Savvy shoppers always look at labels on clothes at the store. But the information on them may be wildly inaccurate—and even the clothing company may not know it. Here’s a quick journey through the dismal world of apparel labelling.
Researched by: Sara Varghese & Priyanka Gulati
What’s going on with fake labels?
Shopping malls and outlets are awash with textile fraud. The materials listed on the label of that t-shirt or dress is most often fiction. And there is no better example than the ubiquitous fabric, cotton.
The Welspun story: In 2016, big retail giants like Target and Walmart cut their ties with the popular bed linen maker Welspun India. The reason: a Target investigation revealed that the ‘Egyptian cotton’ label on 750,000 sheets and pillowcases were fake. They were instead made with inferior cotton—contrary to the promise of the luxury fabric promised by the word ‘Egyptian’. The company immediately dumped Welspun and offered its customers a refund. Other companies soon followed suit. Within a week, the company lost more than $700 million from its market value.
Not just Welspun: It wasn’t just Welspun caught in this scam. In 2017, the Cotton Egypt Association—which certifies suppliers of 100% Egyptian cotton—estimated that about 90% of global supplies of Egyptian cotton were fake.
Not just ‘Egyptian’ cotton: In 2010, H&M and other European brands came under fire for labelling genetically modified cotton as ‘organic’. Thirty percent of the tested fabric contained genetically modified material. All of the tested cotton came from India—which is the largest single producer of the world’s organic cotton supply, accounting for 50%. But its ‘organic’ labelling has been repeatedly exposed as fraudulent. In 2020, around a sixth of the country’s cotton production—20,000 tonnes—was revealed as falsely certified. In 2022, a US industry expert estimated that between one half and four-fifths of what is being sold as organic cotton from India is not genuine.
Not just cotton: But the fraud extends beyond just one fabric:
- In 2017, a Vietnamese brand had to confess that half of its silk actually came from China. Even worse: in 2011, a leading silk trade group found that at least six out of 10 pure silk products sold in Kerala were made of artificial yarn.
- More shockingly, in 2020, online retailers like Amazon, eBay, Shein, Romwe were selling real fur as faux. Believe it or not, it is actually cheaper to use the fur of animals like foxes or raccoon dogs than to manufacture fake fur.
- In 2021, the fast fashion brand Shein was exposed for selling clothes with toxic chemicals—like lead, phthalates, and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This is also true of brands like Lululemon and REI—all of whom position themselves as sustainable brands.
- Last year, a report showed that 60% of fabric claiming to be made from recycled plastic bottles—was actually made from virgin plastic. No recycling involved.
- Closer home, Kashmiri shawls and carpets manufactured with machines are being passed off as handcrafted. Even as the numbers of artisans plummet—due to appallingly poor wages—the supply of ‘authentic’ pashmina shawls has been rising.
The scale of the problem: is very difficult to measure, say experts: “Without having a system of trying to capture the information, you won't really have a sense of what's happening.” Right now, the best we can do is to compare the volume of production with volume of supply. For instance, with organic cotton, the gap is vast:
There are indicators, from self-reporting of various fabric mills, spinners, farmers, brands, that I would argue that the vast majority of cotton that is presented to consumers as organic is not, in fact, organic cotton.
So it’s all one big scam?
Well, sort of. Yes, a lot of the labelling is misleading—but it isn’t necessarily due to a deliberate attempt to cheat. And those at the bottom of the supply chain may not even have a choice.
The supply chain: is so long and convoluted that a brand may very well be as clueless as the customer:
A typical supply chain in the textile industry can be incredibly complex, with separate facilities, often in different countries, completing each step in the process. Cotton grown in Egypt might be shipped to India to be spun into yarn in one facility, woven into a fabric in another, then sent to Portugal to be cut and sewn, before being sold in a department store in London.
In a number of cases—as with Welspun—the company was buying yarns and fabrics from vendors in good faith.
Point to note: It’s easy to be cynical about such claims, but as the NGO Circle Economy points out, “fraud would imply labels claim a higher content of expensive fibre types like cotton than the garment actually has to maximise the product price.” Yet labels can often lowball the percentage of quality fibres in a garment. Its study found that a dress that claims to be 50% cotton and 50% polyester may actually have far more cotton than advertised.
Checks, what checks? The other big problem with the supply chain is there is no system to check claims of vendors. Certification of organic cotton relies on old-fashioned paper—which can be easily forged:
In India as well as other cotton-producing countries… certification starts at the gin, where the cotton fibre is separated from the seed. A paper transaction certificate is issued each time the cotton is sold along the supply chain: from the gin to a certified spinner, where the fibres become thread; to a certified mill, where the threads become fabric; and on until it lands in the form of a shirt or sheet set in a store near you.
The certification at the ground level is outsourced to global inspection businesses. They send a paper certificate to two European companies that issue the gold-standard organic cotton stamp—Global Organic Textile Standard and Textile Exchange’s Organic Content Standard. They, in turn, pass that precious piece of paper on to clothing manufacturers, who pass it on to brands. The result: “the volume of certified organic cotton doubles, triples or even quadruples as it moves up through the supply chain.”
Point to note: No party in this supply chain has an incentive to closely monitor the cotton. Not the Indian government, the inspection agencies or the brands. It is far easier and more profitable to turn a blind eye. A 2019 study found that only a third of the top 100 apparel companies track their supply chains—and half of those brands only gather information on their immediate suppliers. This wilful ignorance is especially handy when the cotton is produced by forced labour camps in China’s Xinjiang province.
Where are the farmers in all this?
Lost in this sanctimonious grandstanding over labelling is the fate of those who actually grow the cotton. As the New York Times acknowledges:
What the farmers did not know, however, was that growing without pesticides and fossil-fuel fertiliser produces on average 28% lower yields than conventional cotton farming; that organic cotton seeds produce lower quality, shorter fibres; and that increasingly brands were using their market power to negotiate the price of organic cotton down to the same price as conventional cotton or even cheaper because of its lower quality.
Organic cotton farming often spells ruin for the average Indian farmer. It takes years to convert a field from conventional farming to organic. Yet the returns are negligible. There isn't much difference between ‘organic’ or conventional cotton from a farmer’s point of view: “these brands are making big money, but the money is not being passed onto us.”
And as the NGO Cotton Diaries points out, the ‘purity’ standards imposed by the West are often unreasonable:
You could have planted completely clean [non-GMO] seed and had a bee come over to you from your neighbour's farm, pollinating one of your flowers, and your whole crop that was developed under organic principles and certified is going to be rejected.
What is being sold to consumers as conscious consumption relies on a “top-down organic system” that imposes rules crafted in the West:
It takes the shape of an inverted pyramid whereby big brands hold the purse strings, Western NGOs, national and international governments and certification and accreditation bodies dictate standards, and farmers ultimately bear the cost of it all.
The bottomline: The global apparel industry is built around the customer who wants cheap clothes that also make us feel good about buying them—because they are ‘organic’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘chemical-free’. Now that is just plain unsustainable.
BBC Future has an excellent overview of fabric fraud—and the high-tech measures being adopted to prevent it. The New York Times investigation (splainer gift link) into fake certification of organic cotton in India is a good read—but make sure you also read the valuable pushback from Cotton Diaries. This older Guardian deep dive is very good on similar labelling fraud in food products. Bloomberg News looks at the many ways brands avoid telling you about the ‘forever chemicals’ in your clothes. Forbes looks at how blockchain technology is being used to ensure the integrity of organic cotton. We did a detailed Big Story on why it is so hard to be a conscious consumer of fashion—which has more on the fraud around ‘sustainability’ certification.