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Professor Dorothée Baumann-Pauly co-authors a report that tackles sustainable clothing myths

The report looks at the sustainability criteria used by the clothing industry. The conclusion: to be sustainable, clothes should be worn as much as possible, and it is better not to trust what the labels say.


From organic cotton to recycled PET shirts, fashionable clothing can adapt to the demands of the moment. But are the sustainability guarantees on our clothes credible? According to a report co-authored by GSEM Professor Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, the answer in most cases is no.

The fashion industry touts polyester as a more sustainable material than natural fibres such as silk. Silk has been neglected because a unique study in India ten years ago showed that the maintenance of mulberry trees used to raise silkworms required large amounts of water in areas already suffering from drought. Today, however, 90% of the silk sold on the market comes from China, where the mulberry trees grow on land that receives regular rainfall, without the need for irrigation, but this fact is overlooked. Polyester, on the other hand, releases plastic micro-particles when it goes through the washing machine, which cannot be filtered out and whose long-term effects on health are unknown.

Similarly, organic cotton has a good reputation among customers in Europe and the USA. But its sustainability, according to the report's findings, only guarantees that no chemical pesticides or fertilisers have been used in the crops. This is great news for the soil. However, the farmer who is forced to go organic faces lower yields due to increased susceptibility to pests and other diseases.

These examples illustrate one of the main criticisms of the report's authors of the clothing industry's methods of guiding consumer choices: the criteria used to decide on the sustainability of a textile ignore a whole range of environmental and social parameters and focus on only a few aspects, which allow retailers to improve their image while at the same time protecting their economic interests.

Moreover, these criteria do not consider the entire life cycle of a garment. If consumers want to make sustainable choices, they must first ask themselves how often they will wear a garment. This is the key to a truly sustainable fashion industry. Rather than giving unreliable information, clothing labels should indicate that unless the item is worn at least a few dozen times it will not be sustainable.

Click here to read "The Great Greenwashing Machine Part 1: Back to the roots of sustainability".
Click here to read "The Great Greenwashing Machine Part 2: The Use And Misuse of Sustainability Metrics In Fashion".

> Read the article in the University of Geneva's publication Le Journal (in French).
> Click here to read the press coverage of this announcement.


April 27, 2022
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