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The Need for a Fashion Index

Written by Michelle Blanco 
Illustration by Carmen Suya 

The biggest challenge of sustainable fashion might be the vague, academic vocabulary that surrounds it. The term “sustainability” itself is broad, leaving most consumers befuddled as to why they’re paying two to three times more for a sweater. The lack of clarity is ironic, since this is precisely the problem with the fashion industry–the lack of supply chain transparency.

To get literal, sustainability means that something can go on for decades, maybe indefinitely. With its current practices, we know this isn’t true of fashion. While in general the way we produce fashion is unsustainable, even the most vigilant brands aren’t 100% sustainable. The very act of making clothes always has some impact on the environment as Patagonia founder Yvonne Chouinard put it in a Fast Company article:

“Everything man does creates more harm than good. We have to accept that fact and not delude ourselves into thinking something is sustainable. Then you can try to achieve a situation where you’re causing the least amount of harm possible.”

Brands Voluntarily Opting In

Patagonia is one of the brands most aggressively trying to solve this problem with their carbon sequestration practices and programs like 1% for the planet. Their cotton is Global Organic Textile Certified (GOTS) and 56% of their fabrics are Bluesign certified. They even started a seperate company called The Sustainable Apparel Coalition specifically to provide an index tool to help companies in the apparel industry improve their efficiencies and ethics.

Mara Hoffman is another pioneer in the space who reinvented her eponymous brand’s supply chain in 2015. Today, the company is a force using materials like Econyl in their swimwear, which is made of 100% pre and post consumer industrial plastic waste from fishing nets and other fabrics as well as using organic cotton, hemp, linen, Lyocell, Tencell and Modal. The bags used to ship swimwear are made of compostable bioplastics and garment tags are made from recycled paper printed with soy ink. Dyes are made by high quality makers that meet the Oeko-Tex 100 Standard, a form of testing to make sure no harmful chemicals were used. No aspect is neglected in regards to their environmental impact.

Companies like Mara Hoffman and Patagonia are fanatical about their sustainability profile and opt-in voluntarily on certifications like the Oeko-Tex 100 Standard, Bluesign and GOTS. However, these certifications are voluntary meaning many companies don’t comply and we’re left with a piecemeal industry where customers don’t know if what they’re buying really is sustainable or whether they’re being “greenwashed”.

Some efforts have been made to create a sustainable fashion index. Some guides have been made, some made for corporations and some for consumers. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an NGO formed by Patagonia and Walmart who joined forces to develop a tool called the Higg Index to help companies measure their social and environmental impact. While this is of critical importance, the Higg Index is meant for internal use among corporations and is not directly useful for consumers. 


A Consumer Index

One consumer sustainability guide is the app/website “Good on You”. By searching a brand name, the app provides a sustainability rating of either, “Great, Good, It’s a Start, Not good enough or We avoid.” This is based on how the brand affects supply chain workers, the environment and animals. But even some of the pioneers of sustainable fashion, rank only as “Good” according to the app.  Patagonia is called out for not setting clear time bound carbon emissions reduction goals. (Although their rating was last updated in 2017 and now Patagonia has set and made progress on their goal of being carbon neutral by 2025.) Good on You also rates Mara Hoffman, merely as “Good” overall because of the use of animal products like wool. Yet they’re rated as “Great” for environmental efforts. The issue of animal fibers is debated even within the sustainability community since humanely harvested wool is biodegradable unlike synthetics. Clearly, opinions will differ and a standard needs to be clarified on what constitutes an A+ brand.

By its own measure, one might rate Good on You with an, “It’s a Start”. It allows customers to easily do some preliminary research on brands but by virtue of being an outside app, people still have to switch out of whatever eCommerce site they’re shopping from to get to the rating. Also, Good on You requires brands to be transparent with their practices in order to get a rating, which is another major industry challenge. Expecting voluntary opt-in and transparency from all brands except the most activist-minded is optimistic, but unlikely without a profit incentive or legal penalty.

Our conversations about sustainable fashion oftentimes unfairly shift the burden of reform entirely to the consumer.

Government/NGO Indexes

At the moment there is no enforceable international or even national set of laws governing the sustainability of apparel. There are a few branches of the U.S. government like the Federal Trade Commission and the USTR that deal with apparel, but it seems their scope reaches to basic safety of consumers and doesn’t have enforceable laws that encompass all the issues of sustainability. The UK on the other hand has an entire committee in parliament, The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, that writes an annual report on big corporations.  In 2015 the committee passed a UK Modern Slavery Act to require large brands to ensure that forced or child labor isn’t entering their supply chains. Another legal step towards transparency was when The European Union in 2007 required clothing manufacturers and importers to report and quantify the chemicals in their products. Aside from government legislation, NGOs continue to press the need for a brand index. A UK non-governmental organization called Fashion Revolution, created a transparency index that is essentially an annual performance review of brands in regards to sustainability. It ranks major brands like Adidas, Reebok and H&M for their success in taking sustainability measures.

An ideal consumer index would be readable for consumers, maybe a simple 1-5 rating per item or a color-coded system like Whole Foods’ ranking of the sustainability of meat. The rating could have a percentage overall to simplify all the deciphering based on up to date user and expert gathered data, like Wikipedia or Waze. While there are issues with the Whole Foods rating system, something simple that addresses the main tenants of sustainability 1. Labor 2. Materials 3. Environment. 4. Animal Rights. This system would need to be audited by the government and with penalties for non-compliance the way the FDA enforces its laws for public safety. Without laws brands can’t be held accountable for non-compliance and without an agreed upon standard, we’re essentially back where we are now. 

Our conversations about sustainable fashion oftentimes unfairly shift the burden of reform entirely to the consumer. Large corporations and governments bear equal if not greater responsibility in changing this system by providing better options and prohibiting the harmful ones. An index would merely communicate those actions to us as the public. It’s unfair to expect consumers to decode the complexities of sustainable fashion at their own expense.

To understand and be able to afford sustainable fashion at present requires education and financial means, making this a class issue as much as a political one. At present, sustainable fashion isn’t accessible to the majority of people and a simple index could help change this. And though simple to devise, an index will not be easy to implement. A universal fashion index would be the outward manifestation of much corporate soul searching and government action working in concert toward reform. 

Michelle Blanco is a wardrobe stylist based in San Francisco and founder of the sustainable clothing subscription service, Brea Box


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