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Sustainable fashion has a data problem. What can brands do about it?

September 22, 2022
Data & transparency

Ask anyone who works at the intersection of fashion and sustainability, and they’ll tell you: fashion has a data problem. Sustainability claims are popping up everywhere — with surprisingly little to back them up. Misinformation scandals abound, and the question on the minds of consumers, investors, and stakeholders everywhere is: how do I know it’s true?

Bad data is making headlines

In just one example of the growing scrutiny over the fashion industry’s sustainability claims, a popular framework used for evaluating the environmental impact of fashion products has recently come under fire for accusations of greenwashing. The framework, known as the Higg Material Sustainability Index (MSI) compares the environmental impact of various materials to help apparel designers select more environmentally friendly materials, and to help consumers make more informed choices when shopping.

But in June, New York Times accused the index of favoring artificial, petroleum-based fibres over natural materials. In short, they suggest that the Higg MSI promotes fossil-fuel-made plastics as ‘environmentally-friendly’. As a result, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the creators of the system, have temporarily paused the MSI.

The MSI’s failings are being attributed to both a lack of up-to-date, high-quality, objective data (the New York Times claims the MSI is funded by the synthetics industry). But where exactly is the fashion industry going wrong with its data, and what can be done about it?

What we mean by ‘bad data’

Fast fashion brands around the world are making sustainability claims based on data that is, at best, an estimate — and at worst, entirely made up. Some call this ‘zombie data’, referring to data that is either lacking in credibility, impossible to verify, or entirely false.

The other problem with much of the data and statistics that pop up in fashion industry sustainability claims is the sheer width of statistical estimates. For example, Planet Tracker notes the discrepancies between cotton water usage data: sources around the world put the water consumption of a single cotton t-shirt somewhere between 600 litres and 7,000 litres. 600 to 7,000? That’s a pretty big margin of error. Another frequently cited statistic claims that the fashion industry produces some 80-150 billion garments every year. 80? 150? Which is it, really?

This is the problem when working with data from an industry so complex and so wide-reaching. Additionally, global averages mean very little in the absence of local context — for example, high water consumption in one part of the world might not be a problem; but in another area, it could be catastrophic.

Yet this kind of uncontextualized, unverified, unspecific data is more popular than ever in green marketing claims, and the more a particular statistic is cited (no matter how dubious) the more it becomes accepted as fact.

Why good data is so hard to find

While brands and retailers know that data is crucial for measuring their sustainability progress, most of them do not collect a wide variety of data, the Economist Intelligence Unit report finds.

And it’s not that they don’t try — the problem lies in the unusual complexity of fashion supply chains. In many other industries, supply chains are more straightforward. But fashion supply chains can easily have hundreds or thousands of individual suppliers in different countries and jurisdictions. “Collection of life cycle inventory data from any supply chain is laborious. The most complex, intermittent supply chains such as the textiles and clothing one adds further to the complexity. Based on the quality of the collected data, the reliability and uncertainty of the final results can vary,” says Dr. Muthu, Chief Sustainability Officer at Green Story. Many brands rely on estimates in the absence of supplier data, but as we’ve seen, these estimates can vary widely.

Collecting high volumes of accurate, verifiable data from these complex global supply chains is no small feat, and even if a brand manages to achieve this internally, there are limits to what brands must (and are willing to) disclose publicly. All of this leads to an industry that is sorely lacking in credible data — especially when it comes to environmental impact.

How bad data harms brands, consumers, and the planet

Bad data — or a lack of data in general — has ripple effects across the fashion industry and beyond. It hinders a brand’s ability to understand their own impact and communicate this to consumers and stakeholders, thereby stalling meaningful progress towards reducing their environmental impact. When brands do make claims, bad data undermines the credibility of these claims, and can mislead consumers in their purchasing journeys. If these claims become the subject of investigation and scandal, bad data can do permanent damage to a brand’s reputation and profitability. And as long as these claims and data fail to match reality, the environment will continue to suffer.

Disclosing clear data about the impact of products and supply chains is something all fashion brands should strive for. Doing so influences consumer behavior, helps brands mitigate environmental and ESG-related risks, drives brands towards more sustainable practices, and moves the industry toward a more environmentally friendly future.

What brands can do to combat misinformation and avoid greenwashing

The only way to truly combat misinformation and avoid greenwashing in your brand’s sustainability claims is to source solid, reliable data. That’s easier said than done (if it were easy, we wouldn’t be here), but for brands determined to get it right, resources abound for getting it right.

Conduct a life cycle assessment

To form a reliable picture of the environmental impact of each of their products, brands need a proven framework to work with. At Green Story, we suggest brands start with a life cycle assessment (LCA). Just as you would “account for the costs associated with producing a good to determine its profitability and competitiveness, an LCA accounts for the environmental impact of a good to determine if producing it is environmentally sustainable,” Dr. Muthu explains.

LCAs arm your team with credible data to back up your sustainability claims, and in turn help the industry set more reliable benchmarks for product impact. But the availability, quality and reliability of data can present an issue in LCA methodology as well. LCA is highly data-intensive and requires a significant volume of data, often involving the collection and processing of hundreds or thousands of data points.

Connect with key partners

Since this data comes from each phase of a brand’s supply chain, it’s crucial that brands build trusting relationships with their suppliers and production partners. Talk to your suppliers and manufacturers about the importance of accurate data collection to your brand’s sustainability mission, and help them understand why the LCA helps both your business and theirs.

LCAs can benefit suppliers by highlighting opportunities to reduce their environmental impact, optimize their processes and operations, and grow their business over the long term. Apparel brands can even take the initiative to offer support and training in life cycle inventory, working collaboratively with their suppliers to achieve a mutually beneficial and environmentally friendly outcome. Open communication, strategic alignment, and an investment in the working relationship is crucial for both brands and suppliers to achieve greater transparency and a more positive environmental impact.

Communicate clearly

When communicating the environmental impact of your product, focus on specific numbers and data points (for example, how many liters of water it took to produce a particular garment versus another) rather than making grand statements such as “good for the environment” or “eco-friendly.” Be as open and transparent as possible with your data (as long as it’s good data) to avoid making claims you can’t back up. Be sure to ground numbers and claims in context, painting a meaningful (rather than a misleading picture for consumers).

Get your data right with Green Story

Are you a fashion brand taking steps to collect better data on your products' environmental impact? Are you looking for a solution to help you quantify and convey the impact of your products?

If that sounds like you, talk to Green Story.

Our mission is to empower 1 billion consumers to know their impact and make choices that are better for the planet and the generations to come. We’ll help you quantify and visualize your environmental impact. We’ll also make sure your customers are along for the journey by telling your sustainability story in ways your consumers can easily grasp, integrating your story into every aspect of your communications, and achieving market-wide buy-in for your sustainability mission.



About Amelia Zimmerman

Amelia Zimmerman is an ESG and sustainability writer. She lives in Toronto with her puppy and her partner, and she is passionate about using storytelling techniques to help people understand and act on climate change.