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3 Sustainability Topics Retailers Need to Know for 2021

The events of 2020 will forever impact the way fashion operates. The global pandemic, as well as the economic and civil hardships that followed, exposed many deep-rooted problems within the fashion industry, including wasteful habits, environmentally destructive practices and a lack of diversity throughout.

As retailers plan for the new year, they’re taking with them all of the lessons learned from some of the most challenging moments in recent history. In a new report, retail market intelligence platform Edited reviewed the key topics in sustainability retailers need to know in order to navigate 2021.

The pandemic flung climate change into the spotlight when industries were forced to shut down. Edited reported that Covid-19 resulted in the greatest drop in global CO2 emissions since World War II, with the most significant reductions registered to France and the U.K.

Though the fashion industry has more work to do to achieve emission goals set in the Paris Climate Agreement, the sector did play a role the recent reduction. Case in point: events like New York Fashion Week can generate between 40,000 tons to 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide as a result of air travel, product shipping and venue emissions, Edited noted. By continuing to hold events virtually even after restrictions lift, the industry can further alleviate some of its environmental burden.

The fast-fashion sector is also being challenged to scale back its SKU volume moving forward—a move that would help retailers align with changing consumer values instead of flooding the “market with newness.”

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“Retailers need to hold themselves accountable with an action plan to reshape their most carbon-intensive processes such as fabric sourcing, shipping and electricity use,” Edited stated, noting that retailers can consider carbon-positive shipping and other incentives to encourage consumers to use renewable sources of energy.

For these same reasons, Edited said circularity will continue to be a subject of focus.

Though rental services slowed during the pandemic, resale is booming. Mainstream fashion brands like Levi’s and Guess recently established resale programs, while luxury players like Gucci are turning to The RealReal to dabble in the growing secondhand market.

As a result, the report urged retailers to incorporate some element of circularity, whether that means investing in in-store repair services, developing a resale initiative, or offering buyback programs for used garments.

Intersectional environmentalism will be a bigger factor in business’ sustainability strategies moving forward as well.  The term, which describes a type of environmentalism that protects planet and marginalized communities, spiked in worldwide Google search results between May and June when the U.S. was experiencing extreme civil unrest.

Fashion brands, however, pledged to do better and responded with action plans. Brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Levi’s pledged to diversify their workforce and spearhead inclusion efforts for years to come.

“Retailers can no longer afford to not show up,” Edited stated. “Their support needs to be authentic, going beyond solidarity posts and embedding diversity in their core values to drive actual change with tangible and transparent results.”

Others such as Outland Denim and Nudie Jeans examined unfair treatment throughout their supply chains. The companies created a plan to support workers on Turkey’s organic cotton farms, which supply both brands with the cotton they use to create their denim.

“While great strides have been made, retailers need to continue raising awareness and championing environmental and social justice all year round,” Edited stated. “The reckoning from 2020 can’t afford to lose steam and needs to carry through to 2021 and beyond.”