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The Biggest Sustainability Themes of 2019? Industry Experts Weigh In.

Last year was a banner year for sustainability. Over the past 12 months, we saw luxury bigwigs like Burberry and Chanel banish fur from their lineups, the discussion about microplastics deepen and innovations centered on circularity in apparel production ramp up.

What will be the big environmental themes of 2019? We asked some of the industry’s leading experts to find out.

Putting the brakes on climate change

Tackling climate change will be a “core focus” for the fashion industry both in 2019 and the future, said Eva Kruse, CEO and president of the Global Fashion Agenda, a sustainability think tank that organizes the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark every summer. Between the most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change report and the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change, “we have seen further willingness to push the fashion sector towards a cleaner, low-carbon future,” she said.

With emissions from textile production projected to rise by more than 6o percent by 2020 if the fashion industry stays on its current course, climate change poses an “unprecedented threat” to both people and the planet, Kruse said.

“Fashion brands have a vital role to play in curtailing global warming,” she added. “The fashion industry is one of the world’s largest and most powerful industries and we must collaborate to move forward as a joint force to future-proof our industry and the planet.”

Corporations will continue to adopt science-based targets to curtail carbon emissions and limit global warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius, agreed Amina Razvi, interim CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a San Francisco-based industry group that includes boldface names like Gap, H&M, Nike, Target and Walmart among its membership.

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“Climate change is our most urgent challenge, and in 2019, corporations will increase and strengthen efforts to combat the effects of global warming,” she added.

With the fashion industry one of the most greenhouse-gas-intensive industries, every company along the garment supply chain needs to ask itself one question, said Kirsten Brodde, project lead of the Detox campaign at Greenpeace: “Are you part of the problem or the solution?”

Ditching virgin plastic

The fossil fuels that still remain in the ground must remain in the ground, affirmed Timo Rissanen, associate dean of the school of constructed environments at Parsons School of Design at The New School.

“Single-use plastics are a pipeline for fossil fuels, and we need to close that pipeline,” he said. “Incinerators, under the guise of ‘waste to energy,’ are another pipeline for fossil fuels, in part via single-use plastics, and we need to close that pipeline as well.”

And though, “realistically,” petroleum-based polyester will retain its grip on garment manufacturing for years to come, the industry must develop recyclable and biodegradable plant-based alternatives to dethrone it.

“This work is urgently needed, and these fibers need the same performance capabilities as petroleum-based polyester,” Rissanen said.

Nurturing regenerative agriculture

Jessie Curry, manager, sustainable business innovation, Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) sees a pathway for brands to address climate concerns through regenerative agriculture, a system of farming principles designed to increase biodiversity, enrich soils, improve watersheds and capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass.

“It’s common industry knowledge that the majority of a brand’s environmental impacts come from their supply chain, specifically, the sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing of these materials for products,” Curry said. “While commonly measured impacts include energy, water, wastewater, eutrophication, pesticide use and greenhouse gases, there is a renewed effort to measure factors such as soil health, biodiversity, ecosystem services and other elements related to the land’s ability to restore its carbon content and improve productivity.”

Several OIA members, she notes, are “actively exploring” regenerative concepts, including The North Face, whose recent Climate Beneficial program Curry cites as a “great example” of this.

“We need a profound transformation in our relationship with what we call ‘nature,’ in seeing ourselves as a part of it rather than above it, and in recognizing that other species have value whether they are useful to us or not,” Rissanen from The New School concurred.

Closing the loop

While driving a circular economy for textiles will remain a focus for brands and retailers, this year will be the year where companies either go big or go home.

“In 2019 we expect to see many innovative technologies and business models to be piloted and to start scaling,” said Katrin Ley, managing director of Amsterdam-based innovation platform Fashion for Good. “Clothing rentals and recommence will start mainstreaming, closed-loop recycling will see breakthroughs and innovative traceability and transparency approaches will prove to be successful. And we believe consumers’ mindset will continue to change towards putting sustainability at the heart of their decision-making.”

Because an estimated 80 percent of a product’s environmental and economic impact is determined at the design stage, design “lies at the heart of a successful circular fashion industry” by encompassing both the durability and recyclability of a product, said Melanie Wijnands, communications manager at Circle Economy, a social enterprise based in the Netherlands.

“Designers need to adopt a more proactive, systems-based approach to product development, by identifying potential barriers to extended use, repair, reuse and recycling at the outset and in doing so, ‘design out’ complicating factors,” Wijnands added. “To do this requires the traditional role of the designer to expand, as they need an up-to-date understanding of the end of life supply chain, including available and upcoming technologies and market developments.”

Destroying unsold stock, à la Burberry before its heel-face turn in September, will be regarded as practically profane. “I think the conversation about the incineration and landfilling of clothing and textiles is only going to get louder,” said Clare Press, sustainability editor-at-large of Australian Vogue and host of the Wardrobe Crisis podcast. “Consumers are getting wise to this, while the industry is waking up the fact that it’s inefficient as well as an environmental nightmare—and bad PR.”

At the same time, the “right to repair” movement is percolating through the unlikeliest channels, said Olivia Sprinkel, head of Salterbaxter North America, which specializes in sustainability strategy and communication.

“When H&M opens a ‘repair and remake’ service in in its new Hammersmith flagship store in London, then it signals the beginning of a shift from boutique to mainstream,” she said. “And more people are getting hands-on in making their own sustainable fashion statement.”

Encouraging alternative consumption

Secondhand will maintain its upward trajectory with an increase in acceptance toward used-clothes purchasing from people who “previously thought secondhand clothes were also second-rate quality,” said Annie Gullingsrud, Fashion Positive Plus Membership lead at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “We will see a shift in mindsets, and a normalization of second, third and fourth hand clothing,” she added.

Certainly, the fashion resale market is growing by “leaps and bounds,” said Pamela Danziger, principal analyst at Unity Marketing. One out of every three women shopped pre-owned in 2018, according to a report by secondhand e-tailer ThredUp, totally 44 million customers compared with 35 million in 2016.

Our lexicon may change, too. ”My speculation is that we will also see a language shift of how we refer to these clothes, because we won’t call them ‘vintage’ if these secondhand clothes are one year old, ‘thrift’ is not sexy and ‘secondhand’ denotes second-rate quality,” Gullingsrud said. Some slicker monikers? “‘New to me,’ ‘leased’ or ‘in circulation,’” she suggested.

We can also expect new tools to facilitate both resale and access over ownership, said Press from Australian Vogue. Startups like Reflaunt, which is using blockchain to help brands gain traceability and control over their secondhand market, will continue to “disrupt the space.”

Showing more, telling more

Simply put, today’s consumers want to know more about what they’re buying, and the social and environmental ethos that drives their preferred brands.

“Specifically, they want to know who made their clothes, whether workers are paid a living wage, if working conditions are safe and whether robust environmental practices have been established and implemented,” she said. “In 2019, we predict companies will connect more deeply with their consumers about sustainability. They will release more information about the millions of garment workers around the world and how resources like water and chemicals are used.”

Any company that doesn’t embrace transparency in 2019 should consider itself a late adopter, said Karen Moon, co-founder and CEO of Trendalytics, a retail intelligence firm in New York City.

“Early adopters that are establishing the new standard—Kering, Reformation and Everlane—not only incorporate transparency in the way they do business, but they are also educating consumers that social responsibility should be an expectation not a marketing gimmick,” Moon said. “It’s not a surprise that these early adopters have had stellar growth and also rank higher in social buzz versus their peer groups. It’s less that sustainability is the core driver of what brings consumers to their brands, but that these brands have the empathy to understand that it matters to their consumers along with having a great product.”

Indeed, 2019 will be the year consumers will begin to lead the demand for sustainable fashion, said Salterbaxter’s Sprinkel. It wasn’t for nothing that fashion search engine Lyst reported a 47 percent increase in sustainability-related terms such as “vegan leather” and “organic cotton,” after all.

“I believe this is only gather to pace this year, particularly with an increase in high-profile sustainable fashion role models such as Meghan Markle wearing more affordable brands and helping to fuel awareness and demand,” Sprinkel said. “The excitement is palpable in regards to certain brands. I heard a very enthusiastic twentysomething outside the new Reformation store in Miami at the end of 2018 say, ‘I can’t believe this has opened here. This is my favorite store!’ Traditional brands are going to need to keep pace with sustainable offerings, and make sure these are easy to search for online as well as find in-store.”

Getting smarter

One way brands might communicate the provenance of their products is by embedding it into the products themselves through a form of digital tagging using RFID (radio-frequency identification) or NFC (near-field communication) technologies.

“2019 will bring a better understanding of how the fashion industry can leverage Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things to bring greater, verified transparency in the fashion supply chain,” said Gullingsrud from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “This year we will see brands exploring how to leverage digital IDs, embedded into the garment, to be able to communicate and pass on the embedded quality and history of a garment.”

Other digital innovations, from Big Data to 3-D modeling, could trim back the boundless waste the apparel industry generates each year.

“More sophisticated consumer insights and processes allow suppliers to manage costs and save time which allows them to be more responsible and nimble with their retail clients,” Moon from Trendalytics said. An example? By embracing new technologies, one of her clients, Hansoll Textile, has managed to reduce the number of its samples by 59 percent while growing its business by double digits.

“This means less sample waste, transportation and all the other externalities that come with excess,” she said.

Cutting-edge innovations, fueled by a desire to upend the status quo, could also take more tangible forms as well. Cruelty for the sake of fashion, for example, is on its way out, as is breeding animals for their fibers or skins, according to Tracy Reiman, executive vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“Because of this progress, high-quality cruelty-free innovations are as ubiquitous as they are kinder to animals and the planet,” she said. “ This year, watch for coconut waste–derived ‘wool,’ biodegradable faux fur and ‘bio-leather’ made from yeast cells to hit the racks—and for ‘vegan’ to be a keyword used by consumers to find them.”