Sustainability has moved from the corners and edges of the apparel industry over the past few years to take its place as a primary concern as executives have come to realize that not only can it curb negative impacts on the environment, but more responsible practices can also drive transparency in their organizations, create efficiencies in their processes and insulate them from risk.
Large organizations from Levi’s to Primark have set aggressive sustainability goals while increasingly emerging brands are launching with sustainability as one of their key pillars.
Despite these efforts, the reality is that a huge swath of the industry has yet to make any meaningful steps toward becoming more responsible. According to Morton Lehmann, chief sustainability officer for Global Fashion Agenda, 40 percent of the apparel industry has yet to get started. Further, the GFA’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 report stated that the rate of measurable progress for the industry overall decreased by one-third from 2018 to 2019.
While those statistics are anything but encouraging, there is a plethora of examples of stakeholders all along the supply chain that are making meaningful progress in areas like raw materials, waste management, resource reduction and chemical usage. These organizations are leading by example and illustrating what can be achieved—and given the forces driving sustainability forward, the momentum is likely to continue.
The new consumer
Driven by a growing awareness of the dangers of the climate crisis, shoppers are becoming more thoughtful in their purchases. This is particularly true for Gen Z consumers. A recent survey by McKinsey & Company found that the majority of this cohort (70 percent) seeks out ethical companies and 65 percent say they’re willing to put in the effort to research everything about the products they purchase.
For fashion firms that have yet to make sustainability a priority—or those hoping to get by with a little greenwashing—the most important finding from the McKinsey poll may be that 80 percent of these shoppers will boycott a company that gets embroiled in a scandal. So, for instance, if the label reads organic but that product proves to be anything but, it could result in irreparable damage to brand equity and the bottom line.
For that reason, transparency has joined sustainability as a focus for some apparel companies. Sourcing Journal’s 2019 Transparency Report revealed the results of an industry-wide survey in which 30 percent of respondents admitted that consumer pressure was the catalyst for the move toward greater transparency.
Want to know where any industry is headed? Follow the money.
And in fashion, investors are focused on mitigating risk, which is why sustainability has become a top metric by which companies are measured. Beyond protecting firms against potential consumer backlash, sustainability efforts also signal to investors that steps are being taken to insulate against myriad threats like drought or floods or even a future in which the raw materials of today are much less plentiful.
And for this group, transparency is again paired with sustainability.
Rogier van Mazijk, investment manager at Fashion for Good, said transparency “facilitates improved mitigation of supply chain risks, decreases exposure to negative press around environmental and social [corporate responsibility], and enables better portfolio diversification of the risks relating to geographies or agri products.”
In a note published by McKinsey in August, the firm highlighted the needs the investor community has around sustainability reporting—and why the current method of reporting is falling short. Given that there are almost a dozen major frameworks for sustainability reporting, the firm found it’s difficult to get the information they need and equally hard to compare data sets between companies. The consulting company reported that 85 percent of investors said greater standardization would help their firms allocate capital more effectively, while 83 percent said it would allow their firms to manage risk better.
When it comes to climate change, and how to reverse it, there are countless initiatives working toward educating the industry as well as consumers on better practices and potential solutions.
Among the most widely respected is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which provides thought leadership, educational tools and actionable frameworks for moving toward a circular economy. For instance, over the summer the organization introduced the Jeans Redesign Guidelines, which set out minimum requirements for garment durability, material health, recyclability, and traceability in the denim industry.
Similarly, the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard is recognized as a leading benchmark for responsible production and consumption. The standard aims to help designers and manufacturers optimize and verify products for the circular economy and encourages innovation to maximize the positive impacts of their products and materials.
The Global Fashion Agenda has set out to spark bold and urgent action on sustainability. To that end the non-profit hosts the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which brings together players from the industry, government, science and more to drive innovation through collaboration. GFA’s 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment set 213 targets across 90 signatories with the goal of transitioning the industry to circularity.
Over the past seven years, the Detox My Clothes campaign from Greenpeace has set out to address the widespread use of hazardous chemicals in the manufacturing of clothes. Eighty brands committed to achieving zero discharges of hazardous chemicals by 2020. As of 2018, 72 percent had completely eliminated PFCs from products and an equal number were actively working toward disclosing their tier 2 and tier 3 suppliers.
By amplifying the need and creating tools for industry insiders to use, initiatives like these are removing any excuses that existed related to inaction.
Brands & retailers
While some brands and retailers stand still, notable brands like Patagonia, Everlane and Reformation are helping to set consumer expectations around sustainability and transparency. Their efforts put pressure on their competitors and demands on supply chain partners to follow suit.
Among its many sustainability goals, Patagonia is striving to become carbon positive, meaning the company will take more carbon out of the atmosphere than it puts in. To do that will mean transforming its supply chain, chiefly its raw materials, which currently account for 86 percent of the brand’s emissions. To meet this goal, Patagonia has pledged to only use renewable or recycled materials in its assortment by 2025.
And the company is not alone. Brands and retailers are embracing sustainability in a variety of ways. Chanel invested in Evolved by Nature, a green chemistry company offering liquid silk, a process in which natural silk dissolves into water and can replace petrochemicals in providing textile performance.
Fast-fashion retailer H&M is embracing materials made from agriwaste. In its latest Conscious Exclusive collection, the company debuted a jacket made with silver Piñatex, a leather alternative derived from waste pineapple leaves, and a corset- style top composed of Orange Fiber, a silk-like textile produced using citrus byproducts. Urban Outfitters has launched Nuuly, an apparel renting service that encourages fashion fans to borrow rather than buy. And Italian fashion house Prada has halted the use of fur, starting with its spring/summer 2020 women’s collection.
These visible changes and investments serve as examples within the industry and conversation starters among the shopping public.
To ensure sustainability doesn’t stall or fall victim to budget cuts, various governments around the world are creating legislation that dictates that all sectors, including fashion, clean up their acts.
For instance, France recently passed legislation to end the widespread practice of destroying unsold clothes and luxury goods. The new law would reportedly will save almost 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) worth of unsold items from ending up in landfills or destroyed each year.
France has also launched a global fashion-industry sustainability drive to spark progress on issues including ocean health, biodiversity and climate change. French president Emmanuel Macron appointed Kering CEO Francois-Henri Pinault to lead the charge that will include targets on eliminating disposable plastics within three years or converting to renewable energy sources by 2030.
Further, the European Union (EU) has adopted restrictions on the use of 33 hazardous substances in clothing, footwear and other textile articles based on recommendations by the European Chemicals Agency and “following broad consultations with stakeholders,” the European Commission announced last year.
The measures are designed to protect the health of European citizens by limiting their exposure to CMR chemicals—or substances classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic for reproduction—that may be “particularly harmful” when in frequent contact with human skin.
Taken together, governmental, industry, NGO, investor and consumer efforts and awareness will serve as 5 key driving forces of sustainability in the months and years ahead. And the momentum around sustainability is being matched by a demand for accountability.
With this in mind, it’s more important than ever to have visibility in to the supply chain. Topo Solutions provides a customizable compliance platform that enables stakeholders to continuously amass and assess relevant data. The company offers lab tests, water and air tests for production facilities, as well as social and environmental audits, all of which enable clients to conform to industry-wide sustainability standards and ensure they’re on track to reach their sustainability goals.
For more on how Topo Solutions can help your company achieve its sustainability goals, visit Topo.cc.