As you may already know, the apparel industry is the second-largest polluter in the world after oil. The tragic 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh, the documentary "The True Cost" and a growing wealth of information about supply chains and landfills full of clothing — all easily accessed online — have highlighted these problems with varying degrees of mainstream attention. Even when brands and retailers aren't using words like sustainable, conscious, transparent and eco-friendly in their marketing, shoppers are overwhelmed with other, less tangible messages of so-called ethical business practices. Take a store decorated with stark natural wood, for example, or images and illustrations of leaves. A green hangtag makes a subliminal impact, as do clear plastic cosmetic packaging, gratuitous white space on an e-commerce site or a lookbook shot in an open field alongside sheep.
It feels like everywhere we look, the fashion industry is trying to attract customers who care about making responsible purchasing decisions and banking on the fact that there's enough misinformation floating around that shoppers won't ask too many questions. We end up dropping off clothing at H&M's World Recycle Week while it would take the retailer 12 years to recycle the amount of clothing it produces in only 48 hours. It's as if sustainable fashion is a destination, not a journey, and brands hope you trust they are doing enough to get there.
The term sustainability has become ubiquitous to the point of cliché. When the term was coined back in 1987 by the United Nation's Brundtland Report, there was room for interpretation. "Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," reads the report. "Yet in the end, sustainable development is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change." Indeed, fashion's demand for constant newness and trends means it can never truly be friendly to the environment, but that doesn't mean some brands aren't taking valuable steps to be more responsible in their supply chain. But how can we tell who is actually trying?
"Everyone now says eco, they say environmentally friendly, sustainable, it's 'Made in the USA'... but it’s like peeling an onion, when you pull back one layer of skin there’s so many underneath," says jewelry designer Melissa Joy Manning, a founding co-chair of the CFDA Sustainability committee and Advisory Board member of the CFDA + Lexus* Fashion Initiative. She cited sustainable certifications that can be bought for $30,000 to $50,000 as an added deceptive layer. Is there anyone policing these mixed messages?
"Yes, this is on the FTC’s radar," says Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham. The Federal Trade Commission most recently updated its "Green Guides" in 2012 to help marketers understand how to communicate clearly with consumers — but they are guides, not rules or regulations. "Now it seems that almost every new brand out there incorporates some kind of environmental or social awareness into their DNA," says Scafidi, adding that they do it because millennials seem to care more than previous generations. "We replace clothing for style reasons rather than reasons of necessity and so fashion does have a credibility gap when it comes to any kind of environmental responsibility claims."
The FTC guidelines chiefly address vague marketing, but the commission can take action. "The FTC can, at any point of its own volition, launch an investigation into claims that they believe are misleading to consumers," says Scafidi, adding that it engages in "conversations and warnings and fact findings" before penalties. For example, in 2015 the organization fined Nordstrom, J.C. Penney and two other retailers a total of $1.3 million for "falsely labeling rayon textiles as made of 'bamboo.'" The organization has its limits, however. "It is certainly true [that] there are lots of things that fly under the radar or that just for resource and volume reasons escape oversight," says Scafidi. "Which means it's up to the consumer to an extent, and the industry itself is looking for ways to self-regulate and communicate more clearly."
But fashion doesn't have an industry-wide sustainability standard, as architecture has with its LEED certification. Scafidi says the size of the industry and the relatively recent interest in environmental concerns have made that effort difficult. "Sustainability standards don’t always point in the same direction, especially if we’re thinking about environmental sustainability versus social sustainability versus anti-cruelty standards," she says.
One organization embarking on a painstaking process of standardizing sustainability progress in the apparel industry is the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a group of almost 200 organizations that started developing an online self-assessment database called the Higg Index in 2012. The index is organized into three focal points: facility assessment for social and environmental performance of the factories; brand assessment for corporate and designer decision making; and product-specific assessment for the environmental footprint of a particular garment. The SAC is still in data-gathering mode, both self reported and verified, and plans to start releasing its results in 2018.
"We're trying to make this measurable and objective so that ultimately consumers can tell what brand is actually more sustainable and they can make objective judgements between the purchases," says SAC CEO Jason Kibbey. "When you're looking at multiple issues and trying to compare water carbon for climate change and animal rights, then you're starting to make value judgements to weigh those things against each other and that’s where it becomes a lot more difficult. We try to look at it both on the environment side and... the social and labor worker rights."
Kibbey also says that shoppers can't assume luxury brands are acting more responsibly than fast-fashion ones. "Fashion Revolution [a British not-for-profit] just did a transparency report and H&M came out very high for its degree of transparency issues," he says. "I think H&M deserves some credit for being open when they knew that they were going to get beat up for it." Indeed, Fashion Revolution gave H&M a top rating in April for having clear systems in place to track, trace and improve labor and environmental practices. Along with Adidas, H&M had the most comprehensive reporting of the brands surveyed. Transparency doesn't equal sustainability, however.
Manning says there are big companies who get a "bad rap" for sustainability who are actually "investing in ways to create change that will trickle down to other smaller companies," but because they're not 100 percent responsible, they don't want to publicize it. "We're set up as a society to denigrate people for what they're not doing rather than applaud them for what they are," she notes. At the same time, there's no excuse to avoid these issues entirely. "There are still shamefully so many people who are not doing anything, and there are many opportunities to at least do small things now that I think it's inexcusable if you're not doing them," says Manning.
So what's a curious and cynical consumer to do before making a purchase? "I think the greatest advantage to the consumer today is the availability of information on the Internet," says Scafidi. The FTC, Higgs Index and Fashion Revolution aren't the only organizations trying to keep brands honest. Rank a Brand is a Dutch database that grades brands across industries. (Dior earned the lowest possible score, 0 out of 36.) B Lab is a nonprofit organization that awards B Corp certifications to companies that meet "rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency" including Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and Reformation. Project Just is a searchable brand database that breaks down everything from labor conditions to innovation with the prospective shopper in mind. Linda Greer and the National Resources Defense Council's Clean By Design initiative partners with apparel retailers and brands (including H&M and Stella McCartney) to use their collective buying power to create changes in factory supply chains. And these are just a few examples.
Shoppers can also research and question the individual brands they already value. "Almost all companies of any size have sustainability reports, sustainability sections to their websites and you can actually quickly tell... does it feel sincere, are they talking about a lot of issues?" advises Kibbey, citing Kering's as a positive example. "Stick with words that actually have standards behind them, like organic, recycled, fair trade — those all actually mean something — but words like sustainable and eco-friendly, on a product, don’t."
Britt Cosgrove and Marina Polo are the founders and designers of the small, New York-based womenswear brand Svilu, and have sought transparency and reduced environmental impact since their launch. "We try to ask as many questions as possible," says Cosgrove, explaining that they focus on finding certified and non-toxic materials even though their shopper is more interested in quality design than anything else. "Until everyone can have the same hangtag on every piece of clothing around the world and say, 'Oh, I look at this number and it's [for example] Higgs number 37 and that means something to me, it’s hard to talk about," she says.
If you're a consumer that cares about the earth and labor conditions, the onus is on you to make your purchasing power count. "In a supply and demand economy, the demand has the most power," says Manning. "There's a responsibility there that we haven’t touched on yet as a community... The old idea of consumerism where you could just buy something and walk away and not think about it, I think, is dead."