At Eco-Age we have spent over a decade working to scope, identify and prove truly sustainable ways of managing the fashion sector. Our work has contributed to bringing the sustainable fashion movement to a global scale. One of the ways we’ve worked to do this is to build trust in a global fashion movement by helping to define the very definitions of sustainability. We have acted, and continue to act as a bulwark against greenwashing. And in today’s greenwashed world, we have decided to take you back to the cradle of where it all began.
Cradle is our designated publication for opinion leaders and practitioners who are at the forefront of the ecological and social transition for the fashion industry and wish to cut through the noise and follow fact-based sustainability in apparel.
It will keep you up to date and flags the most important current policy, legislation, culture and technological action points. This is where we gather some of our most trusted experts and ask them for analysis on the issues that will determine the direction of travel in the fashion industry’s transition to full sustainability.
We hope the following newsletter is useful to you as a digest of the most pressing points in a busy and often noisy space. The content reflects the Eco-Age point of view, as we push further and faster to address the climate, nature and social equity crises that represent an existential threat to fashion. We know you are similarly invested in stepping up to these challenges and we know that you value focused expert analysis. Thank you for making time to engage and we’d welcome your thoughts and feedback.
Founder and Creative Director
The Cradle Essay
The EU Strategy for Sustainable Textiles should represent a giant leap for the fashion sector, but only if we push for fact-based sustainability criteria in apparel.
Philippe Zaouati, the high-profile impact investor once declared with admirable brio that ‘The Paris Agreement was the birth certificate of green finance’. Regrettably the fashion industry is yet to have its sustainable-coming-of-age moment. There are still too many issues to be ironed out. But might the EU’s strategy for sustainable textiles change that?
At Eco-Age we are fully committed to the EU Green Deal which reflects how important the textile sector is to Europe’s ecological transition. The EU strategy for sustainable textiles is a crucial part of the European Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) and the Industrial Strategy.
This will be no surprise. Alongside our partners and collaborators, we have spent over a decade working to scope, identify and prove truly sustainable ways of managing this sector that decouple fashion from ecological damage. It’s no secret that fashion’s footprint is problematic and we have a lot of work to do very quickly. It is the fourth highest pressure category in the EU for primary raw materials and water, and the fifth for greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling rates remain incredibly low with only one percent of textiles being recycled into new textiles. These are just some of the issues that the EU strategy for sustainable textiles needs to remedy.
For us, this ambitious work will underpin legislation that should reward true sustainability and penalise polluting. It should in effect remove the advantage of externalising environmental impact. It will spearhead decarbonisation and the move from linear to circular economy (unlocking the carbon wins from that). But only if it is done correctly, and that involves methodology that does not give preferential ratings to plastic.
Yes, you read that correctly. EU legislative updates, over previous months, including on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) have revealed major discrepancies: for example, while the Circular Economy Action Plan calls out microplastic pollution and seems to adjust accordingly, the PEF gives the upper hand to synthetics, relying on limited life cycle analysis that over emphasises the production phase (and fails to account fully for the ‘use’ and ‘disposal’ phases). [For more on the limitations of this methodology we recommend reading Veronica Bates Kassatly’s piece. Ultimately we fear the net effect would be to endorse synthetics over natural fibres, contradicting the principles set out in the CEAP and distorting the very basis of enhanced traceability and labelling. This would take us from a potential win to a devastating loss.
For context, it is worth noting that recent analysis from the NGO Changing Markets put the use of synthetic fibres at ‘over two-thirds (69%) of all materials used in textiles, which is expected to reach nearly three-quarters by 2030. Fossil fibres are a key enabler of the fast-fashion business model, and their production already requires more oil than the annual consumption of Spain.’ This serves to remind us that endorsing synthetics – however inadvertently – will fuel pressure on the planet, rather than decrease it. As Changing Markets puts it, ‘While other companies and sectors are decarbonising and aiming for a circular economy, it is clear that, given its addiction to synthetic fibres, the fashion industry is heading in entirely the wrong direction’.
If you do one thing to push us towards the desperately needed ecological transition today, please do this.
This raises the question: how do we correct course as a matter of urgency? Part of that answer is to ask you and all stakeholders invested in fact-based sustainability in the apparel sector to engage with a consultation on the EU strategy for sustainable textiles. This is the middle of three main consultations and it closes in just a few days’ time [August 4th]
If you haven’t yet been able to input, but can do before the 4th August deadline, here are some of the main points that you might choose to include in your response:
- Promoting the use of fibres that are renewable, recyclable, biodegradable and inherently circular, like wool, to brands and consumers. A precursor to a circular textile economy is the infrastructure needed to collect, sort and reuse/recycle/reprocess used clothing and footwear. A convenient, effective and EU-wide system is mandatory for high levels of adoption. What is meant by repairability? Most clothes are repairable, but they aren’t necessarily repaired.
- Longevity/use must be prioritised for sustainability.
- To tackle environmental impacts of microplastics, truth in labelling is critical. Current PEF methodology is narrowly drawn and fails to account for microplastic pollution from synthetic materials. It also fails to account for the impacts of fossil fibre formation but does account for fibre formation of natural fibres. As a result, synthetic materials are given a better environmental rating relative to natural fibres. Consequently consumers are not able to make fully informed choices.
- The lack of consumer access to trustworthy information hampers demand for fair and sustainable textiles. Consumers are misled into making purchase choices that are not fully informed. Methodologies (e.g. PEF) omit criteria such as the release of microplastics, or fail to encourage choosing renewable over synthetic fibres. A clear passport of the product and its circularity characteristics will allow consumers to make informed and sustainable choices.
Because without real and strong representation by industry stakeholders on behalf of the natural fibre sector, the future of a truly sustainable fashion sector is in danger. At the moment, synthetic fibres have the upper hand in the process and the risk is that this power imbalance leads to developing strategy and reliance on methodology that unfairly scores against the natural fibre value chain. In turn that leads to the risk that we forgo fact-based sustainability in apparel, to pursue a compromised form of sustainability and that ultimately this will not deliver in the way we need it to.
Spreading the word among stakeholders
For those of us working today with cutting-edge sustainability science, and alongside producer cohorts such as wool growers who are immersed literally and figuratively in regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration, the idea that plastic is being given such billing in the design of this framework will doubtless seem incredible. The danger is that it seems so counter intuitive as to seem impossible, and this in turn might spread a complacency. Well we’re here today to tell you this is a real, substantive risk and the best way to counteract it is indeed to engage with the consultation.
Make no mistake, this policy will set the direction of travel. Speaking to Ecotextile News recently, the PEF Technical Secretariat, Baptiste Carriere-Pradal urged all industry stakeholders to ‘come and help design this method’. Carriere-Pradal rightly frames the importance of the consultations which he says ‘will likely become the only method accepted in Europe to communicate about the impact of textile and apparel product, or to set environmental performance targets on products. To support this method being as robust as possible, to have a better-informed consumer, your contribution is needed’. Here at Eco-Age we would add that your contribution on the side of fact based sustainability in apparel will also help our sector finally to lead rather than follow.
This needs to be our Paris moment.
Academics and other professional researchers are increasingly testing and profiling the claims of sustainability in fashion. Arguably this is leading us to a Golden Age of reporting and analysis. But which reports fly and which sink without a trace?
Which gain media traction and how does that enhance or distort the roadmap towards decarbonisation, circularity and social justice? And crucially, how do any of us make time to read them all?! As we know the sinking feeling of un-read PDFs piling up in your inbox, we’ve committed to profiling a report in each issue of Cradle. We’re using our extended network of experts to cast their eyes over a piece of research (although they will remain anonymous!) that we think you should see. This could be because it has made waves, or conversely it may have slipped under the radar. If there’s a report you’d like us to consider, please get in touch.
We take you on a deep dive into a recent study on the Clothing Rental Market that has caused shockwaves across the globe.
Name and details of research:
This paper is called ‘Innovative recycling or extended use? Comparing the global warming potential of different ownership and end-of-life scenarios for textiles’, and comes from a well-regarded team of Finnish researchers, Jarkko Levänen, Ville Uusitalo, Anna Härri, Elisa Kareinen and Lassi Linnanen out of the Department of Sustainability Science, LUT University, Finland. The paper was published May 2021, Letter of Environmental Research 16 (2021) 054069.
Objectives of the report:
We know we’re in for a fire-cracker of a report almost immediately as the researchers declare they are going to use lifecycle analysis to pronounce on two contentious areas: unintended consequences and behaviour change. They put it this way: ‘In many Circular Economy strategies, there is a high risk of rebound, meaning a situation in which activities aimed at environmental benefits are not realised because of external reasons. A similar risk relates to limited understanding about the behavioural changes required by extensive implementation of circular practices’.
How is the research conducted?
The researchers created a scenario following a pair of jeans across different uses (including the rental system). Throughout these journeys, the pair of jeans is modelled at different points of impact. The researchers make heavy use of life cycle assessment (LCA) to compare the global warming potential in each scenario.
Here’s how the scope is described in the report, ‘Using life cycle assessment, we compare the global warming potential (GWP) of five ownership and end-of-life scenarios for creating and using a pair of jeans. The scenarios are as follows: (a) BASE, i.e. basic use with waste disposal; (b) REDUCE, i.e. extended use; (c) REUSE, i.e. re-selling; (d) RECYCLE, i.e. industrial processing into new raw materials; and (e) SHARE, i.e. a rental service’.
What were the conclusions?
The researchers found renting clothes within their context had the highest climate impact of all clothing behaviour (compared with buying less, rewearing, reselling, recycling and modes of disposal).
How would you characterise the media response?
Large and headline-grabbing and ongoing despite the fact that the report has been out for two months! Coverage ranged from international broadsheet brands to TV including BBC World, and although many took a considered look, the headlines reflected the report’s conclusion and would have made alarming reading for some rental platforms. From ‘Renting clothes is less green than throwing them away: Transportation and dry cleaning make it the worst green option for consumers of fashion, study finds’ (The Guardian Priya Elan, Guardian 6th July) to ‘This is the most sustainable way to use fashion – and it’s not renting clothes’ (European Sting and World Economic Forum, 20 July 2021) the report was extensively covered, albeit if that coverage lacked nuance.
Why was this such a big story?
As ever context is everything. Not only is society at large increasingly invested in fashion’s attempts to achieve sustainability but coverage in WWD pointed to a particular interest in the rental model. ‘Rent the Runway Files for IPO, But Is Clothing Rental in the Eco Hot Seat? A study condemning rental clothing behaviour sparked new questions and challenges on circular fashion models’. WWD reported that Rent the Runway had confidentially filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering.
How did the researchers respond to coverage?
The response had a little of Frankenstein’s Monster about it. No doubt the researchers would have liked a little more context in the reporting. Co-author Jarkko Levänen, emphasised in some media that ‘not all renting/sharing options are unsustainable,’ and re-iterated that the study was intended to flag the complex issues within circular fashion models.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the report?
Let’s begin with the weaknesses. From our perspective there is an over reliance on emissions calculations around transportation that according to some industry players did not reflect the reality.
The study’s assumptions around transportation were based on a Finnish business, and according to those in the rental space didn’t reflect the reality of the rental market in other territories (specifically the UK) . So for example the study was modelled on each rented item being collected by a car journey. Whereas some companies claim they use other methods: Hirestreet send garments by post, Onloan uses carbon-neutral DPD, while My Wardrobe HQ use cycle couriers and electric vans. HURR at Selfridges and My Wardrobe at Harrods rely on customers arriving on foot (normally using public transport) as they have bricks-and-mortar in-store venues.
A similar charge was also brought against the heavy use of dry-cleaning. The criticism here is that the assumption of the use of dry cleaning didn’t reflect new low-impact cleaning technology that displaces impact of dry cleaning. For example WET cleaning, used by Oxwash, a UK-based startup backed by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is the cleaning partner to HURR, My Wardrobe HQ, Something Borrowed and By Rotation. Oxwash uses water-saving ozone technology to sterilize fabrics at lower temperatures, thermal and biodegradable chemical processes to achieve higher than medical-grade disinfection, dissolvable laundry bags, along with electric cargo bikes for hyper local pickups and deliveries.
When it comes to the strengths, for us this study has flagged complex issues within circular fashion models at the right time. As has been emphasised elsewhere (notably in the WWD coverage) rental platforms are attracting considerable investment. One of the advantages of this type of deeper sustainability analysis is that it reminds all stakeholders that this remains complex. In order for rental to achieve on sustainability, investment must continue, it must be targeted and it must be based on holistic science-led sustainability.
What’s the Eco Age takeaway?
We don’t consider this report flawed as such, but we are aware of its limitations. Some of the conclusions have been hyped but this was always a concern. This is an interesting and valuable exercise although there are some eccentricities. Overall we see this as an important intervention at a critical point; rental businesses and their investors must work harder to implement sustainability throughout the process.
Overall we give this report 3.5 out of 5.
The full report is open access and available via this link. As ever, we’d love to know your thoughts!