Zombie data: Fashionably fake facts

Zombie data, data that are false, unverifiable or lack credibility, have become all too en vogue. From fake news to corporate greenwashing, zombie data have been used to mislead or for monetary gain. This is particularly apparent in the fashion industry which many claim has a serious misinformation problem.1 This blog examines how zombie data concerning the environmental impacts of the textiles supply chain present a financial risk to capital markets investors.

A recent report by the Transformers Foundation – Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation – has shone a light on fashion’s misinformation problem, using cotton as a case study. The Transformers Foundation found that many commonly cited claims regarding cotton production were too sweeping and, as such, unsubstantiated or oversimplified.2 Sometimes the original source of the data has long been removed from the internet, or is incorrectly referenced (if it existed at all), but articles and reports referencing it remain, ending up as the so called “authoritative” source for the same data. Thus, we refer to this as zombie data – unverifiable data that continue to be referenced as valid sources in articles, publications and reports.3

Fundamentally, capital markets rely on data to analyse and understand risk when making investment decisions. Therefore, data reliability is critical. Consequently, there is a sizeable industry and many industry bodies devoted to ensuring such reliability. Data provides a means for tracking company performance and, when these data are proved to be incorrect, it can result in major stock market moves.

The European Commission distinguishes between misinformation and disinformation. According to the Commission, misinformation is “verifiably false information that is spread without the intention to mislead, and often shared because the user believes it to be true”, while disinformation is “verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public”.4 Both pose a financial risk to investors.

Notably, fashion brands and companies may (sometimes unintentionally) use zombie data in their marketing claims, in effect leading to greenwashing and misleading consumers. The growing market for green products presents an attractive opportunity for the industry, promising substantial gains for those claiming sustainability credentials. The risk to investors arises when a brand or company bases their environmental assumptions, and perhaps even projections or analysis, on these zombie data. If exposed, this could negatively impact image and market share with their customers as well as investors.

Take, for example, cotton. The production of a single cotton shirt has been said to require anywhere from 600 to 7,000 litres of water.

Companies selling cotton alternatives could elect to use a number at the higher end of this range in order to demonstrate their material’s superior sustainability. The most widely cited statistic regarding the water intensity of a cotton shirt originated from the World Wildlife Fund, which placed the amount at 2,700 litres.

Table 1 presents the results of our own attempt to find and, importantly, compare data on the water intensity of a cotton shirt. This exercise demonstrates the difficulties of providing accurate statistics which communicate the gravity of the textile industry’s sustainability problem while still retaining accuracy.

Table 1: Reported data for the number of litres of water needed to make a cotton shirt
Source: Various and Planet Tracker

Additionally, the data can be misinterpreted. In this specific case, this was due to the difference in the weight of cotton needed for a particular item of clothing. Some sources considered a shirt and jeans as a kilogram of cotton, while others assigned a weight of 150 grams for just a T-shirt. As the data is repeated through the internet, these important differences are often lost. Ultimately, irresponsible data practices result in several statistics being presented as the true figure, hence why the range in Table 1 is so extreme.

The reality is that many factors can influence the data. For example, the amount of water can vary depending on the region of cotton production or which specific type of agricultural water footprint is used in the analysis.5 Figure 1 below displays several factors that influence the water intensity of cotton.

Figure 1: Some of the factors that influence the water intensity of cotton
Source: Planet Tracker

Zombie data are particularly pervasive when considering the environmental impact of the textiles industry. Claims such as “the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world”, “nearly 20 percent of global wastewater is produced by the fashion industry” and “the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions” appear all over the internet.6 These are referenced by reputable institutions, in company press releases, various well-cited industry reports and even in TED presentations, despite having been discredited multiple times.iii Their continued use creates a circular feedback loop of misinformation – a circular economy that fashion wishes it could achieve!

Importantly, the use of zombie data has ripple effects. As a case in point, it can be used to persuade consumers to purchase a more sustainable alternative, such as a dress made from viscose which could actually contribute to deforestation if not from a certified source.7 Similarly, a fashion item manufactured out of plastic waste is often presented as sustainable, yet it arguably deepens the fashion industry’s reliance on plastic while doing very little to curtail the global plastic crisis.8

These claims are not going unnoticed. Earlier this year, the European Commission (EC) examined 344 consumer product claims made online concerning environmental sustainability from various business sectors including garments and cosmetics.

In 42 percent of cases, authorities had reason to believe that the claim might be false or deceptive and could potentially qualify as an unfair commercial practice under EU law.9 The EC’s findings demonstrate the gravity of the greenwashing problem, of which fashion is said to be among the worst offenders.10 If zombie data are found to be the pillar on which these claims are based, companies could continue to undergo regulatory scrutiny.

In conclusion, zombie data can lead to poor financial decision-making and significant losses for shareholders. To combat this, we advocate for a continued focus on full supply chain traceability and transparency to help generate the robust data necessary to finally put the zombies to rest. This, in turn, equips investors with more reliable and up-to-date information, protecting them from hidden risks. If nothing else, investors should demand that companies implement robust traceability systems out of self-interest to ensure they reduce their specific (unsystematic) risk in their investment. But there are other reasons, both financial and ESG or sustainability-related. Please see “Implementing Traceability: Seeing Through Excuses”.

Ultimately, investors must continue to do their due diligence and not accept the sustainability claims of textile brands and companies at face value. They need to pressure brands and companies to trace and disclose the entire supply chain and publish sound data on ESG metrics such as greenhouse gas emissions and wastewater effluents.

Indeed, not knowing the true number means not knowing the baseline on which the industry can improve. As a result, fashion will remain an impediment to, rather than proponent of, achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement objectives.

1 https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/1/27/21080107/fashion-environment-facts-statistics-impact

2 Transformers Foundation. (2021) Cotton: A case study in misinformation. Please find report here.

3 This phenomenon is also found in academia. “Zombie Research” refers to retracted academic papers still being found in citations today: https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/06/26/zombie-research-haunts-academic-literature-long-after-its-supposed-demise

4 European Commission. (n.d.) Tackling online disinformation. https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/online-disinformation

5 Agricultural water can have a variety of footprints. Green, blue or grey. For more information please see here.

6 Sources of blogs and articles with multiple discreditation:
“The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world”
https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/1/27/21080107/fashion-environment-facts-statistics-impact https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/03/1035161
“Nearly 20 percent of global wastewater is produced by the fashion industry”
“The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions”

7 Chan, E. (2020) 6 ways to be greenwashing vigilant. Vogue.

8 Changing Markets Foundation. (2021) Synthetics anonymous: Fashion brands’ addiction to fossil fuels. http://changingmarkets.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/SyntheticsAnonymous_FinalWeb.pdf

9 European Commission. (2021) Screening of websites for ‘greenwashing’: half of green claims lack evidence. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_269

10 Webb, B. (2021) The big global greenwashing crackdown. Vogue Business. https://www.voguebusiness.com/sustainability/the-big-global-greenwashing-crackdown


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Planet Tracker is a non-profit financial think tank aligning capital markets with planetary boundaries. It was created in 2018 to investigate the risk of market failure related to environmental limits, focusing on oceans, food & land use and materials such as textiles and plastics.

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