With COP26 wrapped and droves of brands touting new sustainability credentials, we have put together your guide for understanding the space. Greenwashing (further explained below) is still rife in both product and marketing. Thus, many companies and executives need help understanding the terminology that is shaping the path toward a cleaner, more sustainable retail industry.
We will be updating this glossary regularly with new terms and examples.
Non-profit B Lab founded the B Corp certification in 2007. Since then, over 4,000 brands and businesses have reached the status. As one of the most recognized certifications for brands, B Corp certification is measured across five areas of impact: governance, community, workers, environment and customers. According to the B Corp website, “The BIA asks questions about a company’s governance structure and accountability. Questions are split into two categories: Operations, which covers a company’s day-to-day activities, and Impact Business Models, which awards additional points for business models designed to create additional positive impact.” Businesses have to achieve a score of at least 80 out of 200 accumulated across all areas, with a lengthy six- to 10-month verification process. Fashion brands like Chloé, Eileen Fisher and Patagonia are all B Corp certified.
Biodegradable is one of the most common words linked to greenwashing, as everything technically can biodegrade. The term refers to how something can be broken down into increasingly smaller pieces by bacteria, fungi or microbes to be reabsorbed by the surrounding environment. This ideally is done without creating additional greenhouse gases. The problem is that this happens at different times, with items like plastics, including polyester and nylon, taking the longest to be broken down. They can take 20-200 years. Even items made from organic materials like cotton cannot be broken down fully because of tags or dyes.
Fashion relies heavily on biodiversity, as there are many materials that wouldn’t be possible without it. While it is broadly defined as the variety of all life forms on earth. It has become a key part of fashion’s approach to sustainability since fashion is often linked to soil degradation, conversion of natural ecosystems and polluting waterways. The G7 Fashion Pact formed by brands like Adidas, Burberry and Chanel in 2019 made biodiversity a key part of the industry’s efforts toward sustainability.
The World Bank, a sustainable global coalition, defines a blue economy as the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.” While a lot of climate action is focused on the ground, the issues facing the ocean ecosystem revolve around fashion-centric issues like microplastics. A recent development is blue fashion, an emerging sector in the blue economy that focuses on the use of marine raw materials and by-products to develop sustainable bio-alternatives for the fashion industry. These alternatives degrade as organic materials and use waste from the fishing industry.
Corporate social responsibility
Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, refers to a business leaving a positive impact on the environment, by delivering economic, social and environmental benefits for all stakeholders. This encompasses everything from production standards to product-related social efforts like labels that say if textiles have been made using recycled PET materials. It is a particular focus of fast-fashion brands whose CSR scores had previously been lacking.
A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the production, use, and end-of-life of a product or service. As the reduction of carbon emissions has been a priority for the fashion industry, with brands like Nike transferring to renewable energy, an accurate calculation of carbon footprint is essential for brands to understand their impact on the environment.
These terms reflect the calculation between a brand’s carbon footprint and the way it is reducing its carbon impact. However, the integration of carbon offsets, or purchases that brands can make to compensate for their emissions, have meant that carbon positive, neutral and negative have been increasingly hard to quantify and increasingly prone to greenwashing. For example, brand initiatives like tree planting won’t see a carbon ROI until a tree is fully grown.
A circular economy, especially in fashion, functions in such a way that goods ideally don’t end up in landfills. Instead, they are recycled or reused for as long as possible. For example, fashion brands that offer direct take-back programs, like footwear brand Hilos, work within a circular economy. Hiros uses re-made materials for its new shoes.
For anything to be legally labeled compostable, it has to have been certified to break down in industrial composting facilities within 180 days. This means that the lifecycle of the item has to be significantly shorter than items that are labeled as biodegradable. Brands like underwear label Kent have shown that their underwear can decompose in 90 days.
The term refers to the design process specifically and designing with the end-of-life of a garment or item in mind. This is the key term for circular business models, as many products are not made with an end-of-life cycle mindset. Although most brands want their products to last for as long as possible, cradle-to-cradle is something that cannot truly be implemented by existing brands, as retrofitting existing production is very difficult. However, it can be expanded on by newly launching brands that own their production and can design with end-of-life in mind.
While many sustainability initiatives focus on the impact on climate, doughnut economics looks at the human element in business, as well, focusing on human rights and upholding a living wage. Created more than a decade ago by Kate Raworth, an Oxford economist, the model focuses on a regenerative and redistributive economy instead of a growth-focused one.
Established in 1992, the Fairtrade Foundation focuses on the people involved in trading goods and raw materials around the world, making sure they get a fair price. With fashion, this means cotton production, specifically complying with ILO (International Labour Organization) core conventions and the Fairtrade Foundation’s Textile Standard. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, this means, “support[ing] cotton farmers disadvantaged by global trade, enabling them to sell their goods at a decent price so they can provide for themselves and their families.”
Greenwashing is defined as lying to consumers about a brand’s sustainability efforts, especially through limited collections of “sustainable” garments without proof or initiatives that are not researched or implemented without foresight. Brands are steadily becoming more responsible toward greenwashing, although many ultra and fast fashion brands still greenwash their collections.
Life cycle assessment
This is the methodology used to assess the climate impact of a garment, including its sourcing, production and end-of-life. For many brands, the issues that repeatedly come up in life cycle assessments are materials and production. Using software, LCA tools analyze the impact of the energy used, the release of toxic substances and the natural resource involved in all life cycle stages of a product.
As brands are trying to find new ways of producing garments that are both recyclable and better for the environment, new materials like Infinna, which recycles textiles and separates them at a molecular level, and mycelium-based Reishi from Mycoworks are growing in popularity. Even luxury brands like Hermès are delving into next-generation materials as an alternative to leathers.
Vast areas of the fashion industry, like activewear and fast fashion, rely on plastic-based materials like nylon and polyester. In fact, 52% of all fiber production is polyester, making the material one of the worst when it comes to sustainability. As the material breaks down and is washed, it releases microplastics that shed into the environment.
An item that can be recycled through traditional waste systems is recyclable. For fashion brands, this is most applicable to packaging, as most garments produced cannot be recycled because of stitching or zippers.
Regenerative agriculture looks at how standard farming practices can be used to enrich the soil and bring back fertile conditions to typically arid areas of the world. Brands like Christy Dawn have been very successful in getting the consumer involved in soil conservation, but the wider industry has yet to get involved in regenerative farming.
Essentially, zero-waste is one of the most erroneous sustainability terms, as it is very difficult to create a system that would naturally be zero-waste without adding offsets. While garments can be made in a zero-waste way through efficient techniques like knitting that does not produce textile scraps, they cannot be zero-waste themselves as the life cycle assessment would have to include a cradle-to-cradle approach for an effective system.