Fashion has a fake news problem.
Want to know how many people are employed in the industry, or where they work, or how much they get paid? How about the amount of clothing produced each year, and how much water is used to make them?
Good luck finding a definitive answer to any of these questions. The conversation around fashion’s social and environmental impact is riddled with vague claims and untraceable statistics. Most famously, fashion was labelled the second most polluting industry on the planet, a regularly quoted “fact” that’s been widely debunked.
The lack of good data is a major impediment to improving fashion’s record on climate change and improving conditions for millions of garment workers, advocates say. Opaque working practices and fuzzy definitions of sustainability provide cover for companies to engage in greenwashing, high-profile marketing that isn’t accompanied by real efforts to improve. They also make it difficult for even well-intentioned brands to choose the right suppliers and materials.
“If you can’t get the right data, you can’t get the right outcomes,” said Tamara Cincik, founder and chief executive of UK-based consultancy and industry lobby group Fashion Roundtable.
There are long-standing reasons why hard facts about the fashion supply chain are so hard to come by. For starters, many companies have little idea exactly how or where the materials used to make their clothes come from. Some companies do collect data from their suppliers, but they don’t always disclose it to the public, and when they do, it’s rarely standardized to make comparisons against competitors easier. In many cases, exactly what to measure, and how, remains a topic debate.
Sorting Fact From Fiction
There are signs things are gradually improving. A growing number of independent initiatives are working to provide better information to educate consumers and industry alike.
“To make concrete demonstrable progress we … need to help clear up the mushiness that is sustainability,” said Maxine Bédat, founder and director of the New Standard Institute, a think tank that’s set out to demystify the subject. “It is still shocking to look up and see just how little is invested in the actual research before jumping to the conclusions that we should do X, Y, and Z, or saying cotton is the best thing or the worst thing.”
If you can’t get the right data, you can’t get the right outcomes.
On Wednesday, the organization launched a roadmap providing guidance for consumers, media, and the industry on how to navigate the current landscape, avoid misinformation and drive change. It lays out guidelines on how to read between the lines of media releases, critically explains the value of commonly-used standards, and provides a framework for a more fact-based approach. It’s accompanied by a six-part masterclass. Later this year, NSI is rolling out a fact-checking database that will score commonly-quoted facts based on how reliable their source is.
The NSI is part of an increasingly urgent push to provide high quality and accessible information about fashion’s impact to a broader set of stakeholders. While brands are struggling to understand the best course of action, consumers are equally confused, and increasingly wary of potential greenwashing. As the industry comes under more scrutiny from regulators, the need for good information is becoming even more pressing.
“If we are to make any progress when it comes to sustainability commitments what we need is traceability and transparency,” said Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of nonprofit advocacy group Remake. “It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s the first step.”
Before Bédat ran NSI, she co-founded Zady, an early entrant into the ethical e-commerce space. She’d previously worked at the United Nations, concluding amid the frenzy of neoliberalism that characterized the early 2010s, that business could more effectively and swiftly drive change.
Though Zady was initially a platform dedicated to responsibly-sourced products, Bédat was frustrated by how difficult it was to find brands who knew enough about their manufacturing to really stand behind sustainability claims. The company launched its own private label to try and produce garments with a fully traceable supply chain and started publishing its findings.
“Brands much, much larger than Zady would reach out privately and say, ‘the information you’re sharing is so helpful for our team,’” Bédat said. “I was shocked because I thought the average person didn’t know, but I assumed industry insiders did.”