Back-to-Back News Reports Put Sustainability Archangels on the Back Foot

The Big Daddies in the textiles-apparel-footwear-fashion ecosystem are the hands behind some of the most followed sustainability benchmarks. The charge is that they have been using the cloak of opaqueness and secrecy and also the lack of credible data to greenwash themselves. texfash.com recaps the brouhaha.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • Intercept on 3 June: "the index used to certify sustainability in New York’s Fashion Act is tied to apparel giants like Patagonia and Walmart."
  • New York Times on 12 June: "an influential system overseen by retailers and clothing makers ranks petroleum-based synthetics like “vegan leather” as more environmentally sound than natural fibres."
Though allegations have been levelled at fashion giants, the SAC and the Higg Index find themselves in the eye of a storm for being the archangels of the 'sustainable fashion' ecosystem. The latter particularly has been under fire from critics for consistently downplaying natural fibres and instead promoting fossil fuel fashion (i.e polyster-driven fashion).
In the eye of a storm Though allegations have been levelled at fashion giants, the SAC and the Higg Index find themselves in the eye of a storm for being the archangels of the 'sustainable fashion' ecosystem. The latter particularly has been under fire from critics for consistently downplaying natural fibres and instead promoting fossil fuel fashion (i.e polyster-driven fashion). Nika Akin / Pixabay

Two adverse news reports have thrown the 'sustainable fashion' world in turmoil, with both the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and Higg issuing statements denying charges that big brands have been using the cloak of opaqueness and secrecy and also the lack of credible data to greenwash themselves.

The latest came in the form of an article titled 'How Fashion Giants Recast Plastic as Good for the Planet' in the New York Times on 12 June which argued that "an influential system overseen by retailers and clothing makers ranks petroleum-based synthetics like “vegan leather” as more environmentally sound than natural fibres."

This followed close on the heels of a damning report in the Intercept on 3 June titled 'Industry-Linked Sustainability Standard Allows Clothing Giants to Ramp Up Emissions'. Its contention was as simple: "the index used to certify sustainability in New York’s Fashion Act is tied to apparel giants like Patagonia and Walmart."

Though the allegations were levelled at fashion giants, the SAC and the Higg Index find themselves in the eye of a storm for being the archangels of the 'sustainable fashion' ecosystem. The latter particularly has been under fire from critics for consistently downplaying natural fibres and instead promoting fossil fuel fashion (i.e polyster-driven fashion).

The Norwegian Consumer Authority recently wrote to outdoor brand Norrøna Sport arguing that the use of Higg Profiles appeared to break guidelines under Norway’s Marketing Control Act, which examines green claims made by businesses. In February, Portugal banned the use of “vegan leather” to describe leather-look products on the ground that the term was “misleading.”

The Intercept article, pegged to the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, introduced in the New York State Assembly in October 2021.
Intercepted! The Intercept article, pegged to the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, introduced in the New York State Assembly in October 2021, asserted: "The cooperation between the leading brands [Walmart and Patagonia] eventually led to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which would go on to create a standard by which fashion companies could be graded for ecological impact. Now, those standards — despite criticisms that they lead to toothless regulatory frameworks and produce misleading ratings — could be codified in the fashion capital of the United States." Tiko Giorgadze / Unsplash

The report that set 'sustainability' on fire

The Intercept article was pegged to the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, introduced in the New York State Assembly in October 2021, and asserted: "The cooperation between the leading brands [Walmart and Patagonia] eventually led to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which would go on to create a standard by which fashion companies could be graded for ecological impact. Now, those standards — despite criticisms that they lead to toothless regulatory frameworks and produce misleading ratings — could be codified in the fashion capital of the United States."

This article charted out how a few organisations—that lead the fashion industry today—came to be formed, and their connections with one another, besides being linked to polyester:

  • The story began in 2009 with Patagonia and Walmart “inviting CEOs of leading global companies to come together to develop an index that would measure the environmental impact of their products" leading to the formation of the SAC a year later.
  • The Higg Index has been pushed by the World Resources Institute (WRI), which denied the assertion saying, “We also are not in the business of promoting SAC or its derivatives.”
  • Liz Cook, a WRI vice-president, was on the SAC board from the beginning until her term ended in 2021. Cook launched an underwear brand in September 2020.
  • The WRI emphasised its role as a founding member of Science Based Targets (SBT). But, the SBT initiative itself is aimed at apparel and footwear companies that was founded by Nike.
  • The Higg Index uses a life-cycle analysis produced by Plastics Europe, which gathered data on European-produced polyester from 2009. Yet 93 percent of polyester is produced in Asia, where manufacturing and energy standards vary wildly between nations and companies.
  • The SAC is based in California but was only registered in 2012 as a foreign company under Delaware, a state known for enabling companies and individuals to hide their finances and intent.
  • Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway and Walmart’s Ken Lanshe created the SAC, but CEO Jason Kibbey signed the company documents after his internship with Patagonia during business school.
  • Kibbey created the Sustainable Apparel Foundation in California in 2012, which was renamed the Apparel Impact Institute in 2017—a collaboration between the SAC, the Sustainable Trade Initiative and Target Corporation “to strategically drive sustainability improvements.”
  • In 2019, Kibbey founded Higg with a Californian address but under the jurisdiction of Delaware.
  • The Amsterdam office of the SAC also houses the Laudes Foundation, which funds the coalition, and had also set up the WRI.
  • The Laudes Foundation (formerly C&A Foundation) was created by the Brenninkmeijer family, which owns apparel retail giant C&A through its Swiss company Cofra Holding AG.
  • Cofra owns oil and gas fracking companies in North America.
You can only hope that lawmakers make standards on what is greenwashing and what is not. Sadly also lawmakers are influenced by industries to adjust their laws and standards. I think it is common sense that if you let an industry make a standard form what is green and what is not the changes (chances) of greenwashing are very big -- Bob Ballings of Bob Mats B.V.
The Damage Manual You can only hope that lawmakers make standards on what is greenwashing and what is not. Sadly also lawmakers are influenced by industries to adjust their laws and standards. I think it is common sense that if you let an industry make a standard form what is green and what is not the changes (chances) of greenwashing are very big — Bob Ballings of Bob Mats B.V. Vinicius "amnx" Amano / Unsplash

The report that got the SAC's goat

The SAC had not responded to the Intercept, but the New York Times with its large print base is a different player. The Times report was essentially only a follow-up report on the Intercept, and was much less strident.

It did build up the case against the Higg Index:

  • The Higg rating for elastane, also known as Lycra or spandex, draws on a study by what was at the time the world’s largest elastane producer, Invista, a subsidiary of the conglomerate Koch Industries. (Invista sold its Lycra business in 2019.)
  • Many of the garment brands that sit on the board of the group that oversees the index profit from two fashion megatrends that directly benefited from advances in synthetics like these: fast fashion and athleisure.
  • Silk’s unfavourable rating in the index, for example, draws on a 2014 study by Oxford-based researchers of 100 silk farmers who rely on irrigation in a single state in India. That study’s lead researcher, Miguel F. Astudillo, said he hadn’t known until recently that his work had been used by the Higg Index. He said his study of Indian silk, which is mostly used domestically, was not representative of global production.
  • This year, the sole representative of an environment group on the Sustainable Apparel Coalition board of directors resigned, citing the organization’s lack of progress on environmental and climate policies, and hasn’t been replaced.
  • Last year, for example, the Higg Index said it had updated the rating for leather from JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker and one of the companies that the Times investigation last year found was sourcing cows linked to Amazon deforestation. The new JBS-specific assessment rates leather produced by JBS as among the world’s most sustainable.
Many of the garment brands that sit on the board of the group that oversees the index profit from two fashion megatrends that directly benefited from advances in synthetics like these: fast fashion and athleisure.
To Boot Many of the garment brands that sit on the board of the group that oversees the index profit from two fashion megatrends that directly benefited from advances in synthetics like these: fast fashion and athleisure. Brooke Cagle / Unsplash

Living in denial

Both the SAC and Higg issued statements denying the charges made in the New York Times, but deftly ignored the nexus that had been established by the Intercept report.

The SAC statement issued by its Chief Executive, Amina Rizvi, contended that the Times article "does not cover the broader discussion of what is needed to drive the apparel industry forward, with solutions that can create real transformation." She went on to appeal, "We strongly appeal to all parts of the materials industry to invest in deeper data on materials’ environmental impact – and to share that data across with each other. Collaboration is the only way we can accelerate progress on climate issues and provide the best possible data to enable businesses, policymakers and customers to make informed decisions."

The unsigned Higg statement said the Times had missed the point, and that: "Rather than highlighting lifecycle scholars or how the tool is actually used by product designers, the piece elevates those promoting one side of an industry’s vigorous debate (who are not users of this database). This theoretical debate about “more versus less sustainable” is fundamentally disconnected from how product designers across the world regularly use this dataset: as an input to their materials choices when designing for specific product use cases, in order to reduce their impact faster."

The two statements drew a lot of flak on LinkedIn.

Paul Foulkes-Arellano of Circuthon Consulting wrote: "All of the reputational damage is self-inflicted Amina Razvi. You have failed to understand questions about data, let alone provide scientific answers. An LCA requires analysis of a plethora of data points: grid mix, water source are just the tip of the iceberg. When you have data scarcity, you can't take ONE source - especially when it comes from a company owned by fossil-fuel lobbyists. The whole idea of an "index" is a farce. LCA experts outside the fashion industry have now analysed your responses - they fell off their chairs. In Europe the "Higg" is met with muffled bemusement. This is your own doing, not some conspiracy."

Bob Ballings of Bob Mats B.V. remarked: "You can only hope that lawmakers make standards on what is greenwashing and what is not. Sadly also lawmakers are influenced by industries to adjust their laws and standards. I think it is common sense that if you let an industry make a standard form what is green and what is not the changes (chances) of greenwashing are very big as in the end many are listed on the stock exchange and have to make profit, preferably more profit. When profit driven it's difficult to expect an honest standard. In the end many green claims can be proven false by science."

Deborah Barker, Director of Field and Folk, reacted to Higg: "It’s absurd to call natural fibres niche when they were the sole source of clothing for millennia. It is only since the Second World War we have clothed ourselves in synthetics and only since the 80’s that synthetics pushed by the fossil fuel industry have become so dominant. We desperately need a paradigm shift to live within the earths boundaries and to reinvigorate textiles which are grown agroecologically and return to the soil as nourishment at the end of their useful life."

Subir Ghosh

SUBIR GHOSH is a Kolkata-based independent journalist-writer-researcher who writes about environment, corruption, crony capitalism, conflict, wildlife, and cinema. He is the author of one book, and has co-authored three with others. He writes, edits, reports and designs. He is also a professionally trained and qualified photographer.

 
 
 
  • Dated posted: 15 June 2022
  • Last modified: 15 June 2022