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Problem of Bad Science in Sustainability Gets Worse

It is high time sustainability discourse moved beyond peripheral and superficial approaches to a robust scientific perspective There is no doubt that the global fashion industry faces rising challenges of sustainability. But beyond the macro factors, one of the biggest challenges faced by corporations is grappling with misinformation and bad science. The topic of sustainability generates a lot of passion and has attracted a large number of commentators with limited understanding of scientific facts. It wouldn't have been a serious issue if unscientific discourse was limited to some isolated groups. Journalists and authors regularly use several specific and catchy numbers that are de-contextualised from their original studies, and repeated use gives an impression of those being globally representative. For example, apart from cross referencing, it is difficult to find sources for claims like fashion contributing to 20 per cent of wastewater, 4 per cent of global waste, four-fifths of workers being women. This has extended even to widely published books. Mike Redwood, a leather expert, writes when he asked Mike Berners-Lee about his sources for his influential environmental book How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, published in 2010, the response was that he took his figures from the published tables and did not question them. Even more troubling is the fact that this is not limited to shock journalists. Higg Index, developed by Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), is one of the most widely used decision tool by the fashion industry. But for an index that has major implications on defining what is sustainable and what is not, it is expected that it withstands scientific scrutiny and its methodologies are beyond reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. The SAC recently increased the material sustainability index (MSI) score of silk from 681 to 1086 and decreased polyester's score from 44 to 36. This essentially suggests that replacing a kilogram (kg) of silk from the production line with anything even marginally less than 30 kg of polyester would be a step towards saving the planet. Such a significant change and corresponding impact calculation was done silently without offering any explanation as to what triggered it and how the new scores were calculated. Naturally, the International Sericultural Commission (ISC), the representative body for the global silk industry is upset. ISC alleges that there are 'major flaws' in how Higg MSI currently scores silk and has called to stop using scoring silk until an 'independent and credible' life cycle assessment (LCA) for silk is developed. According to a research done by Veronica Bates Kassatly, an independent sector analyst, the datasets behind the silk score are from a University of Oxford study conducted in 2014, titled 'Life cycle assessment of Indian silk', conducted on smallholder rural farmers in a small region of southern India. On the other hand, the Higg score claims to be indicative of the impact of industrially produced silk and virtually none of it comes from the region covered by the study.

SAC remains secretive about its methodology offering only vague answers on its portal. The only known instance of data sharing was when SAC instituted a four-year study at the University of California, Berkeley, whereby it granted access to old data from version 2.0 of Higg Facility Environmental Module (FEM) that was shelved in December 2017. The co-author of the study was invited to consult for the company upon completion of the report. The silk industry is not the only one alleging bad science behind the index. Leather and wool are up in arms too. As per current scores, cow leather has a Higg MSI impact of 176 per kg compared with nylon with an impact of 29 per kg. On October 8 this year, the International Council of Tanners, along with thirteen co-signatory groups, wrote a strongly-worded letter to Julie Brown, director of Higg Index, that Higg score for leather does not integrate basic understandings in its methodological choices and data, and thus misguides users of the score. The letter alleges that the score for leather is based on data before 2013, refers to limited study of Brazilian and US herds only, and therefore, is not representative of the current status of the leather supply chain. They too demanded that the Higg Index score for leather be suspended. Both sectors also allege that Higg's approach of cradle-to-factory gate assessment presents an incorrect picture of the relative impact and does not recognise the critical use and end-of-life phases of a product. An impact calculation until the factory gate ignores the fact that silk clothes and leather products are typically worn or used more number of times than polyester or nylon products, and do not release toxic microfibres during their use phase. For an industry that has such a huge impact on the economy and lives, it is surprising that there is such a dearth of scientific studies on how to calculate sustainability impact. It is about time that sustainability discourse moves beyond shock journalism, greenwashing and commentators hunting for the worst examples portraying them as if that is the norm. Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of Fibre2Fashion.

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