Making the Case for Improving a Laudable Initiative

Dalena White, IWTO secretary General 

The ever-increasing focus on sustainability in the apparel industry is both important and encouraging.  Anyone who manufactures garments using natural materials like wool, or with synthetic fabrics, cannot fail to have had some form of engagement with emerging standards, guidelines, mainstream media coverage, and, bit by bit, legislation.  Establishing what is best practice can be very tricky.  In that context, it is absolutely vital that the tools that are available to people to help them navigate their way are genuinely robust, reliable and future-proofed.

It is widely agreed that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Material Sustainability Index (MSI) is a ‘good thing’.  Its purpose is laudable and its system for comparing the sustainability of different textile materials has been used in a variety of ways, by brands and NGOs looking to understand the sustainability of textile production.  Brands, retailers, and government initiatives already rely on systems like the MSI when making sustainability choices, which in turn influences decisions ranging from apparel design and product lines to environmental policy and eco-labelling schemes.  So, when news emerges that a new study has identified weaknesses in the underlying science that informs the MSI, then our industry needs to take notice and address the concerns quickly.  The good news is that the study in question has also identified some of the steps that can be taken to strengthen the index.

Researchers Dr Stephen Wiedemann and Dr Kalinda Watson of Integrity AG & Environment in Queensland, Australia, in a study funded by Australian Wool Innovation, performed a comprehensive analysis of the MSI.  They have concluded that the index currently fails to include two main parts of the product life cycle in its calculations – the use phase and end of life.  The former of these is generally the highest impact stage of a product’s life cycle, while failing to explore the latter ignores the major and urgent problem of fast fashion.  Furthermore, microplastics are not included in the MSI’s scoring, creating more gaps and less balance in the results. 

Drs Wiedemann and Watson also established that the quality of data in the MSI was, in many instances, poor, and as a result it is impossible to discern whether the index shows real differences between fibres, something that is common practice in other fields of science.  There are also weaknesses in using the underlying LCA research approach when it comes to comparing fibres, because the results are based on ‘industry averages’ which may not reflect the market response to a change in demand from one fibre to another.  This can be improved by using different and more suitable LCA methods that are currently available.  The index is weakened even more by a lack of transparency about its use of proxy data from limited sources for many fibre types.  That lack of transparency is also reflected in the MSI’s scoring methods, which combine environmental impacts into a single score.  Because of the different levels of impact during the course of a product’s lifetime, this score – included in the MSI without context – is almost certain to be misleading.  The scoring masks value judgements about different kinds of impacts, such as whether impacts to water quality are more important than global warming.

Individually, each concern outlined in the study is significant - collectively, they present a serious challenge to the credibility of the MSI.  However, the study doesn’t just focus on shortcomings, it also outlines the ways in which the index can be improved and become an essential tool that the whole industry can embrace with confidence.

From the start, the Integrity AG & Environment review was commissioned and undertaken to offer a positive and constructive contribution and Drs Wiedemann and Watson concluded that most of the issues that they highlighted can be addressed by adhering to best practice standards in LCA.  However, a truly robust and effective Material Sustainability Index should go beyond that.  LCA based results currently reflect only a part of the environmental impacts of a product. Renewability, biodegradability, carbon cycling and biodiversity are all aspects which, although difficult to integrate into LCA, are part of the equation and need to be considered in a comprehensive environmental measurement.

Clearly, in its current form, the MSI does not accurately reflect the status of wool.  Naturally renewable, biodegradable, readily recycled, and with low-cost of care, wool has a compelling sustainability appeal at every stage of a garment’s life cycle.  The wool industry has a deep appreciation of this and continues to actively contribute to the work of organisations such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and a wide range of research projects, much of them led – or supported – by the International Wool Textile Organisation.  It is in this spirit that this latest study has been published.  We need to talk about the MSI, because it is clear that this laudable initiative requires some improvements.  Once those are implemented, we will have an index that we can all support, and which we can all be confident in as our industry works together to address the urgent and enormous environmental challenges ahead.

 Discussion Paper: Analysis of Data and Methods applied in the SAC MSI and Associated Tools is available on www.iwto.org/resources/publications

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