Photo: United Nations

Are green claims made by clothing brands really fashion forward? Experts say no

Initiatives such as third-party audits can help consumers verify sustainability claims, which are fast becoming a norm in fashion industry, say experts

As the spotlight on climate change brightens, brands are increasingly hopping on the sustainable fashion trend, introducing green initiatives and marketing strategies to appeal to the eco-conscious consumer. Flipkart-owned online fashion retailer, Myntra, is one brand that launched two partnerships in the past few months to provide customers with more environmentally friendly clothing options. But environmentalists and sustainable fashion entrepreneurs say the initiatives amount to a strategic marketing campaign, and likely have little impact.  

On September 14, Myntra announced its partnership with the non-profit Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the world’s largest cotton sustainability programme, to source cotton for over 15 in-house brands. Myntra will source 10% of its cotton from the BCI, and increase that figure to about 50% in the next five to seven years, according to the press release. BCI’s cotton will also be mixed with “conventional cotton through the supply chain,” meaning the source of the end product cannot be traced. 

“As the leading fashion and lifestyle retailer in the country, we aim to incorporate more environmentally responsible practices throughout our supply chain,” said VP Product Development & Sourcing Neetu Jotwani, in a press release. “Partnering with the Better Cotton Initiative means we will continue the journey to source more sustainable cotton across our entire business, working towards a brighter future for the cotton industry and those whose lives depend on it.” 

Myntra, when contacted, declined to comment on record. 

Myntra’s competitor, TataCliq, has “The Limited,” a “conscious edit” in their Indian luxury subsection, which the website says, “celebrates Indian brands committed to responsible fashion and clean beauty practices.” Individual brands have also introduced sustainability initiatives. Shoppers Stop partnered with non-governmental organisation Goonj, to recycle old clothes by giving it away to underprivileged people. In 2019, Max Fashion collaborated with LENZINGTM ECOVEROTM, to create clothes out of wood-based biodegradable fibres. 

Sustainability is broadly defined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

According to Ramanuj Mitra, senior program officer at the Centre for Responsible Business, sustainability in the fashion sector means garments must be environmentally, financially, and socially sustainable. Mitra explains that most brands ensure sustainability in profits, but they must mitigate garment worker exploitation and maximise the life of a product. “If you follow a very quick fashion cycle, like every month tonnes of clothes are being purchased and just thrown out, then that is not sustainable because when you throw a piece of garment, then you are also throwing away thousands of litres of water that has been used.” 

Increasingly, sustainability is tied to the circular economy, a concept where the life-cycle of a product does not end after purchase. It considers whether the material can be reused or recycled after it is disposed of, so that waste is minimised and the resources inputted are maximised.  

Mitra says the BCI’s third-party auditing system will ensure that some positive impact will arise from the Myntra partnership, but harvesting natural fibres comes with its own issues. One kilogram of cotton needs about 10,000 litres of water, forcing many farmers to use chemicals to expedite the growth. “Irrespective of how much you try to make it sustainable, there is still loads of water, fertilisers, and pesticides that goes into the production of cotton,” said Mitra, with much of these chemicals polluting the soil and water. “If we talk about organic cotton, then it is simply not feasible at scale… demand for cotton has been going up—if you want to source everything from organic products, then you will need a landmass as large as India to just grow cotton.”

India is the world’s top cotton producer, a position experts predict it will maintain until 2030. The domestic textile and apparel industry has been growing rapidly over the past few years, with the Indian Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF) estimating that demand will continue to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12%, meaning the industry may be valued at $220 billion by 2025. Cotton production rose to 35.4 million bales, and fibre production reached 1.60 million tonnes in FY20. But the OECD-FAO Outlook attributes a lot of this growth to advancements in cultivation technology, in the face of growing environmental issues. 

The fashion industry uses more energy than aviation and shipping combined, and accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of waste water, according to UN Climate Change. Abhijit Banerjee, an environmental studies professor at OP Jindal Global University in New Delhi, explains that given this impact, “adopting a small improvement somewhere, while commendable, if credibly verified, does not make a brand green or responsible. We hear frequent claims of saving water, which also saves the company money…Often companies take on relatively easy ‘improvements’ that also save them money without touching the more difficult issues.” 

Synthetic fibres especially, are now ubiquitous. Anas Sheik, owner of the sustainable fashion brand 23°N.69°E, says one reason it is practically impossible for the fashion industry to be totally sustainable is because organic fibres like cotton are expensive and take time to produce. Instead, wholesalers can cheaply source polyester. “They don’t think much about the sustainability aspect, but they think about how low they can bring the cost for the garment.”   

About 60% of clothes globally are made out of synthetic fibres. India is the world’s second largest producer of polyester and viscose, according to the IBEF, and the sixth-largest exporter of Manmade Fibre textiles. Mitra explains that the idea that polyester is a sustainable alternative to cotton is misconstrued. “I can agree that polyester does not have that kind of water footprint that cotton has, but… It is a by-product of petroleum refining and production.” Plastic produced during this process is converted into small beads that can be woven into fibres. 

He also notes that recycled polyester does little to minimise the negative impact. Companies are, for example, collecting polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, like the ones used for bottled drinks, and converting it into polyester fibres, marketed as recycled polyester. 

“But then even that has a huge problem because polyester contributes to microplastics. [which are] everywhere now. There’s not a single lake or water body or a pond left in the world which has no microplastics.”

According to Banerjee, “by far the biggest problem is ‘overproduction’ leading to enormous wastage both at the unsold product stage and the post-consumer stage.” UN Climate Change reports that 85% of textiles end up incinerated or in landfills, even though it could be reused. The focus should be to “reduce the total amount being produced in the first place.” 

Since, “sustainability increasingly includes more than just the environment, but the people along the way as well,” International trade analyst and Global Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management graduate Emily Foulke notes that Myntra’s BCI partnership comes when cotton is embroiled in international trade controversies over reports of forced labour by Muslims and other marginalised communities in China’s Xinjiang region. “A lot of brands are now trying to prove that they’re not using forced labour for their cotton. They are [taking initiative] right now because there’s international pressure on it.”

The garment production industry in countries across Asia remains largely unregulated. India’s textile industry officially has around 4.5 crore workers, including 35.22 lakh handloom workers. But widespread reports of poor working conditions and unliveable wages reveal the challenges in ensuring that products produced by small, scattered factories are sustainable. Fast fashion companies have been at the centre of this issue, leading companies like H&M to publish their sustainability initiatives explicitly. 

But recent trends show that people are increasingly shopping online. A report by Unicommerce found India’s online fashion industry grew by 51% in FY21. With consumers searching for more eco-friendly options, retailers are increasingly creating curated collections like the ‘Myntra for Earth’ store, which includes over 5,500 sustainable products from about 70 ‘environmentally conscious’ brands for what Myntra’s chief business Officer, Ayyappan Rajagopal calls “sustainability inclined” shoppers. Rajagopal says the store highlights sustainability efforts and the work of artisans and NGOs. But the difference in brands’ strategies makes it difficult for customers to understand what sustainability means.  

“I don’t even think H&M and Mango are sustainable. Who made these garments?” asks Sheik. “H&M gets some garments made in Bangladesh, and they don’t even pay the labourers much money, and they are treated really badly. So how is it sustainable?” 

Following the 2013 collapse of a garment building in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people, brands including H&M and Mango signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety to ensure workers have safe working conditions. A new agreement, the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which went into effect in September, ensures not just structural, fire and electricity issues, but includes health and safety as well.  

H&M Group says that it partners closely with its garment suppliers in Europe, Asia and Ethiopia, to ensure that workers are treated fairly and are paid fair living-wages, with a fixed labour cost. But reports from India show workers face rampant sexual harassment and abuse, and are forced to continue working, without breaks, until they hit their target. In Pakistan, underpaid workers experienced heightened “wage theft,” during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Foulke says retailers, like Myntra, need to vet brands’ sustainability efforts rather than just agreeing with their claims. “What [are companies] looking for when choosing ‘sustainable’ companies? Because at the end of the day what these companies want to be sustainable is selling more and more clothes.” 

“It should be a two-way process,” said Sheik, wherein brands reach out and show people their products while being transparent about processes. “[Customers] would not try to know the background story of your garment, so one has to reach out to the audience.” 

Unless and until [brands] are uploading their third-party audit, or reports that their value chain has been audited by so and so firms on so and so date, it’s very difficult to tell whether they’re telling the truth,” said Mitra. Auditing aims to analyse and certify that supply chains are sustainable, and adhere to global ethical standards. When carried out correctly, the reports can be used to expose mistreatment of workers, like the Guardian investigation into third-party audits for Boohoo, a UK-based fast-fashion retailer. But audits only reflect a situation during a specific timeframe, and each auditing company has its own set of standards, leading to variations in transparency and greenwashing. 

“Greenwashing has been there almost as long as that conversation on sustainability,” says Mitra. “They’re talking about being conscious, but then unless the consumers ask more questions about what [they] mean, when [they] say that [they are] sustainable, unless those questions are asked, either by the consumer or by the regulator, that is the government, there’s no way to tell whether garments are really sustainable or not.”

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