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Three Ways the Fashion Industry Can Boost International Development

Fashion and international development: fast friends or strange bedfellows? Perhaps it’s little bit of both.

Certainly, there’s more to the relationship that meets the eye, according to Jemi Laclé, project manager of data and analytics, energy and extractives global practice at the World Bank Group and Jharonne Martis, director of consumer research at Thomson Reuters.

While the first is focused on of-the-moment design and the second on poverty alleviation, peace and security, the $2.5 trillion fashion industry supports more than 60 million workers throughout the value chain, making it a “significant engine for global development,” they wrote in a blog post for the World Economic Forum earlier this month.

Fashion casts a long shadow, too, in terms of its impact. Clothing and textiles consume—and pollute—a prodigious amount of water; polyester microfibers add to ever-growing amounts of plastic in the oceans; and growing cotton increases toxic chemical use in agriculture. And that’s without going into gender, human and labor rights, Laclé and Martis said.

“It is obvious that the fashion industry should redesign its social and environmental footprint,” they said. “It should be more mindful of diminishing natural resources, environmental pollution and the exploitation of nature, people and animals, and it should tackle unequal distribution of commodities.”

While fashion industry wants to “talk the talk” on transparency, ethical standards and reducing environmental degradation, it hasn’t always “walked the walk,” Laclé and Martis said.

“If fashion houses really want to remain avant-garde, they must redesign their thinking beyond next season, and take part in the sustainable fashion revolution,” they added, noting the three primary routes brands and retailers can take to tackle their issues. 

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Be more ethical

Simply embracing International Labour Organization standards can kick-start a slew of improvements regarding fair compensation to workers and healthy, safe working environments that eschew child labor and slavery, Laclé and Martis said.

Such a shift could create a domino effect by benefiting animal welfare, as in the case of fur-nixing luxury houses like Burberry, Gucci and Michael Kors, or by galvanizing groundbreaking innovations.

Stella McCartney, an industry leader, has shown commitment to disruptive fashion innovation,” they said. “Her brand has shifted to ‘vegan fashion,’ using fungi instead of leather, and replacing silk with yeast proteins.”

Increase transparency

Opaque business models will no longer pass muster, Laclé and Martis declared. Consumers are now “putting fashion houses on the spot” by demanding they report and share their supply-chain policies and practices.  

“Increased transparency is crucial,” they said. “It will lead to more accountability and ultimately push for change in the way fashion business is conducted.”

For most businesses, opening up won’t be easy. Thomas Reuters Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) data reveals that the sustainability practices of many brands and retailers are “not up to par,” Laclé and Martis said. To wit: Although an increasing number of companies are exposing their inner workings to public scrutiny, only 37 percent of 150 brands surveyed were publishing their Tier 1 supplier lists in 2018.

Design out waste

Fashion must move away from the linear “take-make-dispose” industrial model to a circular approach that focuses on “restorative, reformative and transformative design,” Laclé and Martis said.

Brands that want to do better can look into Cradle to Cradle–inspired initiatives that close the product life-cycle loop through reuse, repurposing and recycling. One example, is Adidas, which partners with Parley for the Oceans to create shoes using ocean waste.

“Due to the products’ overwhelming success, the companies have decided to ramp up their eco-friendly collaboration with a long-term sustainability framework,” they said.