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Despite Unprecedented Challenges, Fashion Leans Into Sustainability

Throughout the fashion industry, the impact of Covid-19 defines how we look at the future. The pandemic is our top concern.   What we know so far is that Covid-19 has disrupted global supply chains, closed retail stores, furloughed our colleagues and kept consumers at home. While we all respond to this crisis, there is one optimistic sign for the future: sustainability remains a priority for the fashion industry.

The United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) in conjunction with Dr. Sheng Lu, Associate Professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies, recently published the seventh annual Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study. Findings from the study make it clear that U.S. fashion companies are not ignoring sustainability during the pandemic.

In fact, more than 70 percent of survey respondents plan to allocate more resources to sustainability and social compliance in the next two years, compared to 63 percent of respondents in 2019.

Even companies that do not plan to increase the budget remain strong in their support for sustainability. One respondent summed up the current situation, “Indicating that we are cutting budgets for sustainability does NOT reflect decreased support for sustainability, just that like all functions in the organization, they will have to operate with less.”

In addition to more financial resources for sustainability and social compliance, 90 percent of respondents plan to increase hiring in the next five years, especially for sustainability/social compliance-related specialists or managers.

This is great news! But what I think is even more exciting, and why we want to share these insights, is what sourcing executives see as the future of sustainability and what we like to call Conscious Fashion. In this year’s benchmarking survey, we asked an open-ended question to learn what brands and retailers are doing in support of circularity in the fashion business. Companies were asked to share their initiatives to design out waste and pollution, as well as how to keep products and materials in use through recycling and reuse.

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There are two clear trends. First, many companies are purposefully moving away from “fast fashion.”  This trend has accelerated during the pandemic. Brands and retailers say they are creating products that are higher quality and “will last longer than our competitors.” This is an important step and consumers are responsive. Plus, of course, the move away from “fast fashion” will also help cut back on waste.

Second, many brands and retailers are embracing the use of recycled fibers, yarns and fabrics in their design.  There are many options today and manufacturers are continuing to develop more innovative products.  In our survey, sourcing executives confirmed that these sustainability discussions are part of the product development process.

How can we encourage this interest in Conscious Fashion?

Let’s start by joining with organizations that bring together companies across the supply chain. For example, USFIA introduced members to Accelerating Circularity earlier this year. Accelerating Circularity is a collaborative industry initiative committed to accelerate the use of circular supply chains. The goal is to use the embedded value and resources in existing textiles for new products, reducing the millions of tons of textile waste annually going into landfills and thereby supporting the reduction of the industry’s GHG emissions. We will be featuring their work in a webinar this Fall.

Companies also are expanding their interest in working with on-line sources of information. During 2020, USFIA’s Innovation Partner is Material Exchange, an online platform that allows brands, suppliers and manufacturers to connect and share materials information digitally. The ability to shift product development and materials sourcing data online helps to reduce costs and increase speed, and improves sustainability in the design process. We are excited to see that they are partnering with Kingpins to expand the opportunity to source materials online.

Finally, it remains essential for brands and retailers to work with their partners in the supply chain to guarantee that sustainability is a priority.  As one brand told us, it is committed to long-term partnerships with its suppliers so that manufacturers know they have the financial support to invest in the capabilities that are already out there. We are proud to share these insights about the commitment from brands and retailers, and USFIA is excited to be a part of the solutions for the industry.

Julia K. Hughes is president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association.