In the fashion world, sustainability has become a colossal buzzword: brands are talking about it, investors are asking about it, and consumers are looking for it. Dedicated pages have popped up on company websites to communicate their social and environmental initiatives, while annual reports excitedly cite ambitious targets for a carbon-neutral, or even carbon-positive, fashion future.
Yet despite the influx of information, it’s getting harder to understand who is making real progress. That’s because it’s almost impossible to draw comparisons between brands without a standardized framework to measure environmental impact. It’s an issue for consumers looking to shop more consciously, but also for the companies themselves, who can’t easily identify the areas in which they could do better.
As a result, organizations, start-ups, and nonprofits have established their own rating systems to measure companies’ footprints. Various consumer-facing platforms have popped up, as have tools to help industry insiders track the environmental credentials of their suppliers.
But, unfortunately, the various criteria for rating brands’ impacts have more disparities than commonalities. Each system works from a different definition of what sustainability means in the context of fashion and how it should be measured. To an industry newbie, it’s as chaotic as the first day of an after-holiday shoe sale. But we’re breaking down some of the most popular systems and taking a look at how eco-measurement is changing the apparel industry for the better.
Good on You
Starting on the consumer side, user-friendly platform Good On You rates brands' sustainability credentials through an attractive interface. Complete with a comprehensive content offering that breaks down technical sustainability topics into easy-to-read articles, it aims to empower shoppers to make better choices. But what criteria do they consider?
According to Good On You, their approach can be split into three main pillars: people, planet, and animals. Its framework is extensive, analyzing over 500 data points across more than 60 material issues. Considerations range from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to water and chemical usage, materials, labor standards, and supplier relationships.
Good On You analyzes brands based on the information those brands make publicly available. It also factors in a few major third-party reports, and ratings improve with concrete evidence to back up their claims (like certifications, accreditations, and voluntary standards).
But while Good on You collates and condenses what’s already out there, it doesn’t go much further than that. Good on You itself even flags that the data collected is checked via “automated internal validation,” and the text captions for each brand are autogenerated, too. Think of it as a database rather than a critical watchdog group.
The Fashion Transparency Index
Instead of trying to deduce a company’s commitment to the environment based on the information it publicly discloses, another well-known system pits brands against each other for how much information they disclose instead. Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index scores brands based entirely on how open they are about their sustainability and social commitments.
The Transparency Index annually reviews disclosure in four key areas: social and environmental policies, board of governance, supply chain traceability, and supplier due diligence. Each year, a fifth section is added based on key issues that have arisen in that time. In 2021, for example, the report included COVID-19 responses, racial equality, and approach to circularity.
Less than half (47%) of the 250 brands analyzed share information on their first-tier manufacturers (where garments are cut and sewn), while only 27% talk about their processing facilities, and just 11% disclose where they get their raw materials from.
But the report comes with an important disclaimer: transparency is not to be confused with sustainability. It’s not a shopping guide, and a high score doesn’t necessarily mean that a brand is a better option.
What the Transparency Index does do, however, is encourage accountability in an industry that is notoriously opaque and under-regulated. Case in point: less than half (47%) of the 250 brands analyzed share information on their first-tier manufacturers (where garments are cut and sewn), while only 27% talk about their processing facilities, and just 11% disclose where they get their raw materials from. 62% of them publicly share their annual footprint across their offices and stores, but only 17% disclose it across the manufacturing process. For context, H&M—one of the few brands that does—estimates that these steps in the supply chain account for 99.5% of its footprint.
The report highlights the limitations of rating systems that rely on public data. If brands choose not to share where their clothes are made, it’s almost impossible to understand their true impact. Plus, when all brands report in a different way, it’s virtually impossible to draw fair comparisons.
This is where industry tools like CDP—formerly Carbon Disclosure Project—come in. Beyond basing its ratings on public information, it doubles as a vehicle for companies to make information public by proposing a standard framework for them to report on their environmental impact.
Companies are invited to fill in detailed questionnaires covering environmental targets, emissions (including those from manufacturing), and offsetting, as well as risks related to forest and water management. Their scores are then given based on three categories: climate change, forests, and water. Disclosing is voluntary, but brands are incentivized by investors who increasingly request this information.
Being a cross-industry initiative, CDP arguably doesn’t get to the crux of the issue for fashion. It provides a solid incentive for brands to measure their environmental impact through their supply chains but if companies aren’t already on top of this information, it can’t offer much in terms of actionable advice on how to improve.
The HIGG Index
One system that does offer support in the aforementioned area (and, for that reason, is one of the most well-known in the apparel industry) is the HIGG Index. A suite of five tools created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, it is specifically designed for the standardized measurement of value chain sustainability in fashion.
The HIGG Index’s tools include its Facility Environmental Module, which helps brands measure the environmental impact of their manufacturing facilities, and its Brand & Retail module, which helps companies track and talk about the footprint of their value chains. Meanwhile, its product tools include the Materials Sustainability Index and its Product Module, which calculates the impact of a textile or finished product.
In the past, even the HIGG Index has come under fire for its methodology. Its product ratings rely on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) data, the Materials Sustainability Index has controversially scored synthetic materials like polyester and nylon higher than cotton, silk, and wool. The scores failed to factor in the care and end-of-life phases of a garment’s life, prompting the introduction of the dedicated Produce Module, which swaps the cradle-to-gate methodology for a cradle-to-grave approach instead.
Establishing a Standard Framework
If anything, the loopholes in—and disparity between—the different tools on the market only highlight how urgently the industry needs a collective, multifaceted definition of what sustainability really means and a standardized framework for measuring it.
The good news is that legislation is moving in this direction. With pressure mounting from investors and consumers, brands in the EU can expect a new policy on Corporate Sustainability Reporting, which will create a set standard that extends to all large companies. President Biden also plans to introduce mandatory and standardized corporate climate disclosures in the US.
That is progress for sure, but this work can’t be done with only money in mind. A common standard serves to promote positive change for both people and the planet. And, as the issues with the current rating systems illustrate, creating a one-size-fits-all framework is no easy feat. It needs to be rooted in concrete evidence and progress over lofty target-setting. This means not only holding brands accountable for their emissions and labor standards, but rethinking the scale of their production and moving their purpose beyond just financial growth. Only then will conscious consumers—and interested investors—truly be able to separate spin from substance.