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Why is It So Hard to Make Fashion Sustainable?

There’s no doubt the fashion industry has made strides in sustainability. A decade ago, the issue wasn’t even a blip on the radar of most brands and retailers. Today, H&M is slinging around words like “organic” and “recycled,” Zara is refashioning its fabric waste into new garments and Asos is talking about circular-design strategies.

And when Forever 21 is hawking organic-cotton leggings, you know something’s in the water.

In fact, roughly 52 percent of the apparel executives interviewed by the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) for its 2018 “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” report affirmed that sustainability targets serve as as a “guiding principle” for almost every strategic decision they make. The number of executives who said they have multiple sustainability targets within their companies also rose from 56 percent in 2017 to 66 percent this year.

That’s not to say everything’s coming up roses for one of the world’s most polluting sector—far from it. Nearly a third of companies are still not acting on sustainability, the report noted. Even among brands and retailers that are incorporating sustainability into their business models, both the top and the weakest performers have lagged different reasons, according to GFA, which organizes the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark every May. Short-lived capsule collections that feature organic or recycled materials are still more prevalent than permanent, systemic change. 

So what’s holding them back? Katie Smith, director of analysis and insights at Edited, a retail-technology firm based in London, New York and San Francisco, has a few ideas.

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Achieving sustainability takes work—real work, not just lip service—Smith wrote in a blog post, because the supply chain is so vast and complex. Indeed, achieving transparency in a labyrinthine supply chain built to be opaque can be a “logistical nightmare,” Smith said.

Moving manufacturing sites closer to home and strengthening oversight won’t be easy, either. “Cheaper manufacture in Asia has deskilled alternative sites closer to retail destination,” she added.

The availability of ecologically low-impact yet desirable fabrics is another issue. Consumers love color, and saturated hues are especially de rigueur. But achieving color-fastness requires toxic dyes, Smith said. Natural dyes like pomegranate, indigo, rhubarb and turmeric are difficult to scale and still achieve consistent results, making them unsuitable for the mass market.

There can be a vicious cycle at play as well: Brands don’t adopt sustainable fabrics because their minimums are so much higher. At the same time, high minimums are a direct result of lower demand, and lower demand breeds a smaller selection of fabrics and trims to be creative with.

Brands and retailers are also averse to reputational risk, Smith suggested. What if that new fabric or process turns out to be unsustainable and hurtful to their brand image in the long term?

Not everyone is cowed by these challenges, however. “Thankfully, there are a handful of brave brands and retailers who haven’t let these problems hold them back,” Smith said. “And there’s so much the rest of the industry can learn from them.”

She applauds brands like Eileen Fisher, Reformation, Everlane, Nike, Patagonia and Stella McCartney for leading the charge to make the industry greener and more ethical.  These companies, she said, manage to put fashion first without costing the planet. Considering that fit, pricing and style consistently outstrip sustainability in the minds of most consumer, it’s the right tack to take.

Brands and retailers must not shy away from sustainability, but they shouldn’t turn it into the S-word, either, she said.

“You don’t want to find yourself preaching to an unengaged consumer about values they’re not fully committed to,” Smith said. “Gentle education with an aesthetic that speaks to consumers’ current lives is the best way to move towards the future.”