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SUSTAINABILITY LABELS: PROS & CONS

The growing demand for sustainability in the apparel industry coming from consumers is bringing about the necessity for companies and institutions to stick to specific guidelines and to come up with tools and methods to address the topic from various perspectives while providing transparent and trustworthy information to the community. 

 

Although different sustainability labels are already in place, the textile and apparel sector faces several critical barriers to the sustainable development of their supply chains: on one hand the need for multi-criteria analysis, on the other the lack of effective governmental policies.

 

One of the most useful and widespread tools to evaluate the impact of the supply chain of a product is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method, which divides into two sub-categories: e-LCA, focused on the environmental footprint, and s-LCA, concerned with the socio-economic side of the production. Such an approach evaluates impacts all along the product life cycle, encompassing extraction and processing of raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, use, re-use, maintenance, recycling, and final disposal.

The basis for developing an e-LCA is a proper definition of the business scope and boundary, and a detailed inventory of energy and materials involved during the various steps of the process. The most common inputs to be accounted for are, thus, energy (electricity and heat), water, and chemicals. The most common impact category is climate change or global warming potential, measured as CO2eq (defined as the impact on global warming of a certain substance with respect of the damage of the same amount of CO2) and usually named greenhouse gases, GHG (gases responsible for the greenhouse effect, that is the trapping of the sun’s warmth in the Earth’s lower atmosphere).

The intrinsic disadvantage of e-LCA, however, is that neither toxicity, nor material depletion, nor land use is taken into account. The s-LCA, on the other hand, includes the definition of social impacts, the classification of social and socioeconomic indicators, and the development of subcategories for social and socio-economic assessments of products.

 

Although it might seem quite suitable for the fashion industry, LCA is not yet extensively adopted. The main difficulty is associated with checking the underlying datasets because researchers have constructed their own by combining information from different and often old or confidential sources. Transparency is a huge issue.

 

When it comes to sustainability information for consumers, it takes two predominant forms: (1) third-party verified sustainability labels and (2) self-defined labeling criteria.

 

Despite the persistent efforts to bring clarity to sustainability practices through eco-label schemes, the sustainability information available in the consumer market is relatively fragmented and context-dependent: local requirements often differ from nation to nation, making it difficult to define globally acknowledged criteria.

Moreover, in the apparel and textile industry, each sustainability label mainly focuses on a specific matter: dangerous substances and pollution; textile chemicals that are harmful to health (Oeko-TEX label); organic textile material (GOTS label); and fair and ethical labour conditions (FairTrade label).

On another note, third-party labels often put companies of different sizes in somewhat unequal positions. It is easier for larger corporations to acquire verified eco-labels because providing to the issuing board the necessary documentation requires time, expertise, and manpower: information must regard the whole supply chain, which may be a tough task for smaller companies that have less influence over their suppliers. 

 

Alongside these third-party labels, some companies have come up with their own: the sports brand Decathlon, for instance, and some online fashion marketplaces, such as Ivalo.com and Weecos, have elaborated communicational criteria to justify the sustainability of fashion brands sold on their platforms.

As eco-friendly and attentive of companies this might seem, however, it is worth considering that even if self-defining labels were to spread extensively, we would face two major problems: it would be impossible for customers to cross-check different labeling criteria and different products impact; and, of no less importance, it would be way easier for enterprises to manipulate data and communication to paint themselves as sustainable.

 

Aside from addressing a relatively narrow set of sustainability issues, labels are also based on binary logic, i.e. products either have a label or do not have a label. In other words, most labels offer no scale that would differentiate between the relative sustainability of products and so help the consumer identify a highly sustainable offering as opposed to one that just barely meets the label criteria. 

 

In summary, while third-party verified sustainability labels do provide reliable and accurate sustainability information to consumers, making sense of these labels is often as challenging as finding your way in a jungle: the many and varied labels provide fragmentary information and are thus not always actionable. On the other hand, free-form sustainability is claimed to lack trustworthiness.

It is clear, at this point, that a more complete, and fairer approach needs to be rethought and r3shaped; one that is more accessible to achieve and to understand both for companies – no matter their size – and for consumers.

 

From our point of view, a good starting attempt could be the Shades of Green (SoG) instrument, developed by L. Turunen and M. Halme, researchers at the Aalto University. SoG provides simple yet comprehensive information about the environmental and social impacts of products. It brings clarity into sustainability communication on the consumer-company interface by incorporating a set of key sustainability issues over the product’s life-cycle and dividing these issues into three levels, from minimum through advanced integration of sustainability to innovation for sustainability. Additionally, the SoG instrument makes it easier for companies to structure their sustainability communication into a more actionable form.      

         

Following a similar non-binary approach, the European Commission developed the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), intending to harmonize methods for measuring and communicating the impact of an article. This tool evaluates a product with a life cycle approach (e-LCA) considering different environmental impact categories and creating a profile for each product. In parallel, the Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCRs) has been developed, a technical guidance on how to conduct a PEF study. 

Among the current mixture of third-party and self-defined labels, this regulated tool is surely on the right path for creating common and objective criteria to assess the level of sustainability of a product. While we wait for the PEF to be fully developed and implemented, we hope to have shed light on the current complex situation of sustainability labels.