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Fashion’s latest sustainability report claims to have the answers

 

Photo by Chris Hondros

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It is said that if something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. “Existing [textile] recycling technologies could drive 80% circularity in the fashion industry by 2025,” states the Scaling Circularity report from the Global Fashion Agenda in collaboration with McKinsey and Company. The Textile Exchange also reported that less then 0.5% global fibers were made from recycled textiles in 2020. 80% sure seems like a stretch.

Any report that claims to identify the best way to reduce industry’s environmental impact should be viewed skeptically and critically. Fashion! Platform and report quote the “80% circularity” statistic, and proclaim circularity as the solution to fashion’s environment problems.

This report was published just a few weeks ago and has been featured in at least 35 media outlets, including Vogue Business and Forbes. The report’s headline reads: Fashion’s Waste Crisis and How to Solve It. This sets the standard for research and action.

Hey, Fashion! Fashion! Isn’t decarbonization the only way to achieve the 1.5-degree pathway? This is what the IPCC report concludes (after analyzing thousands of peer-reviewed research articles).

How was 1.5 degrees the correct target, but circularly instead of decarbonization, stated? Could this be a cut and paste error? Why is it circularity? It could be because Hey, Fashion! The report focuses on circularity as a solution and reinforces the refuted claim “circularity’s only option.” This statement and many others led me to question the validity of the report. I was also curious about the data behind the findings, as 35 news stories shared its conclusions.

After asking for clarification from the authors of the above statements, their media agency stated that they had asked another Forbes contributor to cover it and weren’t looking for me. They offered to interview Pentatonic, which I accepted, and have now explained the details.

As part of the global drive to … [+], wind turbine generators are contributing to renewable energy.

Data collection and analysis

Johann Boedecker, Pentatonic’s CEO, explained that they used two methods of collecting data to help inform the report’s findings. Interviews (more than 50) as well as questionnaires and that some respondents had done both. Pentatonic declined the number of questionnaires completed to give an estimate. Interviews were conducted using pre-set questions that allowed for open-ended responses (short and lengthy) to the questions. There were five versions of the questionnaire, each with open-ended and multiple choices.

This information shows that a lot of data was collected using open-ended responses. These are often incomparable and can lead to subjective “cherry picking” of data. Multiple choice questions on the other hand allow for discrete, comparable responses and allows for objective conclusions. The variation in the questions among respondents makes it difficult to compare and make statistically significant deductions.

The dual responses of single subjects to both questionnaire and interview pose a risk of ‘cherry-picking data’ from overlaps. The report says that “questionnaires, interviews and literature reviews reinforced findings,” which seems to indicate that conclusions were drawn before interviews and questionnaires started. Pentatonic did not explain the methodology of the literature review, nor the conclusions that were drawn from it.

According to the report, “Interviewees were selected individually across all spheres with an emphasis supply chain…with many senior fashion executives and influential businesses contributing from all over. I was able to identify three of the more then 50 interviewees representing the Global South, which is where most of fashion’s supply chains exist.” Pentatonic agreed with me, stating that it was difficult to find additional participants from this hemisphere.

Pentatonic did not answer any questions regarding the individual selection process, how many multiple-choice questions were compared to open-ended questions and any methods to remove bias or erroneous conclusions based on double responses.

Global or Global North?

Only 3 of 50 respondents were from the Global South. This limits the scope of this report and makes it difficult to consider the industry as a whole. Nearly 94% of the respondents were from the Global North. This region is dominated by investors, fiber-tofiber recyclers and brands. Therefore, the report favors solutions that reflect the interests of the Global North.

Another consequence of this bias is that the report prioritizes European and US post-consumer solutions to textile waste, despite the enormous textile waste problem (and potential solution) in the Global South. The volume of post-industrial textile waste from manufacturing countries such as China, India, and Bangladesh is significant. It has a known fiber composition, so it can be recycled more easily (and perhaps cheaper). It is also where the majority of industry’s textiles, garments, and fabrics are made. Circular fibers are required to close the loop.

This overlooking diminishes the significance of and the opportunity for circularity in the supply chains. Instead, we focus on circularity at consumers, which is more difficult and more costly, but also more marketable by brands. These conclusions contradict the claim of the report that it was focused on the supply chains.

Chile’s Atacama Desert: Graveyard for Used Clothes.

DPA/PICTURE ALLIANCE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Cherries Picked

This report contains key (priority), circularity themes that were identified by experts from non-profits, businesses and investors, policymakers, academia, academia, and other actors in the fashion ecosystem. Interviewees ranked fossil-fuel divestment (18%) as more important than policies to encourage textile circularity (80% – the most important). Although there could be many reasons for this bias, the bottom line is that interviewees and report readers are blindsided by the circularity narrative. This ignores the huge potential to reduce emissions simply because fossil fuels have been left in the ground. In the 8-point list, Action 7 was Divestment from Fossil Fuels.

Data conclusions

The report lacks credibility because of the limitations of data collection, the limited geographical scope of the subjects and the lack of clarity about the analysis and data handling. It is not credible enough to recommend what industry stakeholders should do in order to achieve circularity and align with the 1.5 degree pathway. It can only provide anecdotal support of some correlations and ambitions around circularity, but it is not able to deliver the “researched”, “rigorous” recommendations it claimed. Boedecker informed me that they were removing the wording.

Responses from authors

WWD was told by Eileen Fisher that it was a crucial time. We know that the apparel industry will not meet its 2030 emissions targets. If we don’t cooperate, it’s going be 50% off. This statement brought back memories of Fisher’s passion and dedication, which I first heard last year when I interviewed her to write a book. Pentatonic’s report seems to focus on circularity tunnel vision, despite citing the Apparel Impairment Institute and Fashion for Good report Decarbonizing Fashion which state that “to reach net zero, solutions to reduce Scope 3 emissions must be implemented.”

Although the Eileen Fisher Foundation refused to answer my questions about the methodology and claims of the report, they did send me an email stating that they welcome any questions or dialogue. Hey Fashion! is a platform that we see as an evolving platform that will spark conversation and inspire collaboration–and hopefully, be a catalyst for action. We see Hey Fashion! as an evolving platform that will spark discussion and inspire collaboration — and hopefully be a catalyst to action.” However, the recommendations have little chance of producing the net-zero results they desire to rally the industry, consumers, and the entire industry.

Pentatonic offered this explanation: “Regarding methodology, we haven’t established the consensus of all fashion professionals on how to address the problem of textile waste. Nor would that consensus necessarily be right. Markets and polls are often unable to predict complex system changes and economic developments.

Boedecker’s answer is puzzling. They didn’t follow statistically significant and repeatable research methods. If their methods are not applicable to the fashion industry, why claim they have the solution to fashion’s waste crisis? Boedecker is committed to the methodology and its findings. He stated: “We stand by our approach and believe it complements the other sources and venues for discussion out there.”

During our interview, I asked Pentatonic CEO what success would look like for this report. The main metrics were “Engagement” as measured by clicks and downloadeds. He said that the July-September download target was exceeded within one week of publication and that it had attracted interest from groups who wanted to support future reports. Pentatonic is now at its full capacity, he said. While the report appears to have met these goals, it can’t be said that it has delivered on sustainability questions it sought to address. This could lead to readers believing the opposite.

What’s at stake

These reports are not insignificant in shaping beliefs. The report says: “Whether you’re a brand’s procurement manager and are responsible for sourcing sustainable materials, or an investor who is looking to capitalise on the growing market for recycled textiles, or a citizen trying to do your part, this paper will support you and give you information to help you on your path to circular fashion.”

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