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Comment Fibre Fraud: Fashion’s Labelling Scandal

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Do you know what your clothes are made of? Like, really made of. Most people would simply refer to and trust the care label inside to see the make up of the item they are wearing. But, what if this didn’t match the actual fibres in your clothes? 

Fibre fraud is widespread within the fashion industry with many studies finding that the labels don’t match the advertised content. 

In 2019, Circle Economy, a global impact organisation founded in 2011, tested over 10.000 garments using a Fibersort machine finding in 41 per cent of cases the garment composition labels did not match the composition of the garment.

If this was in the food industry there would be a national scandal and questions asked in parliament. It is the fashion industry’s equivalent of the 2013 horse meat scandal where foods advertised as containing spicy beef were found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horse meat – as much as 100% of the meat content in some cases.

SATCoL – the trading arm of The Salvation Army – recently received a Fibersort machine to help deal with donated textiles that could not be sold due to damage or end of life.

The Fibersort machine sorts by fibre type, blend and colour for recycling back into the circular textiles supply chain. It uses an infra-red camera and blows items from a conveyor belt into bins using air jets. The process separates them into fibres such as, cotton, polyester and wool. 

Simultaneously, Fibersort recognises the fibre content percentage of each item and sorts specified blends such as polycotton and wool mixes at a higher level of accuracy than manual sorting. Fibersort also sorts fibres by specific or mixed colours categories. 

Speaking exclusively to TheIndustry.Fashion, Majonne Frost, Head of Environment and Sustainability, Salvation Army Trading Company Ltd says, “We often see that the information on the label doesn’t correspond with the fibres identified by our Fibersort machine. 

“We haven’t got any official stats on this, but we know from our experience of operating the machine that the clothing labels aren’t always correct. For example, we ran a number of tests when we first started using the Fibersort machine and we also carry out some random checks, for example when we are showing visitors the Fibersort machine.”

While mistakes can be made on labelling, this level of discrepancies feels like something much larger and endemic. Selling a garment at one price because it is advertised to contain something else while it contains different content is fraudulent and against the law. No doubt many premium fibres aren’t as advertised and consumers are paying the difference for something inferior.

In the UK, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy is tasked with developing and enforcing this country’s textile labeling regulations. Legally, the clothing label must show the fibre content, including fur and other animal parts. If a product consists of 2 or more components with different fibre contents, the content of each must be shown. Manufacturers and retailers are responsible for complying with the labelling requirements.

Frost does mention one caveat, “Throughout their use, especially laundering, garments inherently lose fibres.” 

“This is a known occurrence across most textiles, but is especially prevalent in low cost fabrics. The loss of fibres can also have a significant effect on the change of the composition of the fabric, like the ratio between the different fibre types in blends. Assuming 50 washes per item of clothing, the fibre loss can vary between 1-20% for cotton fibres and between 0.5-5% for polyester fibres.” she says.

When the Design Museum opened in London in 2016 it commissioned artist Christien Meinderstsma to produce an exhibit called ‘Fibre Market’. One thousand woollen sweaters were scanned and sorted. Miendertsma then compared the scanners results to the information on the products labels, revealing frequent inaccuracies. After sorting, the sweaters were shredded into fibre, ready to become something new. 

The journey and supply chain of a garment relies on trust. From the raw fibre to combing to weaving to manufacturing to labelling, the stages are open to substitutions and manipulations of products. Unless a product is tested before labelling then it relies on previously supplied information. Retailers and brands should randomly test products before they hit the shop floor to make sure they are what they correctly corresponding with the labels. If they don’t, then they need to start asking questions along their supply chains. 

Premium fibre producers are starting to use Blockchain technology to combat fraudulent activity and offer reassurances to brand and consumers that they are getting exactly what they are paying for.

Fibre producers such as Nativa, which producers wool from regenerative farms, and Tencel, world market leader in specialty fibres made from the renewable material wood, use Blockchain to combat fraud in the supply chain. The Blockchain technology records transactions in a digital tamper-proof and centralised database. Information is distributed across a network of computers or nodes, is accessible to anyone in the network, and cannot be altered or deleted.

The fashion supply industry is extremely complicated with huge amounts of growers, manufacturers and supplies globally. It is wide open to fraudulent activity. No doubt, many brands and customers are currently being ripped off, paying a premium for products that are not as described. Without technology, like Fibresort, it is very hard for consumers to double check the definitive ingredients in their clothes. 

Government agencies likes Trading Standards also appear to be blind to the rampant fraud that is happening in high streets around the country. Government and legal intervention will probably have to be the catalyst for change, but the public need to start demanding it and questioning what their clothes are made of. There is opportunity for some retail brands to lead on this and really test their products and instil confidence in what they are selling. 

This feels like a Herculean task, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tackled. Honesty is paramount to any transaction.

This article was first published by TheIndustry.Fashion. TheChicGeek is Contributing Editor

Blockchain, Charity, Christien Meinderstsma, Circle Economy, Design Museum, Fibers, Fibre Fraud, Fibres, Recycle, Resale, Salvation Army Trading Company Ltd, Tencel, Trading Standards