A new report titled “Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation“ looks at debunking false claims present in the cotton industry, plus lays a roadmap for accurate data research and industry-wide data transparency. As the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) comes around on October 31, there’s increasing focus on accurate data as key to a better sustainable fashion industry direction.
There have been claims like, “Fashion is the most polluting industry after oil,” and “A single T-shirt requires 20,000 liters of water to make.” Also: “Textiles are responsible for 20% of water pollution globally.” These, and plenty of other claims, are examples of misleading or outright false information about this sector. The fashion industry has been making some strides in moving the needle toward a more sustainable industry, however, many companies, brands and industry insiders are still repeating the unsubstantiated claims. The “Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation” report was a project by the Transformers Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides suppliers with a platform to share their expertise and opinion on industry threats and solutions. It’s the first of many reports looking at digging deeper into data and engaging the consumers’ critical data consumption. In short, it fact-checked a number of longstanding beliefs.
Together with researchers and industry experts from cotton companies like Supima, the report aims to show that, even without knowing it, the industry is still making false claims and not taking into account how varied the conditions for cotton farming can be. One of the highlighted issues in the “de-bunking” section of the report went into how cotton is portrayed as a “water-hungry” crop. As the report explains and backs up with a 2018 report from the International Cotton Advisory Committee on Cotton’s Water Requirements, “Relative to other crops, cotton is not among the largest users of irrigated water (blue water) globally. It uses less irrigated water per hectare than rice, wheat, maize, soybeans and many vegetables.” The report uses a traffic light system to show which claims are unsubstantiated and which are from recent, peer-reviewed reports. Elizabeth L. Cline, author of the report, said, “One of the things that we demonstrated is that global average data [on cotton] does not make a whole lot of sense, because cotton is grown in 75 countries [and by] 22 million farmers, and it is grown in such a staggering array of climates using different approaches.”
As the fashion industry’s pace accelerates, media organizations, social media users, brands and even activists can be at risk of spreading data that needs to be analyzed and reviewed before being posted online and even used in brand messaging. According to the European Commission, almost half of all consumer product sustainability claims (a quarter of which were about clothing, fabric or shoes) in 2020 were flagged as possibly deceptive. This level of misinformation shows that wrong data isn’t just shared online, but it is also used to make business decisions and create more goods.
One of the key parts of the report goes into why debunking false claims will help in fostering trust within the community and creating actionable change. The report states, ‘”It is crucial for industries and society to understand the best available data and context on the environmental, social and economic impact of different fibers and systems within fashion, so that best practices can be developed and implemented, industries can make informed choices, and farmers and other suppliers and makers can be rewarded for and incentivized to operate using more responsible practices that drive more positive impacts.” The report focuses on how problem shifting is putting pressure on farmers and creating a culture of distrust as a result of a lack of education of cotton farming practices. Aspects like the evaporation of water into the atmosphere during the growth cycle are typically not included when it comes to water use statistics.
Marc Lewkowitz, Supima President and CEO, said, “Everybody’s too eager to look to a certification or some platform for proof of sustainability, which is just a modern version of the old trust mechanisms that have existed in the textile supply chain forever. Part of the problem is that there’s not enough deliberate interest taken, in terms of understanding the supply chain, understanding the source and understanding the nuances that go into that supply chain that make it different. A pretty good takeaway from that is that you actually have to do the work to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and what you’re asking.”
However, some areas of the report show that there are still glaring gaps when it comes to pesticides and pesticide use. L. Cline said that going by pesticide sales figures is also misinformed, as those numbers do not correspond to pesticide use on the farms. She added, “Global sales data perpetuates this myth that all pesticides are somehow equally hazardous, which is very misleading. There is such a huge risk, not only in the range in severity of impacts, but in kinds of impacts. Some pesticides are connected to human toxicity issues, some are connected to environmental toxicity, and some are toxic to non- target organisms, like bees. Most cotton farmers use some manner of synthetic agrochemicals. This data gap actually fuels a lot of mistrust about pesticides. How can we have the conversation we need to be having about pesticides, if we don’t have better data?” Therefore, this report could form a blueprint for better research into specific areas that don’t have as much data.
For brands, the answers are simple. Lewkowitz said, “It has to be small steps that are taken, with the intent of showing that you have the ability to take control of the supply chain and say, ‘Look, I’ve done the hard work.’ Those three terms of authenticity, transparency and traceability mean that you have dug into the supply chain, so you know the origin and the supply chain members. All of us have to be actively engaged to ensure that what we are trying to accomplish is executable and not just words on a web page or on a document somewhere, but with accurate data and metrics that go behind it.”