claim Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals participation, and H&M and Puma, amongst others, transparently list sourcing from one or both factories.

Fashion will not become sustainable unless and until consumers are persuaded to stop buying disposable attire, and every item is worn enough times to amortize impacts in production and disposal. For this to happen, the cost of resale/repair/rental must be proportional to purchase or replacement cost. The costs of recycling must be lower than those of purchasing virgin materials and dumping unwanted discards in the global south. For the industry to pretend that simply offering collection and resale, applying eco design principles, or paying some flat waste charge as a function of sales, will somehow solve apparel’s waste problem is thoroughly misleading.

Amplifying Misinformation (PDF)

Report cover