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Fashion’s Sustainability Push Isn’t Keeping Up With Growth

All the recycled water-bottle sneakers, organic cotton tote bags, and mushroom-leather belts on retailers’ shelves last season weren’t enough to turn back the dial on the fashion industry’s environmental footprint.

The industry’s progress on improving its environmental and social impact isn’t moving fast enough to counteract its rapid growth, according to a report by consultancy BCG and sustainable fashion groups. Progress at making and implementing commitments like reducing carbon emissions and water use, boosting the use of sustainable materials, and paying fairer wages was slower in 2018 than in the previous year, the report found.

The worldwide apparel and footwear market’s expected growth, pegged at around 5 percent a year through 2030 by Euromonitor analysts, risks “exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources” by raising annual production of fashion to more than 100 million tons, the report said.

“The industry really needs to pick up the pace. Brands are improving at a slower rate and at the same time we’re seeing a huge production increase,” said Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer of the Global Fashion Agenda, one of the groups sponsoring the report.

Fashion companies across the price spectrum, from fast-fashion giant Hennes & Mauritz AB to luxury outfits like Gucci owner Kering SA and LVMH, have announced new commitments on sustainability in recent years. Consumers and regulators alike are increasingly concerned about the costs of the fast-moving industry, whose carbon emissions are estimated to be more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Outcry over some of the industry’s most visible excesses—such as high-end players destroying unsold stock to prevent selling at steep discounts—have led brands like Burberry Group Plc to ramp up efforts on recycling and reusing materials. Kering is looking for ways to make raw materials like cotton and cashmere more traceable so that it can impose more rigorous standards on its suppliers.

But surging demand for fashion—led by developing countries and particularly China— means that these changes are rarely enough to reduce brands’ environmental impact in absolute terms.

Recycled Fabrics

A spokeswoman for H&M said the report didn’t fully reflect progress companies made on implementing existing commitments. The Swedish retailer has reduced its overall carbon emissions by 11 percent since 2017 and has boosted the use of recycled and organic cotton.

Nike Inc. is moving toward the use of renewable power for all its North American and European operations under new energy-purchasing agreements, a representative said. The company has also rolled out more sustainable techniques like woven “Flyknit” uppers — which reduce waste from cutting and stitching fabric — and recycled leather fiber in shoes.

One reason progress is slowing overall is that many smaller bargain brands, as well as companies producing clothes sold informally in street markets, have yet to take steps on improving sustainability. Those categories include few household names, but add up to around 30 percent of the global fashion market, the report said.

Sustainability is increasingly becoming a selling point for customers. More than a third said they had already switched brands when they were offered an alternative that stands for more positive environmental or social practices, the study found, and more than half said they planned to do so in the future.

Reporting by Robert Williams.