The Problem with Sustainability Data

On Thursday, the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights released a report evaluating efforts to quantify the fashion industry’s record on sustainability. business of fashion Sustainability Index. Its authors, analyst Veronica Bates-Cassatory and center director Dorothée Baumann-Poley, pulled no punches:

“We conclude that the current system is clearly inadequate in assessing true sustainability,” they wrote, later adding: In fact, the BoF and other such publications run the risk of reporting bad data as representative of their performance and recommend that better data from the sector should be claimed. “

they are not wrong.

when business of fashion When the Sustainability Index was first devised, the lack of quality standards for industry progress was not a thorny issue to ignore. That was the point of practice.

“Developing the methodology and conducting the research has been a multi-month process that has been both glorious and challenging at the same time,” said Sarah Kent, the BoF’s lead sustainability reporter in the 2021 I wrote in the report accompanying the first edition of the index. But it was hampered by poor reporting, poor data, and a wormhole of complexity. Companies’ disclosures and approaches varied. Often they relied on third-party certification. A large amount of information can obscure limited actions. “

According to Kent, the goal was then and still is to measure what can be done and shine a spotlight on what can’t be done. There, she and her team will focus on her six main categories: transparency, emissions, water and chemicals, materials, workers’ rights, and waste to expose the world’s largest global fashion companies. I combed through the information. Each company was assessed on their progress towards a set of ambitious goals. These targets have been set by the BoF in consultation with a panel of experts and are designed to align industry business practices with global environmental and social development goals by the end of the decade.

The results painted a dire picture. In the latest index, the average score of the 30 companies evaluated gave him a score of 28 out of 100. No company is on track to meet the index’s goals.

Bates Kassatly and Baumann-Pauly reach similar conclusions. But they still see disjointed data in the fashion industry as a fatal weakness of sustainability indices and similar efforts. Given the lack of reliable data in their eyes, scores and rankings are destined to become another tool in the fashion industry’s greenwashing arsenal. It doesn’t make sense to evaluate this data because it doesn’t match reality,” Bates-Cassatore said in an email, adding that it would be “magical thinking” to do so.

On that point, Kent disagrees.

Ignoring the information companies disclose creates an accountability vacuum, allowing the industry to make claims without scrutiny or context, she said.

Indeed, ranking systems depend on their input, and the information currently available is, in most cases, voluntarily published by companies. Nonetheless, an index-like assessment provides a tool to track industry efforts and enable similar comparisons within the available data. This could also improve the quality of information that BoFs and other index providers need to work with.

“It would be nicer if we had an independent government or some kind of magical third-party data. But we don’t have that.” But I don’t think there’s an argument that there’s no better data than that.”

Of course, it’s easy for companies to pull the top score out of the BoF’s index, strip away the context and caveats, and declare they’re on the road to sustainability. However, this information does not exist in isolation. This is analyzed in reports and articles published by the BoF and other bodies, highlighting where companies have succeeded and failed, and the gaps in our knowledge.

Last year, the highest score achieved by any company was just 49 out of 100. This suggests that there is still a significant gap between leading brands’ sustainability commitments and meaningful, measurable actions.

Such rigorous evaluation of publicly available data, flawed or not, can create a virtuous circle. Activists and consumers are using this information to analyze and put pressure on companies much easier than a 200-page corporate sustainability report. You can also offer incentives for There’s nothing better than knowing your competitors are going further in cutting emissions to kick-start your efforts.

This is not wishful thinking. This kind of pressure is why big companies have started publishing lists of where their clothes are made. This allows for a more robust assessment of impact by industry watchers. It has also attracted the attention of regulators and investors who are pushing to improve the quality and availability of environmental data, especially as climate risks rise to the public agenda.

“On the environmental side, we’ve seen much better reporting. I think it brought about” its own sustainability ranking. (Barenblat is a member of the Sustainability Council that helped inform the methodology behind the BoF’s index.)

Another question raised by Bates Kassatly and Baumann-Pauly is whether the BoF and other index providers are measuring the right things. Researchers take the position that the most important measure of sustainability is the wear-by-wear impact, which assesses the negative environmental impact of clothing over its expected life cycle, rather than as a fixed number. increase.

Researchers argue that this is a blind spot in the BoF’s Sustainability Index and similar efforts. On impact-per-wear criteria, companies that produce garments designed to be worn once and sent to landfill are less sustainable, even though they perform relatively well on the BoF index. Not as sustainable as brands. Ranking is what makes items last longer.

The impact of each question on wear is interesting and evokes a broader debate about how sustainability should be defined and measured. Kent and her BoF team working on her index are following closely, she said, with plans to continuously evolve and improve the assessment methodology.

“These are all important questions for maturing the work,” says Greer. “This could be useful for next-generation validation and/or additional standards.”

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