Eco-friendly fashion is the new buzzword as high street fashion brands like Zara, H&M are launching sustainable collections with aspirational names like C&A's ‘Wear the Change’, Zara's ‘join life’ or H&M's ‘Conscious’. Capitalizing on the consumers’ growing interest in ecologically produced items, these brands are creating their own sustainability labels and criteria. However, they rarely divulge about their production processes, says Katrin Wenz, an agricultural expert.
According to Viola Wohlgemuth, Textiles Expert, Greenpeace, independent environmental certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard label (GOTS) and the IVN Best certifications, can illuminate on the eco-credentials of the products launched by such brands.
Adhering to ecological and social production standards
Though most of these brands use organic cotton, this alone is not enough to make fashion sustainable, says Heike Hess, Head, IVN-Berlin. According to him, cotton production is a complex process as after being grown in fields, the fibers need to be separated from seeds, spun, dyed, printed and sewn to create finished items of clothing. Also, cotton producers need to adhere to ecological and social standards at each of these production stages. They have to not only minimize the use of harmful chemicals but also manage water usage and waste, limit carbon dioxide emissions and ensure human rights, fair wages, protections for workers, etc.
Since launching ‘Detox My Fashion’ campaign by Greenpeace in 2011, around 80 global fashion companies have committed to eliminate hazardous chemicals by the end of this year. To achieve this, the cotton cultivation method needs to change. According to Sabine, Ferenchild, Sudiwind Institute for Economics and Ecumenism, in order to be truly sustainable, cotton needs to be grown in regions with heavy rainfall and in combination with food crops.
New label prevents responsibility offloading by fashion companies
Ferenschild is highly skeptical of fashion brands who devise their own criteria for going green and labeling their products. Majority of products these brands sell are produced conventionally.
As a solution to this, Germany has launched a new green certification method with its government-backed ‘Green Button’ label. A company can use this label only if all its products comply with high environmental and labor standards. Though these standards are not as strict as those demanded by organic certifiers, the 'Green Button' label can prevent companies from offloading responsibility to subcontractors in the production chain, say experts.
Lack of clarity over sustainability percentage
Even though organic cotton is 50 per cent more expensive than conventional cotton due to the use of premium fibers boosts, global fashion brands like H&M are able to keep their prices down, as they produce in huge volumes, says Ferenschild.
However, it is not clear what percentage of organic cotton is used in the items produced by these brands. Though H&M claims to use 16 per cent organic cotton in all its clothes produced from 2017-18, according to the Bremen Cotton Exchange, just 0.7 per cent of the global cotton harvest during the season was organic.
Moving from production to service model
Experts say, the real culprit in all this is the consumptions habits of consumers. Even if fashion brands want to produce truly sustainable fashion, current consumption patterns make it impossible. To change this, the fashion industry needs to shift away from the production to service model, says Wohlgemuth. While achieving this, they need to encourage their consumers to buy fewer and long-lasting clothes, repair damaged clothes, donate clothes no longer in use and buy secondhand clothes instead of new ones.