Greenpeace’s new report holds fashion brands accountable for their climate impact progress
With COP26 fresh in mind, where global fashion industry players signed agreements to become sustainable, a recent report by Greenpeace Germany indicates how sustainability commitments are actually carried into effect.
6 Dec 2021

In late November, Greenpeace Germany released the report Self regulation: a fashion fairytale. The report takes hold of a campaign that was initiated by Greenpeace eleven years ago, entitled Detox My Fashion. A campaign that was aiming to abolish the use of hazardous chemicals within fashion — that harms both climate and human life – by 2020. Several fashion brands and suppliers committed to the campaign and in 2015 it was fortified by also addressing the problem of waste and over-production. The goal was “slowing the flow and closing the loop”. 

Now, one year after the 2020 deadline, Greenpeace is assessing the progress of 29 brands that committed to the campaign in 2010, resulting in the published report. Some of the brands are Adidas, Burberry, Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), H&M, Inditex, Nike and Valentino, to mention a few. 

The report was initiated to see if the brands are still holding up to their commitments, even though the campaign is officially over. By using publicly published information from the brands own websites and reports, Greenpeace conducted the report without notifying the brands, to do a ’blind check’. The report examines two major areas; the use of hazardous chemicals and how brands are adjusting their business models concerning overconsumption and waste.

The use of hazardous chemicals is fading

In a previous report, conducted by Greenpeace in 2018, the organization evaluated the ongoing progress regarding the use of chemicals within clothing production. The report, Destination Zero, stated that the players committed to the Detox My Fashion-campaign actually made progress and there was a change within the fashion industry. There was greater transparency, brands were no longer just evaluating the end product but instead, the whole supply chain. And brands were starting to take a bigger response protecting, not only customers, but communities, workers and the environment, from hazardous chemicals.  

In the latest report, the trend is continuously quite positive. A majority of the brands are still working to achieve a toxic-free production and have greater transparency through their supply chains. Though, the report states that more work needs to be done by the whole industry to achieve zero discharge completely. 

— The chemistry was the start and it shows us that supply chains and the transparency of supply chains are a game-changer. But we have to go much further; because even the greenest t-shirt, or the best jeans, still use a lot of recourses. If we really want to be on track we need to change the whole industry and switch from being textile producers to textile service providers, explains Viola Wohlgemuth, a watchdog of the campaign and one of three authors of the report.

Fast fashion must be dispatched to history

Today the average person buys 60% more clothing every year, and keep them for about half as long as 15 years ago. The rise of online shopping is expected to further boost this trend, and in 2025 the market of e-commerce fashion is expected to reach a value of over $1trillion. 

The ever increasing pace of fashion is interlinked with two major problems — overconsumption and waste. A lot of the clothes that are being bought is never used, but also a lot of the clothes being produced never even reach a final consumer, as they end up being destroyed or being burnt up. A practice in the fashion industry which is hard to track, due to the lack of transparency. Even though some of the assessed brands have adjusted their standards when it comes to unsold products, the phenomenon of destroying produced goods is still existing. A recent report is claiming that, if the estimated amount of clothes and electronic goods that were destroyed in 2020 would be lined up, it would go 1,5 laps around the globe. And the prediction for 2030 would be that it would go six times around the earth. Numbers that show the magnitude of the problem.

The main issue, the Greenpeace-report states, is fast fashion. The report highlights circularity as a solution. But the number of clothes being produced is no way near the amount that actually is being circulated and recycled through the system. Another issue is that textile recycling is still a big technical challenge. For example, less than half of all clothes are today recycled and out of those only 1% are actually being recycled into new garments. To cite the report; ”recycling textiles is more of a myth than an effective way of addressing the problem of overproduction and consumption”. 

— This whole procedure of making textiles into just mere plastic garbage, is fast fashion. It is having a business model where you will end up with leftovers and stock that you can’t sell. In Europe, 30% of the textiles never get sold — if you have a business model that includes that your textile won’t be sold, it is for me fast fashion. Explains Viola Wohlgemuth and continues;

— Being a luxury company does not mean that you can’t be fast fashion, as long as you have a business model that creates textiles that don’t get sold and don’t take care of them. Real fast fashion, like H&M, have so much textile that they need to get rid of it and then there are luxury brands that destroy products cause they don’t want to see them on a second-hand market — it is another angle of the same problem. They don’t have a system of how to be responsible for the textile that is left over. They also don’t have a plan of repairing, taking back and recycling their textiles. We need real circularity and that means designing for repairing and for recycling and there is very small progress in this.

What Greenpeace propose is that brands not solely need to solve the circularity-issue, but also need to slow down production. This was added in 2015 to the campaign Detox My Fashion and demanded brands to set goals to ”slow the flow”, as well as ”close the loop”. Something Viola Wohlgemuth explains as ”brands need to go from being just producers, to be service providers”. 

In Self regulation: a fashion fairytale, Greenpeace points out that most brands are incorporating circularity and also makes it an important topic in their sustainability agendas. But, they are not putting in enough effort in slowing down production. Out of the 29 brands that were assessed in the report, only nine indicated that they were serious about slowing down the flow in some sense. When it all comes down to it, fast fashion can not exist in a sustainable fashion industry. What is needed, according to the report, is a radical shift in business models; fast fashion brands need to start producing fewer clothes, but in higher quality, that is being used far more than it is now. Another way forward is also to start offering services such as renting, resell and repairs. A shift that needs to be done on a large scale permeating the whole company, not just through capsule collections or marketing stunts.

Regulation is the way forward

According to Greenpeace, the most efficient and reliable way to create a sustainable fashion industry, that doesn’t harm the planet, is through regulations and legislation. Currently, two key policy processes are up for debate in the EU, these are; EU strategy for sustainable textiles and the supply chain or due diligence law

— If you want to change something, it is important to not just have visions, but you need to have progressive targets. And these two laws are both there. I think the supply chains are the key and a game-changer. These two laws can start the transition we need to have. Because 85% of the greenhouse gas emissions are produced outside of Europe in the production. These numbers are not calculated in the national greenhouse gas emissions. If we don’t face this, we don’t even need to think about reaching the 1,5-degree limit. So, therefore tracking the supply chain is the most important part. Strong and binding supply chain- and due diligence laws are a very important part. Because they are forcing the companies to be transparent about their supply chains and be responsible for the greenhouse gas emission, in the beginning, explains Viola Wohlgemuth.

Do fashion brands keep their promises when it comes to sustainability?

— Actually, not at all. The UN Fashion Industry Charter was signed over three years ago, where brands committed to reducing their climate emissions by 30% by 2030. But in August this year, three years after the launch of the UN Fashion Charter, it was released that the brands weren’t able to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. A few made some efforts, but as we also realized, it was only in greenwashing projects in their operations. For example, we have in Germany, and Europe, office complexes where brands put solar panels on them and then celebrate it as an action for the climate. But they did not start where the real problems lay; in the supply chain. This report shows that they instead increased their greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the brands sign any charter, the reality shows over the last 20 years that they just increase their greenhouse gas radiations. So, self-regulation won’t help at all, we need binding laws, says Viola.

The first one up for discussion, EU strategy for sustainable textiles, is a strategy from the EU, which will aim to help the EU to better shift to a climate-neutral textile industry and ensure that the industry recovers from the COVID-19 crisis in a sustainable way. Here Greenpeace proposes several different regulations, which ranges from product design to product longevity, ban on the destruction of unsold goods to a textile tax, incentives for alternative business models to a more standardized framework for the clothing industry, to name a few. 

The second proposal is legislation on corporate due diligence. A law that would make companies accountable when they harm or contribute to harming human rights and the environment or undermine good governance. This would make the companies more responsible for their supply chains and what they actually import. According to Greenpeace, the current proposal is too weak and requests some reinforcements, such as transparency and higher standards. 

The brands and retailers that have been assessed in Self regulation: a fashion fairytale are the following:

Adidas, Benetton, Burberry, C&A, Coop, Esprit, Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), G-Star, H&M, Inditex, Levi’s, Li Ning, Mango, Miroglio, M&S, Nike, Primark, Puma, Valentino, Victoria’s Secret. 
Aldi Sud/Aldi Nord, COOP, Kaufland, Lidl, Rewe/Penny, Tchibo, Tesco (F&F), Paramo, Rotauf, and Vaude.