Fashion industry practices have yet again come under the spotlight in a new report which points to only mixed progress on ensuring transparent, clean viscose production
High Street retailers and clothing brands have again come under fire over their sourcing of viscose fabric, in a new report today which concludes many firms are still not doing enough to ensure the environmental sustainability of their textile supply chains.
Based on over a year's worth of investigations and research, the latest report by the Changing Markets Foundations found that while there has been bold leadership from some retailers, a large part of the industry has still not demonstrated willingness to engage with the issue or set out their policies on viscose production.
Sometimes known as rayon, viscose is a soft semi-synthetic fibre commonly used to make lighter clothing, and is the third most-used fibre in the textiles industry after polyester and cotton. It is created from cellulose that is chemically extracted from trees, a process that requires hazardous chemicals. A number of major producers have been accused of failing to follow adequate health and safety processes, leading to pollution from production processes impacting surrounding water and soils.
Some of the poorest performing brands featured in the report's rankings include Burberry, IKEA, Missguided, Gucci, and Prada, as well as supermarkets such as Sainsbury's, Lidl, Morrisons and Asda, all of which were contacted for comment by BusinessGreen.
The report also includes the results of a new YouGov poll commissioned by the NGO which found 58 per cent of shoppers would stop buying clothes from a fashion brand if they found out it was using materials that could damage the environment.
It follows an investigation earlier this year by the NGO which alleged a number of well-known UK fashion retailers were sourcing their viscose fabric from two factories in Indonesia and India which have been accused of polluting their local environments and harming human health with toxic chemicals.
Changing Markets Foundation argues that if managed properly, viscose has the potential to be a "largely sustainable fibre" as it is made from plant matter and is biodegradable.
It has previously set up a roadmap for sustainable viscose sourcing, and revealed today seven brands have so far signed up so far and started engaging with their supply chains on how to guard against the risk of viscose-related pollution. Inditex, ASOS, Market & Spencer, H&M, Tesco, Esprit, and C&A were named as the first signatories to the group. Next has also reportedly indicated it plans to commit to the roadmap - which sets out best available techniques for viscose production - in the near future.
Tesco's senior sustainability manager for its F&F Clothing line, Carmen Chan, said that while she understood the complexity of the environmental challenge of viscose, it was "not possible for us to tackle it alone". "We need to collaborate with our peers, suppliers, NGOs and governments to help transform the textile and clothing industry," she urged. "Working together, we can make a big difference."
Another signatory, M&S, has said it will not source from any man-made cellulosic fibre suppliers which do not transition to a closed-loop manufacturing system by 2023-25, explaining that such a system should aim to recycle the majority of chemicals used during the production and prevent the process from negatively impacting on human health and the environment.
Phil Townsend, sustainable raw materials specialist at M&S, said the roadmap was "an important step forward" for the industry in reducing the environmental impact of viscose for making clothes. "However, the industry needs to work together to create positive change and achieve the Changing Market Foundation's goals," he said in a statement.
Other fashion brands such as Stella McCartney, Eileen Fisher and Patagonia are also praised in the report for their work on viscose sourcing, production practices, and transparency.
In the YouGov poll findings, 30 per cent of the 2,000 adults asked said they expected luxury brands to be sustainable, compared to just 13 per cent who expected the same of low-cost brands and supermarkets.
Yet the report suggests little difference between luxury and affordable brands in their approach to viscose. A large number of both luxury and affordable fashion brands have failed to respond to letters from environmental and consumer groups seeking clarification on their viscose sourcing policies, or to provide transparency around their supply chain, Changing Markets Foundation said.
One of the brands named in the report for having not engaged with Changing Markets Foundation on the issue, Italian retailer United Colours of Benetton, did not disclose its viscose supply chain or sourcing policies. However, it said in response that viscose represented "just a small part of the artificial, synthetic and mixed fibres we use", claiming 85 cent of its fibres are natural.
"One of our priorities is the selection of outstanding quality raw materials with reduced environmental impact," the firm said in a statement. "We make this effort on a daily basis on behalf of our customers, who demand increasingly sustainable and sophisticated products also for the future of our planet, which will only be bright if we use resources responsibly and respect the world around us."
Another company named as failing to have adequate viscose policies in place, Swedish furniture giant IKEA, said its aim was to support improvements in existing Made Cellulose textile fibres - of which viscose is one - and to develop new sustainable Made Cellulose fibres as part of its overarching ambition to reach 100 per cent sustainable sources of raw materials.
"We are working towards a goal that all Made Cellulose fibres shall come from responsibly sourced wood and be produced having minimum environmental impact to land, air and water," IKEA said in a statement.
Burberry, which has recently come in for criticism for reportedly burning £28m worth of clothing stock, was also considering a request for comment at the time of going to press, although a spokesperson highlighted the firm's chemical management policies which are available online.
But while the report suggests "much progress remains to be made", it does also highlight some small successes since the previous reportfrom the group, which it said indicates the "tide is beginning to turn in favour of more responsible viscose production".
The two largest viscose producers in the world, Austria's Lenzing and India's ABG, have both now committed to making all their sites meet EU Ecolabel requirements for production. And, in China, the country's 10 largest producers have joined together to form the Collaboration for the Sustainable Development of Viscose and is developing a 10-year roadmap for improvement, the report said.
Overall, though, many viscose producers are not doing enough to ensure their operations are not damaging the environment, the report concludes, adding that on top of concerns about chemical pollution the sector is also largely reliant on carbon intensive energy.
Natasha Hurley, campaign manager at Changing Markets Foundation, said the onus was on manufacturers and their customers to turn commitments to improve their supply chains into detailed plans and ensure transparent reporting of their performance, including complaints and grievances.
"After many years of complacency from fashion brands and producers with regard to the environmental impacts of viscose manufacturing, the tide is finally beginning to turn towards more responsible production methods," she said. "But the unlikely bedfellows of luxury brands and discount retailers continue to ignore an issue that is blighting people's lives and the environment. What's more, most luxury fashion brands are failing to publicly disclose supply chain information. This is unacceptable. It's time for them to wake up to consumers' desire for more transparency and more sustainable fashion."
As everyone in the fashion industry concedes, ensuring transparent, ethical and environmentally sustainable supply chains is an extremely complex and ongoing challenge. Yet the sentiment among those which have sought to engage with the NGO on viscose seems that it is only through working together across the industry that such widespread problems can be solved and properly regulated. Only time will tell if some of the less transparent firms named in the report eventually come round to this more collaborative way of thinking.
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