At the crux of the ecological and social crises are many conflicting ideas about how to address challenges in order to affect change. As the fashion and textile sector as a whole seeks to navigate this perplexing terrain, strategies and technologies put forward as pathways to sustainability must be approached critically.
We, the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion (UCRF), a diverse collective of more than 225 specialist fashion sustainability researchers and practitioners from around the world, is focused on systemic change, driven by a goal of long-term social equity and ecological health of all species including humans. As part of this we seek to contribute to discussions about fibre indexes, their use and some of the effects that we can anticipate. These discussions have become more contested and important in recent times with the moves of the European Union (EU) to ascribe different textile fibres environmental weightings and the increased promotion of the Higg Co’s Material Sustainability Index (MSI) and associated product label and the subsequent banning of this label by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for misleading claims.
Systems theorist Russel Ackoff famously noted, “It is better to do the right thing wrong than do the wrong thing right”. It is the view of UCRF that current indexes have been measuring the wrong thing, with methods that are not objective, scientifically robust and independent and a purpose that is too ‘shallow’, i.e. not focused on the underlying needs: social justice and ecological flourishing. Using inaccurate indexes and/or flawed data in a context characterized by power imbalance and the economic growth logic will give license to overproduce while perpetuating detrimental economic, societal and environmental consequences for those located at upstream supply chain stages. As such, expending effort and financial resources for ‘doing the wrong thing’ has a ripple effect that influences the fashion and textile sector as a whole, skewing activities towards the wrong purpose.
UCRF calls for transformation of the sector by a systems shift to (in Ackoff’s language) doing the right thing which serves the long term health of the planet – centring the earth in all our tools and commercial activities. Indexes have a role in this, where they serve the re-calibrated system goal. Inevitably there will be mis-steps on this journey, but the overall direction leads towards planetary flourishing.
Evidence for current indexes being focused on the ‘wrong thing’ include:
-Global LCA data used by the fashion industry does not recognise contextual factors. This leads context-specific local actions to be omitted.
-Local actions tend to be smaller scale and are therefore rejected by indices which focus on global scale. This creates a system of exclusion and leaves successful projects finely tuned to local conditions out of the discussion.
-Current indices compare results and generalize random conclusions, leading to misleading claims. If we do not recognise and evaluate distinctive methodological characteristics in terms of sampling, boundary conditions, and contextual factors we cannot compare and cite these numbers as the global representative of market claims.
-Generalized indices tend to direct the fashion sector to solutions (organic, recycled, low impact) without first asking pertinent locally based and context-specific questions. Is organic, for example, the right solution in a region where toxicity is not the issue and water scarcity and labor are the issues?
-Furthermore, indices tend to be used as market-based solutions, directing companies towards that which is marketable, rather than towards real change/repair/regenerative agendas for blighted regions.
-Current indices focus on a single product (though not the actual impact of that product) and fail to capture the volume produced, which more accurately reflects total actual impacts.
-They also fail to capture total business growth and the gap between ‘sustainable’ and ‘normal’ products. In doing so they reward companies for developing a few ‘sustainable’ garments, rather than shifting business as a whole.
-They measure only that which is accessible and measurable, missing opaque areas in fragmented and segmented global supply chains, of which there are many.
-They fail to include the garment use phase and therefore continue to incentivise overproduction of new garments.
-They fail to include worker-centric needs and viewpoints, essential to building a comprehensive and inclusive roadmap forward.
In mid 2022 we sit at a critical juncture and wish to counsel use of both imagination and detailed local knowledge in the development of a sector-wide dialogue about change. We, the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, have ideas and expertise in how to proceed. We also recognise that no group can do this alone and we are open to be part of this dialogue.