Textile companies lack information about their various impacts

Even the apparently most sustainable clothing companies lack information about the environmental, social and economic impacts of their business operations, shows a SMART project analysis of the best practices reported by 31 companies in the textile industry.  

Photo by Becca McHaffie on Unsplash.

The analysis, carried out by researchers at the Jaume I University in Spain, showed that the largest shortcomings when it comes to information about the associated impacts are in the first three phases of the life cycle of textile products; namely raw material acquisition, carding and spinning, and washing and rinsing.

“We have discovered that there is a lack of reporting and assessment systems in place in these phases of the textile product life cycle. This could be because the existing tools and standards do not fit a comprehensive assessment of all life cycle phases, or because more institutional support is needed,” says professor María Jesús Muñoz-Torres, who has led the study.    

The fact that most companies lack information about the impacts of their business operations is not just bad for the environment and society at large, it can also be bad for business, says Muñoz-Torres.

“If companies do not know their sustainability impacts, they cannot know and properly manage their financial risks of unsustainability because how can you manage your risks if you don’t know what these risks are?” she asks.

SMART Sustainability Assessment Tool

The study has been done by using the Sustainability Assessment Tool (SAT) developed by the SMART project, which is designed to assess the sustainability of organisations.

In order to properly examine how sustainable a textile product is, it is necessary to study the impacts associated with each of the following phases of its life cycle:

  • Raw material acquisition
  • Carding and spinning
  • Dyeing, washing and rising
  • Transportation
  • Garment manufacturing
  • Transportation and distribution
  • Consumer use
  • Disposal / reuse
  • Design

The study has identified the textile companies with the best sustainability practices, and the analysis has relied mainly on self-reported information from the businesses themselves.

However, it has also taken into account additional sources such as suppliers lists, analyses of public information about sustainability performance and practices, and reviews of sectoral guidelines, standards and certifications.  

The footprints of the companies

The findings of the study are summarised in this report, with the various impacts sorted into three categories: environmental, social and economic footprints. Regarding the environmental footprint, the companies have mainly defined indicators related to “climate change”, “resource depletion – mineral, fossil”, and “resource depletion – water”.

The indicator most frequently used by the companies themselves is “total CO2 emissions in tonnes”, which is directly linked to climate change.

The results show that companies from all the textile life cycle phases claim to allocate resources and efforts to fight against climate change. The best practices most frequently found in the reports are for example use of renewable and alternative energy sources, energy efficiency projects, investment in energy-saving and green information and communication technologies equipment.

For social footprints, companies mainly provide indicators associated with the “workers/employees” stakeholder category. This refers to equal opportunities /discrimination, health and safety, and social benefits.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the economic footprint, the indicators are mostly associated with “business survivorship”, and the indicators are based on financing-accounting variables to measure economic impact.

We here found that companies have in general adopted a limited approach, focusing essentially on traditional profitability indicators from the annual financial statements or share performance ratios.

Lack of publicly available information

After exploring the best practices and key performance indicators of a set of textile companies and taking into account a product life cycle approach, the most visible finding is a clear lack of sustainability information in terms of indicators and best practices.

This could, according to the researchers behind the study, be due to an insufficient institutional effort to create a generally accepted framework to measure sustainability impacts.

We also see a lack of publicly available information (such as on the companies’ own websites) regarding the first phases of the textile products’ life cycle (raw material acquisition, carding and spinning, dyeing, washing and rising).

A big problem here is that many of the companies in these first textile life cycle phases – most of which are located in Bangladesh, China, India or Turkey – do not have corporate websites, and many of them also do not publish any sustainability information.

However, companies in these first phases that are based in high-income countries tend to perform better on this aspect, as these usually both have their own websites and publish information about their various impacts.

Another positive finding, which shows the incipient sector commitment to sustainability, is that many of the analysed companies have begun to adopt international environmental, quality of health and safety standards. In addition, several of them have also adopted sectoral standards such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, the Better Cotton Initiative or the Responsible Wool Standard.

By Hege Fantoft Andreassen and Iselin Rønningsbakk
Published Jan. 10, 2020 2:31 PM - Last modified Jan. 10, 2020 4:09 PM