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What’s Holding Up Sustainable Change for Fashion Players?

The world population is growing rapidly. High birth rates in large parts of the world, low infant mortality, longer life expectancy, increased food production and improvement of public health with technological advances have contributed to a steady rise in the global population. The current 7.7 billion worldwide population is set to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100, according to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

And all this while our planet and natural resources remain finite.

What’s more, our habits toward disposable fashion and discarding products before the end of their useful life is overflowing landfills around the world. This fuels an incessant need to use earth’s limited resources.

Consumers want the fashion industry to be more sustainable and are shifting their spending toward companies and products they perceive as more environmentally and socially responsible. Even governments and lawmakers are increasingly becoming vocal and drafting laws to drive sustainability and circularity in fashion supply chains.

The writing is on the wall—fashion in its current form is not sustainable and an urgent change is needed. Every stakeholder wants it, even the industry wants it, but why aren’t we seeing a mass shift of supply chains toward sustainability and sustainable products? What’s holding up the change?

There are a few issues inhibiting this transformation.

No scalable “gold standard” for sustainable supply chains

A sustainable or non-sustainable supply chain is not a choice a brand makes during the course of business. The current state of fashion manufacturing and supply chains doesn’t meet today’s challenges but the industry lacks an ideal model of a sustainable supply chain for a fashion brand to mimic. Transitioning to a sustainable supply chain will entail a hard look at internal processes and a sustained engagement with their supply chain stakeholders to drive this change.

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There’s a lack of common understanding of ‘sustainable products’

One of the common challenges within the fashion industry, which also applies to consumers and stakeholders, is that there is no common understanding of what a sustainable product is.

Take this example: Of two dresses, one is made with viscose and the other uses polyester. Viscose rayon is made from wood pulp, which can have an impact on forests around the world. Polyester does not biodegrade and stays in landfills for a long time.

Now, if a consumer wants to pick the most sustainable product, she is looking at a choice between a non-degradable landfill waste versus something that is a byproduct of forests, perhaps even an endangered one, and sometimes both choices can be equally non-sustainable.

What causes this dilemma is that there is no industry-wide understanding of which product is sustainable and to what scale, which would make it easier for brands and consumers to make clear comparisons.

Change is slow: investment, technology and culture dictate behavior

Anyone who has driven change knows that when it comes to people, change can be slow. And in the case of a shift toward sustainability, there are dependencies on technology, investments in production infrastructure and the culture and mindset in an industry that finds its origins with the start of civilization. As such, it could be easy to underestimate the culture shift necessary for supply chains and how powerful that can be in driving behavior.

On a visit to a large knit fabric mill in China a few years back, I was pleased to see the facility had started replacing its old dyeing machines with modern ones that used less water per kilogram of fabric. The head of the dyeing house was somewhat pleased with the change because the facility was able to save on water and energy costs. However, as an expert technician who had been dyeing fabric for more than 20 years, he admitted the new machines weren’t as good as the old ones.

The hand feel and aesthetics of the fabrics, he said, had diminished and the fabric felt harsher, plus there was more uneven shading in the fabric as a result of using less water. The choice he had to make was either to go with the less sustainable option or make quality compromises that could impact sales. But moving to the more sustainable option was an “unavoidable future,” he said.

It took four weeks of iterations and lots of experimentation with the fabric to finally achieve the same quality with the new dyeing machines. But this experience is symptomatic of the conversations needed within the supply chain in the change toward a more sustainable future. The vast majority of brands still do not have visibility or control over their supply chains to facilitate the conversation between the brand and actual raw material or finished goods producer, and this continues to pose a challenge.

Shorter product cycles, increased need for speed impact sustainability

The last two decades have seen a dramatic shortening of fashion product life cycles where the whole development, production, transportation and consumption of fashion products is happening faster. We could call it the ‘fast fashion’ effect, but there’s no denying that this evolution was also driven by smart business optimization and reducing the lag between demand for a product and its supply, and considering the lowest possible quantity needed to meet that demand.

However, this shortening of life cycles in a global supply chain has had a significant impact on increasing air and road freights—whether it’s getting raw materials to factories, finished goods to distribution centers or even fulfillment of e-commerce deliveries to customers from these distribution centers. Most companies are aware of the high carbon footprint this speed-driven logistics model demands, as compared to sea or rail, but changing the mode of transport would mean losing customers who need faster deliveries, which proves yet another challenge.

Greenwashing: the unfortunate truth

Greenwashing is when a company takes strides to make itself look more environmentally friendly than it actually is, and this unfortunate—and prevalent—practice discourages brands and other players in the fashion supply chain from making genuine efforts to improve the sustainability of their processes and products.

There is no shortage of challenges in the road to sustainability, but the obstacles, however many, have never held back the committed from making a difference and innovating to find new solutions to every challenge.

Fashion brands that control, manage and take accountability of their global supply chains will be the ones able to drive change and fulfill the needs of their customers, and will be rewarded by the potential of a large, underserved market for sustainable products.

Roit Kathiala has led sourcing, production and supply teams with some of the leading global fashion retailers in Europe, Asia and North America. In addition to his years of industry experience he advises leading fashion companies on their sustainability, sourcing and supply chain strategies and transformations.