How many times have you heard someone say, “I’d like to buy sustainable clothes but I can’t afford them”?
We are more likely to buy five fast fashion items over the course of a year, for 20 euros each. That’s a total of 100 euros – or the same price as an eco-label dress that pays its employees a fair wage.
So the question is why do we keep buying endless articles in polyester (plastic). who will remain polluting the planet long after we have thrown them away, all while textile workers are exploited and grossly underpaid?
We have to change the way you think about clothessays sustainable fashion guru Livia Firth MBE.
Already in 2016, the co-founder of Eco-Age launched the hugely popular # 30Wears Challenge to encourage people to only purchase something they know they will wear 30 times.
Now Firth is taking it one step further by releasing an ambitious new report exposing fashion’s flawed “sustainability system”.
Featuring co-authors and experts in their field, Veronica Bates Kassatly and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, “The Great Greenwashing Machine” invokes misleading metrics and failures to address the real heart problems of the industry.
At the top of the agenda is the abuse of basic human rights.
I spoke to the authors to find out exactly why they released the report and how they hope it will change the fashion industry for the better.
Fast fashion makes us addicted to the act of buying
Firth tells me that when she was twenty, if a piece of clothing was too expensive, she saved up and came back after three or four months.
“That object would still be there,” he explains.
“What stores like Zara have done is lower their prices and produce small quantities of many styles. So when you walked in and thought, “I’ll think about it and I’ll be back”, you couldn’t because a week later – it would disappear from their stock.
“They made us addicted to the act of buying in that moment.”
As one of the biggest fast fashion giants on the planet, making billions in profits every year, Zara succeeds thanks to an inherently harmful business model that prioritizes new arrivals and has a huge volume of deadstocks.
So when someone says they simply can’t afford to shop sustainably, Firth’s response is to challenge them.
“I want to do an experiment with you. We start in January and finish in December, and I want to know how much you spent on waste. I promise you it’s a lot more than what I spent in a year.
He adds with a laugh: “These aren’t multibillion dollar companies because of poor people who can’t afford to buy their clothes!”
While it’s okay to avoid fast fashion, you shouldn’t fall into the trap of buying second-hand items that you still only wear once or twice.
It is preferable to buy the new one of course but, as Baumann-Pauly says,
“It doesn’t matter if you’re buying second hand. It doesn’t matter if you are renting, it doesn’t matter if you are buying. What really matters is how many times you will wear it.
‘The Great Greenwashing Machine’ was released to draw attention to the problems of fast fashion and to try to change the way we think about clothing consumption.
The problems are endless. From human rights violations in southern countries, to fossil fuel-based materials that never decompose. Additionally, the sustainability metrics for brands that are trying to make a difference are, almost exclusively, opaque and unreliable.
We have to think twice about sustainable materials
One of the most overlooked issues in the industry is human rights and how they intersect with the materials our clothes are made of.
“If you look at the fast fashion business model, it is based on exploitation. Without using labor, you would never be able to produce those volumes and costs, ”Firth says.
“We are looking at it the wrong way because we are trying to correct an environmental impact without even considering the social one”.
Bates Kassatly adds that you can’t claim that some materials are “more sustainable” than others without doing your research first.
“People just don’t seem to understand that if you say ‘don’t buy this fiber because it’s bad,’ you’re affecting someone’s livelihood. You are impacting some of the poorest people on the planet ”.
Cotton is a perfect example that people take for granted, he explains.
“It’s often the only income crop that people can easily grow because it’s durable, tough. If you are in Benin or Burkina Faso and you want to grow something and then ship it somewhere, it has to last and not die before you get there. So cotton works better than vegetables if you are a farmer ”.
Cotton production provides income for over 250 million people around the world and employs nearly 7% of all labor in developing countries. And not only does buying cotton help support someone’s livelihood, it’s also a natural fiber.
Sure, conventional cotton requires water and often pesticides to make, but it’s nowhere near as toxic as synthetically produced polyester that is derived from petroleum.
So, before you stop buying conventional cotton because you’ve heard it’s bad for the environment, experts say you need to think twice about what you are doing to manufacturers.
“And likewise, when you start saying to someone, ‘this is a sustainable dress because it’s made from a certain material,’ but it was made by someone who wasn’t getting paid a salary, it’s not sustainable. It’s completely misleading, ”says Baumann-Pauly.
Why are sustainability metrics “completely unfounded”?
Surely there is a system out there that can classify all of these different materials, so we know which ones to stay away from?
Well, there is, it’s called the Higg Index and it’s “completely baseless,” explains Bates Kassatly.
“The Higg measures several environmental factors such as global warming, eutrophication and water use, but it is a privately owned database. You can’t see how the numbers were calculated, “he says.
Firth adds that two large lobbies are involved in managing the index.
“One is the fast fashion lobby, hence the commercial interest, and two are the oil companies, which produce polyester with fossil fuels.”
He says that, according to last year’s Changing Markets report, 70% of the industry relies on synthetic fibers. It is therefore no coincidence that, according to the Higg index, these materials are more environmentally friendly than natural fibers such as cotton.
“There is a real war on natural fibers, in favor of big business and big oil. Without synthetics, fast fashion would not exist “.
“This is crazy!” Bates Kassatly intervenes.
“There is no data that is independent when it comes to sustainability claims. So it can be manipulated to look like whatever you want it to be.
What needs to be done to solve the systemic problems of fashion?
The three authors of the report agree that we need a common definition and common metrics to combat the problem with materials.
“We have to act as investigative reporters, to untangle and untangle these claims – we have to go back to the source and find that, most of the time, the source doesn’t even exist,” Firth says.
What the report clearly highlights is that the environmental impact of fashion is not being properly assessed. This is mainly due to the fact that the impacts are calculated per kilo, when what really matters is the “impact for wear”.
First, the experts are asking policy makers to implement a system of shared and traceable metrics that brands are held accountable for.
Just this month, the EU has announced plans for new laws which would recognize the link between fast fashion and fossil fuels. At its core is an EU-wide extended producer responsibility program, which will force brands like Boohoo, H&M and Zara to pay a waste tax for every item they sell.
There are also some positive mentions about fighting durability and microplastics in these proposals.
But sharp details won’t emerge until 2023, which is too late, according to the report’s co-authors. Basically, the problem of sustainability metrics has not yet been addressed.
“Disinformation is widespread,” concludes Baumann-Pauly. “We don’t expect consumers to perform detailed analysis on every item they buy, which is why we wrote the report.
“Someone has to have a rigorous look behind the facade of the fashion industry.”