The report, published ahead of the EU Textile Strategy, exposes how certification schemes and voluntary initiatives facilitate greenwashing in fashion, publisher Changing Markets Foundation says.

Licence to Greenwash by the Changing Markets Foundation analysed ten certification labels and voluntary initiatives used by fashion brands to assess or measure their sustainability, investigating whether these schemes are fit for purpose in addressing the harms of the modern fashion industry.

The report investigated schemes such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The Textile Exchange, WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), Cradle2Cradle, and The Higg Index by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).

The investigation assessed their level of ambition, the scope for continuous improvement, independence, transparency, and track record of performance and says it found “no scheme to be fit for purpose.”

According to the report’s analysis, the ten certification schemes “failed to hold sufficiently high standards, all lack accountability, and all are procrastinating on progress on the issues of circularity including overproduction, the rise of fast fashion, and the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels.”

As sthe number of voluntary initiatives to address fashion has increased over the last five years it appears that the industry is addressing concerns regarding sustainability, Changing Markets Foundation says.

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Yet it says the report shows the industry’s environmental impact has worsened significantly over the same period. Just in the last 20 years, the use of polyester fibre has more than doubled, driving the industry’s reliance on continued extraction of fossil fuels, and fuelling overproduction and “mountains of waste”, it notes.

George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, says: “While fashion brands double down on production and environmental destruction, they’re using sustainability certification schemes and voluntary initiatives as a smokescreen. These schemes are unambitious, unaccountable, compromised talking shops that result in an industry-wide decoy for unsustainable practices, enabling sophisticated greenwashing on a vast scale.

“We don’t need any more voluntary schemes. Certification and initiatives such as those in the report act as a placebo, creating a false promise that the industry will address sustainability voluntarily. We urgently need comprehensive legislation to change the course of the fashion industry onto a greener path.”

The report argues that policymakers and customers alike are lulled into a false sense of security through these initiatives. This has resulted in systemic reforms being delayed and derailed, such as laws that would drive greater transparency and circularity, it adds.

Market research by the Changing Markets Foundation has found that one in three (34%) of consumers in the UK are choosing to purchase items with green labels or certifications either frequently or always.

One in three also stated they look upon certification schemes or third-party initiatives as trusted sources of information on brands’ green credentials, highlighting what Changing Markets Foundation calls the need for the flaws of such schemes to be urgently addressed.

The report comes ahead of the EU strategy for sustainable textiles, due to be published on 30 March, that will address the overconsumption and waste produced by the industry as a result of fast fashion. The strategy will aim to create a more circular model, as the textile sector is currently the fourth highest pressure category in the EU in terms of use of primary raw materials and water, after food, housing and transport, and one of the most wasteful.

‘Licence to Greenwash’ recommends that all but the most ambitious schemes should be abolished, and the industry should instead focus on ushering in ambitious mandatory requirements through legislation. Any remaining voluntary programmes should remove conflicts of interest, strive for impartiality, embrace a more holistic approach to the whole lifecycle of products and require brands to transparently publish information, which needs to be audited by a third party, it says.

Responses to the Changing Markets Foundation report

A WRAP spokesperson told Just Style: “WRAP wants to create a world in which climate change is no longer a problem. But, with the global fashion industry being responsible for creating more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, we won’t achieve this if we don’t tackle the way clothes are produced, used and disposed of.

“We agree that legislation is important for creating change, but it takes a long time to put new rules and regulations in place – time we don’t have. We use business voluntary agreements in the absence of legislation so that systems change can be delivered as quickly as possible. Our experience with food and plastics, as well as textiles, shows that they work and that businesses can be brought on board to make important steps early on.

“After less than one year operating, Textiles 2030 has signatories from across the lifespan of clothing including manufacture, sales and re-use and recycling. Signatories have committed to achieve challenging evidence/science-based targets for reductions in carbon emissions, water use and circular textile use. Progress of individual businesses is tracked through annually submitted data as well as actions taken against each stage of the product lifecycle.  We have a Roadmap with interim milestones to drive forward this work and hit key stages before 2030.

“WRAP reviews progress regularly by Textiles 2030 signatories and reserves the right to remove those that do not demonstrate adequate action towards these targets. This is openly shared and progress after just six months can be viewed in the interim progress report.

“We share Changing Markets Foundation’s urgency to accelerate and scale-up sustainability solutions.”

A spokesperson for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition said: “The report only looks at one of five tools, conflates the Higg Index with the MSI, and misses that the Product Module goes beyond cradle to gate. The SAC and Textile Exchange have also publicly committed to collaborating on a shared view of materials data for the industry.

“There is no doubt that the fashion and textile industry must transform to better serve the needs of people and planet. There is an urgent need to accelerate action and spur global change; we believe in the power of collaboration and collective action to achieve this.

“The Sustainable Apparel Coalition enables organisations to access trusted, credible and scientifically rigorous tools and support to measure the impact of product production. This provides a basis for tracking change, informing and empowering brands to progress on a continuous journey of improvement. These tools are continuously evolving to align with the latest science and data available.

“Empowering change is key – we live in a climate emergency and deep change needs to happen, and fast. If organisations are promoting their sustainability credentials to customers and stakeholders it is vital the action sitting behind these stands up to scrutiny. We work in active partnership with many others in the sector to advocate for greater transparency and substantiation of claims.”

Laura Balmond, Fashion Initiative Lead at The Ellen Macarthur Foundation said: “The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has helped put the need to transform the destructive and wasteful nature of ‘business as usual’ on global agendas. Voluntary agreements are an important starting point, but we know they alone are not enough to address fashion’s waste and pollution. This is why we also work with governments and policy makers. For example, in recent weeks the Foundation played a significant role in securing a mandate for a UN treaty on plastic pollution. It remains critical that we continue to work with companies however, as they have the power and responsibility to change the materials and business models used at scale. We will continue to raise ambition levels and ensure we drive the actions needed to create a circular economy designed to eliminate waste, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate nature.”

Textile Exchange said: “The recent strategic work we have been undertaking as an organisation has been recognised under “initiatives going in the right direction,” but we want to elaborate on everything that’s been underway behind the scenes.

“Textile Exchange sees standards as one instrument in a holistic toolkit of solutions that, when employed together, can drive positive change. If done well, third-party standards can help to lay the groundwork for accurate information and understanding of the supply chain. They represent an important proof point that helps to regulate the industry, supported by transparency, accountability, and legislation to level the playing field. That’s why we’re committed to strengthening the system behind our standards.

“We also recognise that lowering the overall impact of the fashion and textile industry can’t be done by singling out individual issues. Instead, we have undertaken an organisational pivot that focuses our work around a holistic approach.

“Our approach to aligning our standards with our Climate+ strategy is twofold. First, we’re reinforcing our chain of custody by moving from a disaggregated to a centralised approach to managing our certification data. We’re doing this through two new programmes, dTrackit and eTrackit, that are aimed at increasing traceability and harnessing new technology for this purpose.

“We know that data and technology alone won’t futureproof our standards. We’ve got to reassess the way we measure and think about sustainability, avoiding carbon tunnel vision and thinking holistically. Continuous improvement is built into our standards systems with revisions that are governed by industry stakeholders representing the full supply network and civil society.

“In July 2021, Textile Exchange began a comprehensive revision of its standards framework with the intent to transition all eight standards into one unified standard. Our aim is to meaningfully embed our Climate+ strategy and to streamline to a more unified standard system. We’ll be focussing on the fiber and material production level, and we are also interested in exploring how to link facility-level certification or practices with our chain of custody. This scope decision will be made with feedback from stakeholders.

“We see standards as a valuable starting point, but the commitment that brands, retailers, and suppliers make to lowering their impact shouldn’t stop there. That’s why as an organisation, we position our standards, and their role in accelerating the adoption of preferred fibers and materials, as just one of three core levers to help achieve our Climate+ goals:

  • Materials; Making preferred fibers and materials the accessible default
  • Innovation: Closing the innovation gap and scaling existing solutions
  • Degrowth: Slowing down a growth-driven business model

“These levers underpin the diverse tools and programmes we offer at Textile Exchange, and we are committed to constantly evolving them to facilitate information sharing, industry accountability, and coordinated action.

“In the same way that siloed solutions can’t work on their own, at Textile Exchange we know that collective action far outweighs individual impact. If we want a fashion and textile industry that respects both people and our planetary boundaries, we’ve got to speed up the shift towards a new system. The “plus” in our Climate+ strategy acknowledges that we can’t do it alone.

“We wholly agree that standard systems should include input from every corner of the industry, which we aim to do through the International Working Group that governs ours. We also want to take this opportunity to clarify that our organisational Governance Board does not have any decision-making rights in the development of our standards.

“Real change happens when we work together.”

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which operates the Cradle2Cradle certification, said:

“The Institute welcomes the call for ambitious regulatory intervention expressed in the report. Time is of the essence though, and a systemic change in the fashion sector is required with urgency. This is where the opportunity and responsibility of voluntary sustainability schemes comes in – accelerating tangible action, surpassing regulatory requirements and spearheading the uptake of industry leadership.

“While we understand and clearly support the intention of the report to drive faster progress in the industry, it does not justify what we believe is an inaccurate reference of Cradle to Cradle Certified’s approach and impact, evidently based on outdated and incomplete second-hand information. 

The latest Version 4.0 of Cradle to Cradle Certified has set a new ambition level for companies to take action on a holistic circular economy and implement transformation on materials, products and business models. The global standard and continuously evolving guidance documents are available on the Institute’s website for general public access, providing full transparency on underlying science-based methodologies and comprehensive, third-party verified performance requirements.

“The Institute continuously welcomes concrete suggestions for improvement and is fully committed to moving the industry to leadership at scale in most accountable ways. In line with our approach to rigor and continuous improvement, Cradle to Cradle Certified is built on demanding ascending achievement levels and a two-year renewal cycle that mandates measurable improvements by companies.

“While certain research in the report will have to be updated and corrected, we hope that the report will have the desired effect of collectively taking bolder action in the fashion industry, communicating progress in most credible ways to consumers and making systemic change a fast reality in partnership with all relevant stakeholders.”