Sustainability is the new black: Fashion firms leading the way
Fashion is an innovative industry; every season there are new trends and styles to engage the audience. Is environmental sustainability the latest trend?
Over the last few years, consumers have been demanding more environmentally friendly clothes, from the materials of which they are made to how they are disposed of when they reach the end of their usable life. This has led to a range of new businesses being established, such as fashion swapping apps, clothing rental companies and makers that use more innovative raw materials such as bamboo.
Key environmental sustainability issues facing the fashion industry
Procurement and manufacture: The sourcing of raw materials and processing techniques used to create clothes can cause significant harm to the environment. Obtaining raw materials can rely on intensive agriculture for natural fibres or oil extraction for synthetic materials. Processes used to manufacture clothing, such as dyeing, can be highly polluting and can use large amounts of water, often in water-scarce countries. The use of these processes can result in significant carbon emissions, and critically, significant harm to wildlife and ecosystems.
Although bright dyes are colourful and eye-catching, they often require toxic and non-biodegradable chemicals (Image source: Rod Long on Unsplash).
Waste: It is estimated that 80 billion items of clothing are sold each year, and once a piece of clothing has been used, its primary destination is landfill. This uses vast areas of land and pollutes surrounding areas when the items decompose. The use of plastics in clothes and the resulting microplastics produced during washing and landfill are impacting aquatic ecosystems around the world.
Low margins: The low margins faced by the fashion industry, especially those companies engaged in fast fashion and therefore with the largest impact, act as a blocker to investing in sustainability innovation. This can prevent the use of more sustainable but more expensive procurement and processing techniques.
Tackling this issue
These challenges are real, but not insurmountable. Below, we have outlined four primary areas where the fashion industry could focus to deliver impactful sustainability improvements.
Develop new business offerings and business models: New lines or products could be developed using more sustainable materials. For example, outdoor clothing company Patagonia is using 88% recycled polyester and fashion brand BAM uses bamboo viscose for many of its products. Developing new products will open new markets and will help maintain or improve market share. Alternatively, more radical business model changes could be adopted, including adding a clothing rental section or becoming a clothes recycler, such as the online company Thrift+, that provides a platform to resell and purchase quality assured second-hand products.
Recycled polyester can be made from items such as nylon from fishing nets or plastic bottles (Image source: Hà Nguyễn on Unsplash)
Transparency within supply chains: Suppliers have an integral role in the delivery of products and therefore play an important role in making fashion more sustainable. Setting up new programmes to educate suppliers on the most sustainable practices and investing to support changes in production or processes can lead to wide-ranging change without radical effects on the product or delivery. Further to this, procurement assessment processes can be updated so that environmental sustainability is fully considered when choosing new suppliers.
Utilise data: Gathering data on the materials used, the processing and sourcing locations and undertaking environmental baselines will enable fashion companies to better understand their impact and take targeted actions that will drive change. These baselines can look across key environmental indicators such as carbon or biodiversity, with biodiversity footprints incorporating the impact of supply chains and operations on water, air, wildlife and pollution. Using the baseline, science-based targets can be established and then monitored to track the progress towards improved sustainability. In 2019, retailer John Lewis established a raw materials baseline assessment that it used to inform its raw materials strategy to improve the sustainability of its key materials. Currently, science-based targets are being readily adopted for carbon emissions and a new methodology for developing science-based targets for nature is to be released soon.
Innovation partnerships: The low margins in fashion can often prevent increased innovation in materials or processing methods, with ever-needed price reductions. Building partnerships between major brands and suppliers provides the opportunity for the sharing of resources and ideas towards a common goal of a sustainable industry. There is a range of innovation already available, such as the cold dyeing process used by sustainable fashion brand TOBEFRANK that uses half the water used by conventional methods. Fashion companies could partner together and commit to using these new technologies and increase the pace of change.
Join the companies mentioned in this article to become a leading brand for environmental sustainability in the fashion industry. Discover how the experts at Nature Positive can help you identify your impacts on sustainability and biodiversity and support you to set next season’s trends.
Organic cotton farming embraces natural processes that aim to preserve and restore biodiversity (Image source: Trisha Downing on Unsplash)
Banner photo by Eleonora Albasi on Unsplash