In summary: Challenges and opportunities for sustainability.
Consumers demand change: Younger consumers (particularly Gen Z) are more conscientious about the impact of what they consume.
Regulation will be key: Better scrutiny of the practices of major brands may help, but it’s tough to police global supply chains.
Balance of responsibility: Both consumers and the fashion industry need to handle this responsibility of sustainability.
The ecological burden of the clothing industry is a considerable one. Fast fashion fills landfill; global supply networks mean a single item of clothing can clock up thousands of air miles. There’s also the chemical toll from bleaching and dyeing clothes, the heavy use of water, the cotton industry’s massive insecticide use, and the leather industry’s consumption of toxic chemicals.
The fashion industry has always been keen to jump on new trends and try out fad ideas. There’s no shortage of examples of designers experimenting with greener materials, such as fabrics made of hemp, bamboo, or discarded orange peel. But is the world’s second-largest polluter actually making real changes in this area?
As emerging markets raise lifestyle expectations for millions of people, there’s an expanding base of consumers and rising demand for apparel. The weight of the fashion industry grows heavier as demand increases, and there are new factors to consider, such as climate change affecting agricultural practices and water availability.
These problems aren’t going away; addressing them will take more than a few designers playing around with unbleached cotton for their next collection.
Consumer demand for responsible fashion
Consumers aren’t unaware of these sustainability concerns, and that concern is increasingly becoming evident in the consumer mainstream. There’s evidence that younger consumers (particularly Gen Z) are more conscientious about the impact of what they consume.
Consumers increasingly expect brands to share their values, and in a competitive marketplace, brands are under pressure to align themselves with consumer expectations.
But do any of these pressures translate into real and lasting change in the fashion industry – or is the industry simply ‘greenwashing’ in a paper-thin attempt to please consumers?
The same industry produces a metric tonne of harmful chemical waste for every pair of trainers made from recycled ocean plastic. And even if the industry follows better manufacturing practices, our habit of shipping clothes worldwide tends to undo these benefits.
The serious movement towards sustainability will only likely occur if it’s in the industry’s interests. Better scrutiny of the practices of major brands may help, but it’s tough to police global supply chains.
Part of the problem is that businesses must take the long-term view or see the bigger picture as they battle for immediate competitive advantage.
One option would be to improve international regulation and ensure there are disincentives to follow non-sustainable practices and incentives to find better solutions. Fining polluters, a solution proposed in China, remains an option. But it takes work to keep track of complex supply chains and agree on a global solution.
If one country imposes fines on polluters, production will inevitably move to a market without penalties.
One area where there’s been real and lasting progress in reducing the industry’s footprint is logistics. Cross-border eCommerce is notorious for clocking up air miles, and that’s also a significant financial burden on fashion retailers.
Solutions have emerged that improve the efficiencies of the returns management process and have the additional advantage of reducing carbon emissions. These include aggregating cross-border returns in local warehouses so that items are shipped back to the home market in bulk rather than individually.
The most keenly-adopted changes in the cutthroat fashion industry also help boost competitiveness. Better returns management is an example where the industry is reducing its footprint, and it’s likely to be sustainable because it’s beneficial to the bottom line.
It’s often said that self-regulation is no regulation, and the industry’s moves to clean up its act should be met with the stone-cold cynicism it deserves. One such move is the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), an alliance of retailers, brands, and suppliers looking to create an index to measure social and environmental impact.
The Higg Index is meant to help companies evaluate their suppliers by encouraging factories to assess their own impact across measures such as energy use. But it’s a self-assessment tool, making it hard to judge accuracy, and there’s been very slow adoption across suppliers. Eventually, the plan is to put the measure on garment labels, allowing consumers to assess the impact for themselves.
The industry is shifting onto consumers the tradeoff between sustainability measurements and other factors such as clothing cost.
It remains to be seen how consumers handle this responsibility. Although consumers regularly claim to care about sustainability, this only sometimes translates into practice at the tills. The fact is consumer addiction to fast, cheap fashion is behind the problems of the industry.
Historically, garment manufacturing has been a way for populations and entire countries to lift themselves out of poverty.
Today it’s a key contributor to the economy of countries including Vietnam and China, just as it once was to the UK. It’s hard to see how there wouldn’t be political resistance to anything making clothing manufacturing less competitive and less profitable.
While the fashion industry’s sustainability challenges are significant, there are reasons to be optimistic. With increased awareness and consumer demand, brands are already taking action to reduce their ecological footprint.
Collaboration between industry players and governments can also lead to better global standards and practices. While change won’t happen overnight, it’s clear that progress is being made, and the future of sustainable fashion looks brighter than ever.