Fashion's Latest Sustainability Report Claims To Have The Answers—But Do They Add Up? – ForbesFashion
Photo by Chris Hondros
There is a saying that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. “Existing [textile] recycling technologies could drive 80% circularity in the fashion industry by 2025,” states the Scaling Circularity report by the Global Fashion Agenda in partnership with McKinsey and Company. However, the Textile Exchange simultaneously reports that less than 0.5% of global fibers were from recycled textiles in 2020. 80% sure seems like a stretch.
Skepticism and critical thinking should be leveled at any report claiming to define the best way to reduce the industry’s environmental impacts; particularly where the authors have a vested interest in the findings. The recent Pentatonic and Eileen Fisher Foundation Hey, Fashion! report and platform quotes the aforementioned “80% circularity” statistic and declares circularity as the main solution to fashion’s environmental problems.
The report was published a couple of weeks ago and has been covered by at least 35 media outlets including Vogue Business, Forbes and WWD. The report’s headline is: “Fashion’s waste crisis and how to solve it”, setting the bar high regarding research and conclusions for action.
Hey, Fashion! was pitched to me for Forbes coverage, along with the statement: “To reduce global emissions [by] 43% by 2030 and achieve the safe 1.5˚C pathway, the only option is to integrate circularity into every level of the value chain”. But isn’t decarbonization of energy the only option for achieving the 1.5-degree pathway, since that’s what the latest IPCC report concluded (after analysis of thousands of peer-reviewed research papers)?
Furthermore, how was the correct target stated (1.5 degrees), but a contrasting solution (circularly, instead of decarbonization) swapped in? Could it be a cut-and-paste error? Why circularity? Could it be because Hey, Fashion! seeks to focus on circularity as a solution, reinforcing the refuted claim that “circularity is fashion’s only option”. This statement, and several others, led me to question the report’s validity, and with 35 news stories sharing its conclusions, I wondered about the data behind its findings.
After requesting clarification from the authors of these above statements, their press agency explained they had subsequently asked an alternative Forbes contributor to cover the report and were no longer hoping for coverage from me. However, they offered an interview with Pentatonic for clarification purposes, which I accepted and have explained below.
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During a video call with Pentatonic, CEO Johann Boedecker explained they used two methods to collect data to inform the report’s findings: interviews (more than 50) and questionnaires, and that some respondents had completed both. The number of completed questionnaires was not stated in the report, and Pentatonic declined to say how many there were. The interviews were based on pre-set questions with open-ended (short and long answer) responses. The questionnaire had 5 different versions (for different stakeholders) with multiple choice and open-ended responses.
What’s clear from this information is that much of the data was collected through open-ended responses, which are typically incomparable and lead to subjective ‘cherry picking’ of data. Multiple choice questions, on the other hand, provide discrete and directly comparable responses, providing defined answer categories and allowing objective conclusions. Also, the variation in questions between respondents creates an ‘apples and oranges scenario, making comparison and statistically significant deductions difficult or impossible.
Finally, the dual responses of single subjects by both interview and questionnaire again risk ‘cherry-picking’ of data from any overlapping responses. In fact, the report states: “questionnaires and interviews helped reinforce findings from the literature review,” which sounds like conclusions were made before the interviews and questionnaires began. Pentatonic declined to explain how the literature review was conducted, or whether conclusions were drawn from it, versus the hypotheses that might be typical from such a review.
The report states: “Interviewees were individually selected across all spheres of influence, with an emphasis on supply chain…with many of the most influential businesses and senior fashion executives contributing from all over the world.” I could only identify 3 of the more than 50 interviewees as representing the Global South, where the majority of fashion’s supply chain exists. I shared this with Pentatonic, who said it had been difficult to get additional participants from that hemisphere.
Following the call, Pentatonic declined to answer any questions about the individual selection process, the proportion of multiple choice to open-ended questions, and any methods used to eliminate bias and erroneous conclusions from double responses or differing questionnaires.
As mentioned, only 3 out of over 50 interviewees represented the Global South, limiting the scope of the report, which can therefore not be considered representative of the global industry. Around 94% of respondents represented the Global North,which is dominated by brands, fiber-to-fiber recyclers, and investors; therefore, the report is significantly biased towards solutions that represent the interests of those in the Global North.
An additional consequence of this bias is the report’s prioritization of European and US post-consumer textile waste solutions, despite the huge textile waste problem (and opportunity) in the Global South. Post-industrial textile waste in manufacturing countries like China, India and Bangladesh is of significant volume, of known fiber composition and therefore more easily (and arguably cheaply) recycled. It’s also located where most of the industry’s textiles and garments are made, and where circular fibers need to be to close the loop.
This oversight diminishes the importance of, and opportunity for, circularity in the supply chain; instead focusing on circularity at the consumer end, where it is more expensive and difficult, but also more marketable for brands. The report’s conclusions are at odds with its claim that the research was focused on the supply chain.
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The report shares key (priority) circularity themes identified by expert interviewees from “nonprofits, businesses, investors, policymakers, academia and other actors from across the fashion ecosystem”. The interviewees ranked fossil fuel divestment as the least important theme (18%), compared with policies to stimulate textile circularity (80% – the most important). This bias could have many motivations, but the upshot, I would argue, is that the circularity narrative blindsides interviewees (and therefore report readers) as to the massive potential of reducing emissions simply by leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Divestment from Fossil Fuels was listed as Action item 7 in the list of 8 key actions.
Based on the data collection methods, the narrow geographical scope of the subjects, and the lack of clarity over the analysis and data handling, the report has no credible remit to recommend what global industry stakeholders should do to achieve circularity, and much less align with the 1.5-degree pathway. At best, it can give anecdotal support for some correlations or ambitions around circularity—more of a straw poll than a statistically significant analysis to base findings on—but it does not deliver on the “researched” and “rigorous” recommendations that it originally purported (Boedecker told me that they would be removing this wording from the report).
Eileen Fisher told WWD that: “It’s such a critical time right now. We know the apparel industry is not going to meet its 2030 [emissions] targets—it’s going to be 50 percent off if we don’t work together”. This statement reminded me of the passion and commitment I heard from Fisher a year ago when I interviewed her for a book I was writing. It’s just unfortunate that circularity tunnel vision seems to be the focus of Pentatonic’s report, despite it usefully citing the Apparel Impact Institute and Fashion for Good report Decarbonizing Fashion, which states: “to reach net-zero, solutions to decarbonize Scope 3 emissions are imperative”.
The Eileen Fisher Foundation declined to answer my questions regarding the report’s claims and methodology, but stated via email that: “We welcome questions and dialogue around the report. We see Hey Fashion! as an evolving platform that will spark conversation and inspire collaboration—and hopefully, be a catalyst for action.” Unfortunately, the recommended actions have no significant hope of achieving the net-zero results they want to rally the industry and consumers around.
Pentatonic provided this explanation: “Regarding methodology, we have not established the only consensus of all people working in fashion on how to tackle the issue of textile waste, nor would that consensus be necessarily right. Markets and polls often fail to predict complex systems change and economic developments.”
Boedecker’s response is puzzling. Why didn’t they follow a reliable research method which would lead to statistically significant and repeatable findings? And why declare they have the answer to fashion’s waste crisis if their methods do not ensure that the results apply to the global fashion industry? Boedecker, however, remains dedicated to the methodology and findings, stating: “We stand behind our approach and feel it compliments the other sources of information and venues for conversation out there.”
During the interview, I also asked the Pentatonic CEO: What would success look like for this report? “Engagement” in the form of clicks and downloads were the main metrics. He shared that they had surpassed their July to September download target within a week of publishing, and that it had sparked interest from groups wanting to support further reports. He also said that Pentatonic was now working at full capacity until year-end. Whilst the report seems to have succeeded on these metrics, it cannot be said to have delivered, with any certainty, on the sustainability questions that it sought to answer and could mislead readers into believing otherwise.
Reports of this kind are not insignificant in shaping beliefs. Indeed, the report states: “Whether you are on a brand’s procurement team and tasked to source sustainable materials, an investor looking to capitalize on the growing recycled textiles market, or a citizen looking to play your part, this paper seeks to support and provide you with information for your journey towards circular fashion.”
Such reports are influential, seen as educational, and are used to back-up decisions made by industry stakeholders, and probably consumers during their internal monologues over need versus desire whilst making purchasing choices. Long reports like this also eat up our mental bandwidth, steer wider media narratives and pique investor interest in certain technologies and solutions—I have conversed with investors who admit to making decisions based on sustainability trends and industry working groups, especially where brands are involved.
This report is part of a wider industry problem of misunderstanding the difference between reliable, researched, provable and repeatable findings, versus anecdotal and trend-based forecasting and conclusions based on incomplete methodologies. One outlet took the report’s findings at face value and hailed it as “a playbook on how to reduce textile waste to help the industry adopt circular fashion models faster”, but with no reliable evidence to support this, it’s probably too good to be true.