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Report: How the Pandemic Has Strengthened Fashion’s Sustainability Purpose

After a year of Covid-19, it’s become clear that the coronavirus crisis hasn’t dampened the fashion industry’s commitments to sustainability. On the contrary, in many cases it’s accelerated efforts to use fashion as a force for good.

During production and retail slowdowns or shutdowns, companies had time to focus their efforts on improving their carbon footprints and impacts on employees and global communities. Sourcing Journal’s Sustainability Report digs into companies’ advancements and targets, looking at how environmental and social actions are tracked and measured. It also investigates the relationship between sustainability and finance, a topic that has been top of mind in a year when much of the industry faced commercial hurdles.

“Crises are incredible inflection points because they allow opportunities to reflect on how [we got] to this point and what needs to change as we move forward,” said Amina Razvi, the executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, in the report.

One of the driving forces for the apparel and footwear business’ sustainability upswing is consumers’ heightened awareness of the environmental and social tolls of conventional production. With more time to research and consider their relationship to their possessions, consumers are shopping with more intent.

“We believe the investment in sustainable creation and products is not only worth it in environmental returns, but it’s what consumers are looking for when they make purchasing decisions, even during the pandemic,” Amy Roberts, senior director of sustainability and social impact for The North Face, said in the report. Over the past year, The North Face maintained its push toward recycled materials—such as post-consumer plastic inputs—and is planning to continue to ramp up these efforts.

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In 2020, brands including Chanel, VF Corporation and Adidas adopted green bonds as a way to tie fundraising to specific eco targets and activities such as carbon reduction and recycled material usage. Companies are also being judged by potential investors for their environmental, social and governance data. While ESG has been considered before, in 2021 and beyond it is expected to become an even more important factor, partly because of the impact it can have on asset performance.

As the pandemic stretches into 2021, companies are continuing to invest in sustainability. Earlier this year, Abercrombie & Fitch signed a long-term agreement to source renewable energy to power its Ohio-based headquarters and distribution centers. In its own 2021 moves, VF Corporation committed to ditching single-use plastic packaging by 2025, and Ralph Lauren introduced Color on Demand, which it intends to be the first scalable cotton dyeing system with zero wastewater. Members of the Fashion Pact also banded together earlier this year to launch a biodiversity protection initiative.

Social compliance and causes have remained in place as well during Covid-19. Nike announced escalated diversity goals, including spending $1 billion with “diverse suppliers” and reaching 35 percent ethnic and racial minority representation in vice presidential roles by 2025.

Outland Denim has prided itself on supporting its workforce through living wages, and it continued this commitment even when its production was stopped or at a bare minimum in 2020. Outland’s founder and CEO James Bartle explained why brands should not chase margins at the cost of workers’ welfare. “I would rather our brand go down doing the right thing than be highly profitable doing the wrong thing,” he said.

Measuring and monetization

It’s one thing to make commitments, but companies also need measurement systems in place to assess their progress.

In 2020, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) saw the number of facilities certified to its standard rise 34 percent, reaching a new high point. And in 2021, GOTS introduced the 6.0 version of its standard, which features more stringent benchmarks. Cradle to Cradle has similarly unveiled a 4.0 edition of its Certified Product Standard, which lays out new and expanded requirements.

2021 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which aimed to standardize value chain measurements through tools like the Higg Index. It also brought competitors together to work toward a common goal, and over the past decade it gathered more than 250 partners including Gap and H&M.

As companies look to more accurately measure the impact of their supply chains, they need visibility. A growing number of brands—including McQ and Reformation—have leveraged blockchain to follow the production of goods throughout the supply chain. Having a digital record allows companies to not only meet regulatory needs, but it also unlocks the ability to tell a more comprehensive product story to customers. With circularity a top goal for fashion, digitization provides peace of mind in the secondary market that goods are authentic, and it can also share data so that recyclers know the actual fabric content in a garment.

While traceability requires an investment, there are untapped financial opportunities if companies can monetize garments’ end of life. A report estimates that circularity could add an extra $2 trillion in value for the industry.

“Right now, when a brand sells a product, they don’t participate in a resale revenue; they don’t participate or benefit the more that product is used,” said Natasha Franck, founder and CEO of Eon, in the report.

Learn more the state of sustainability goals, measurements and investments. Download Sourcing Journal’s Sustainability Reporting Report 2021 here.