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Sustainability Labels for Clothes Are Here

by gwcmag

This post is generously sponsored by Nisolo. As always, EcoCult only works with well-vetted brands doing good work. Support our editorial by supporting them!

Since the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act took effect in 1993, consumers, journalists, watchdogs, and the government have been able to determine the actual nutritional content of packaged foods. Rather than rely on vague and often distorted marketing promises, consumers are able to compare, for example, the sugar content in a soda to that of a sports drink. Armed with this knowledge, buyers, with the help of journalists who write on this topic, have been making educated decisions about the foods they bring home from the supermarket for nearly three decades.

But when it comes to fashion, do you know what’s “in” the clothing you buy? In other words, do you know how sustainable the fabric is? How toxic the manufacturing process is that produces those clothes? How the factory workers are paid and treated? Most importantly, wouldn’t you like to know all these things so the choices you make about what you put on your body are as educated as those you make about what you put in it?

Now, the socially and environmentally responsible shoe and accessory brand Nisolo has created a label so you can learn everything about a garment or pair of shoes before you buy. 

And it’s hoping other brands follow suit.

The Need for Transparency in the Fashion Industry

Transparency is desperately needed in the fashion industry. It contributes between 2% and 8% of the total amount of the world’s carbon emissions and produces an estimated 4% of its waste. With the rise of fast fashion in the past 30 years, consumers have purchased twice as many items of clothing and wear each item about seven times before it’s tossed. And that’s just a fraction of the total environmental impact — there’s water pollution and consumption as well

There’s also the human toll of the fashion industry to consider — the effects on workers who often toil many hours in factories, under poor working conditions, and who still don’t earn a living wage. According to the 2021 Fashion Transparency Index, only 4% of brands surveyed had a time-defined strategy for reaching the point at which all their workers would receive a living wage. Roughly a third of fashion manufacturers in 2019 had a system in place to combat discrimination of their female workers. At the rest of manufacturers, the women remain vulnerable to ongoing sexual harassment on top of the gender pay gap. 

Even once clothing is in the hands of the consumer, the environmental effects continue. Cheap and readily available, polyester is used in 60% of new garments, and machine washing releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles each year. Once there, they can poison aquatic life, the environment, and even people, and take decades to degrade.

When a garment fades from trendy to oblivion, it often ends up in the trash. One in three young British women think a piece of clothing worn once or twice is old. The result? The equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is dumped or burned every second. And 80 pounds of textiles per American is landfilled each year

Greenwashing — A Colorful Term for Deceit?

Four years ago, the team at Nisolo, which has been focused on social and environmental responsibility since its founding, began surveying other companies for helpful tools to measure and reduce its environmental footprint, and increase its positive impact. It hoped to find labels that could communicate its efforts clearly to consumers. What the team found instead was plenty of greenwashing.

To make themselves appear as responsible stewards of the environment (and increase sales), many fashion manufacturers engage in a marketing practice of overstating or even falsifying the “eco-friendly” advances they’ve made in their products or manufacturing. An investigation by the nonprofit Changing Markets Foundation determined that between 59% and 90% of “green” claims made by fashion brands were misleading or unsubstantiated.

This selective sharing of information makes it impossible to compare the efforts and impact of various brands. You have to go on gut feelings and faith. And it makes our job here at EcoCult of assessing and recommending brands more difficult. If only there were a better way…

Nisolo’s label allows you to see how its different products compare in terms of environmental impact and labor rights.

What Makes a Fashion Product More Sustainable 

Nisolo began thinking about what sustainability really means — with supporting the craft of shoemaking at the core of its business, the brand knew it’s not just about protecting the physical environment, but people in the industry too, by providing them with living wages and the necessary rights and benefits. Nisolo wanted to come up with a methodology that honestly and accurately assessed its products’ social and environmental impact. 

To get this right, Nisolo spent several years looking at over 30 industry standards, certifications, organizations, assessments, and ratings to collectively come up with a comprehensive yet digestible Sustainability Facts Label

The goal was a label that assessed the most critical sustainability factors of Nisolo’s products and formulated a holistic methodology. The result was based on 10 categories scored across People and Planet and backed by 200 public-facing data points. Of those 200, 92 refer to People and include commonly assessed labor and social categories as well as other categories that Nisolo and its team deemed urgent (and that would be important to any employee), such as Gender Equality & Empowerment, Wages & Payment, Health & Safety, Governance & Workers’ Rights, and Healthcare & Benefits

The remaining 108 data points relate to Planet health, like Post Use Product Lifecycle, which indicates strategies to extend the life of an item, whether by using biodegradable or compostable materials in manufacturing or by instituting a resale or take-back program for used products. There’s also Carbon Footprint, Raw Materials Integrity & Durability, Processing & Manufacturing, and Packaging & Distribution.

Now, when you buy Nisolo shoes and accessories, you’ll see a tag with various percentage scores that rate how well the manufacturing and transporting companies behind the fashion item are doing in terms of social and environmental impact. You’ll also see a QR code on the tag that links to an explanation of how Nisolo used its methodology to arrive at that item’s scores.  

Scores below 50 indicate the supplier’s practices have a detrimental impact on people or planet, between 60 and 69 they’re making moderate progress, and those between 90 and 100 are demonstrating industry-leading practices that have a significant and positive impact on People or the Planet. There are many levels in between. 

Take, for example, Healthcare & Benefits. Let’s say a pair of shoes scores 94 in this category. It means the manufacturer of that pair of shoes has gone above the legally required health coverage in their country, perhaps by extending healthcare benefits to workers’ families, or giving workers resources to help them learn how to manage their finances. 

Nisolo’s aim, and its hope for others in the fashion industry, is to combat human rights abuses, support global living wages, lessen its carbon footprint during the manufacture and distribution of items, use materials that don’t harm the environment, and avoid greenwashing by presenting valuable information to its customers in an honest and easy-to-understand format.

Over time, Nisolo hopes its transparency, evidenced by sustainability labels, will encourage consumers to make better choices and help change fashion supply chains for the better.  

In order to improve the whole of the fashion industry’s environmental and social impact, Nisolo has open-sourced the label and methodology so anyone can use it. This allows other brands to build on this “bare minimum floor,” as Nisolo calls it, to create labels in the future that have even greater depth and breadth.

You can also help lessen the impact the fashion industry has on People and the Planet. Nisolo encourages you to share #SustainabilityFactsLabel widely on social media to raise awareness of the problem and a solution, plus encourage your favorite fashion brands to adopt the sustainability label, and even build upon it, so you can effectively compare between the two. And be generous in sharing your feedback with Nisolo. Tell their team what they did right, and how they can improve.

When combined with legislation, advocacy, and education, fashion sustainability labels can provide the information that consumers and watchdogs need to push the entire industry in the right direction.

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