The recent Media Masterclass on Transparency in the Apparel and Footwear Industry aimed to assess whether the incoming legislation is a) necessary and b) whether brands are prepared for it.

The session was centred around the idea that greenwashing among brands and retailers is getting worse and unsubstantiated sustainability claims that are confusing and misleading customers, as well as resulting in an unfair playing field, need to be tackled.

The event, which featured a series of industry expert-led discussions and panel sessions, was hosted by the Policy Hub, Circularity for Apparel and Footwear, and Global Fashion Agenda, the non-profit that fosters industry collaboration on sustainability to drive impact.

Baptiste Carriere-Pradal, chair of the Policy Hub proposed a ban on ambiguous and generic sustainability claims, as well as those that solely address legal compliance such as “made without forced labour”.

“This makes it easier for consumers to access and actually understand the environmental impact of their clothing and footwear,” he commented.

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“The proliferation of various labelling schemes makes it difficult for consumers to compare, differentiate and understand the environmental impact of clothing.”

He noted there is no accepted baseline for the industry and that greenwashing makes it difficult for other brands to make a claim regarding environmental performance of a product.

“In order to differentiate the noise from the truth, real regulation needs to be implemented.”

Pradal said that for a consumer to be informed, two things need to happen: They need to be able to trust the information is reliable and accurate and; there needs to be a standardisation on how a claim is calculated.

Recommendations for legislators

While Policy Hub supports the EU Commissions’ goal to protect consumers against misleading claims and ensure reliable information is delivered, Carriere-Pradal outlined a series of recommendations:

  • Establish a baseline to ensure clear, trustworthy, reliable and comparable consumer-facing information including key rules on types of sustainability claims and how to substantiate them.
  • Minimum standards on the communication of these claims including ways to display such information to consumers.
  • Vague and ambiguous claims must not be permitted.
  • Comparable claims at the product level need to be backed up with a full lifecycle analysis of a product.
  • Comparative claims at the component level (eg: better material) must only be allowed if based on an independent or verified assessment allowing all the relevant impact categories.

“You can only make a sustainable claim if everyone is calculating the claim under the same method, using the same exact approach to do it,” Carriere-Pradal added.

In 2013, the commission started a mission into disclosing a product’s environmental footprints. It is anticipated to come online by 2024 and result in a higher uptake of green products and greener practices.

Martha Williams, senior manager, circularity and sustainable materials, C&A said that from a brand perspective, the Products’ Environmental Footprints (PEFs) allow a comparable data piece.

“Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) have been really difficult to compare to each other. We have different boundaries and different data sets. Having the same underlying data sets will provide comparable data for the first time, that’s a really positive step – assessing the impact of our products for ourselves but also for our customers.”

She added: “We’ve actually got goals now about helping consumers to make more sustainable choices and being more transparent. Our approach thus far has largely been aligned with third party certification. What the PEF brings is the full lifecycle of the product which we know is important. As a brand, we can then see what we are addressing – hotspots in a lifecycle. We are using data so we can reduce our impact as much as possible. The other side is consumers and lack of comparability. Being involved in the methodology allowed us to see how we would translate this to consumers in a way that is consumer-friendly and doesn’t mislead them.

The speakers unanimously agreed the legislative approach is long overdue.

Why legislation is needed?

JD Shadel, head of content at Good on You, explained that at present there is no obligation to communicate around sustainability and it is not standardised, so brands are largely free to choose what they disclose and what they don’t. As a result brands can make claims to satisfy their marketing efforts and not back them up with data.

“Legislation is needed across one market – a unified approach.”

Martin Hojsik, MEP for Renew Europe Group, Slovakia and a member of ENVI, European Parliament agreed that tackling misinformation is not just beneficial for consumers but for brands too.

He said: “It creates a level playing field across the EU and internationally. A harmonised system gives the perception of consistency.”

However one of the gaps in the current pieces of legislation is that it doesn’t address the volume of clothing being produced or how brands are impacting the livelihoods of people in their supply chain, explained Delphine Williot, policy and research coordinator for Fashion Revolution. She also noted a “clear lack of transparency in the industry.”

“On the one hand, you have brands pushing consumption – telling consumers they are buying a sustainable item. On the other, only 30% of brands we surveyed defined a process of what is considered a sustainable material.”

“Legislation gives us the opportunity to ensure brands’ claims are substantiated. Brands will be forced to map supply chains and collect data from suppliers.”

Key first steps for brands ahead of incoming legislation

  • Increase transparency by disclosing specific efforts to be more sustainable.
  • Map supply chains and understand where the raw materials and fabrics sit.
  • Collect data with suppliers so you know it is accurate.
  • Communicate with consumers in a transparent and credible way so consumers can make informed decisions.

“My hope in the next five years is to see a garment industry where workers are paid fairly, respected and appreciated for their craft. I want to see an industry that tackles the waste crisis, overproduction and overconsumption. We’ve come this far but need to go a lot further, more quickly. I have hope when I see millions of people calling for change,” Shadel said.