Paris – Is it better for the environment to buy a new cotton t-shirt or a recycled t-shirt?
Actually it depends.
Recycling has obvious advantages, but the process shortens the cotton fibers and therefore usually needs to be mixed with an oil-based material to keep it from collapsing.
Such compromises make it difficult to determine the true durability rating of garments, but European brands will soon have no choice.
By next year, every item of clothing sold in France will require a label detailing its precise climate impact – with a similar rule expected for the rest of the European Union by 2026.
This means juggling many different and conflicting data points: where and how were its raw materials grown? What was used to color it? How far did he travel? Was the factory powered by solar or coal?
The French Agency for Ecological Transition (Ademe) is currently testing 11 proposals for how to collect and compare the data – and what the resulting label might look like to consumers – using 500 real garments.
“The message of the law is clear, it will become mandatory, so brands must prepare, make their products traceable, organize automatic data collection,” said Erwan Autret, one of the coordinators at Ademe.
“Some say the models are too simple, some say they’re too complicated, but it’s a sign of the maturity of the debate that no one is questioning the need for these calculations anymore.”
“Transparent and Informed”
The need for change in fashion is urgent.
Statistics are notoriously difficult to verify, but the UN says the industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, as well as a significant share of water use and waste.
Labels can be a key part of the solution, campaigners say.
“It will force brands to be more transparent and informed… to collect data and create long-term relationships with their suppliers – all things they are not used to doing,” said Victoire Sotto of The Good Goods, a fashion and sustainability consultancy.
“Right now it seems infinitely complex,” she added. “But we’ve seen it applied in other industries such as medical supplies.”
Seeing how the winds are blowing, the textile industry hastened to find technical solutions.
A recent presentation from Premiere Vision, a Paris-based textiles conference, highlighted many new processes, including non-toxic leather tanning, dyes from fruit and waste – and even biodegradable underwear that can be composted.
But the key to sustainability is using the right fabric for the right garment, said Ariane Bigot, deputy fashion director at Première Vision.
This means that synthetic and oil-based fabrics will always have a place, she said: “A strong synthetic with a very long lifespan might be suitable for certain uses, such as a tracksuit that requires little washing. “
Capturing all these trade-offs in a simple label on a garment is therefore tricky.
“It’s very complicated,” Bigot said. “But we have to get the machine started.”
The French agency is due to collate the results of its testing phase next spring before delivering the results to lawmakers.
While many welcome the labels, campaigners say it should only be part of a broader crackdown on the fashion industry.
“It’s really good to focus on life cycle assessment, but we need to do something about it beyond the labels,” said Valeria Botta of the Environmental Coalition on Standards.
“The focus should be on establishing clear product design rules to ban the worst products on the market, prohibit the destruction of returned and unsold goods, and set production limits,” she said.
“Consumers shouldn’t have to struggle to find a sustainable option – it should be the default.”