Can Fashion really be sustainable?
On late August, François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of luxury fashion group Kering, unveiled the Fashion Pact, an (non-binding) agreement of 32 fashion houses to protect the world’s climate, biodiversity and oceans.
Among the Fashion Pact goals are a switch to 100% renewable energy throughout operations, aiming to implement renewables "in all high-impact manufacturing processes along the entire supply chain by 2030" and making the industry carbon neutral by 2050. The pact also aims to set science-based targets for restoring natural ecosystems and to protect wildlife by switching to regenerative and wildlife-friendly approaches to agriculture, mining and forestry.
It may be the latest but definitely not the only initiative launched by the fashion industry, in fact, fashion, as a reflection of societal movements, has long been committed to sustainability over the last 60 years at least.
In any case, the truth is that over the recent past years, fashion and clothing have been in the spotlight due to its negative impact on environment, with accusations of being the second most polluting industry in the world, just behind oil, which is, by the way, not true.
This article explores the origins of the problem and throws some ideas on ways to tackle the sustainability challenge with a holistic perspective.
Fast fashion: the spark of a revolution
“To me, clothing is a form of self-expression - there are hints about who you are in what you wear”. Marc Jacobs’ quote perfectly defines the importance of clothing in our society. And it is not recent. Since the early days of humanity, physical appearance has been a key aspect for differentiation therefore the role of clothing rapidly went far beyond the practical purpose of keeping us warm and act as a protecting layer to become a key piece for success of individuals.
Until the mid-80’s of the past century, fashionability and price (and usually quality) went hand in hand so there were not many opportunities for mass access to differentiation.
And then, the Zaras, H&Ms, Forever21s,… appeared to mass produce highly resembling luxury brands’ designs at inexpensive prices therefore they unleashed the latent but huge demand for affordable fashion clothing. The fast fashion era started.
With a combination of “streamlined” production, raw material cost declines as well as individuals’ higher average income, fast fashion evolved to permanently deliver new and cool garments, inspired either by luxury houses or celebrities (aka influencers), which resulted in clothing production doubling from 2000 to 2015.
Given the expected pace of growth in consumption, forecasts are that total clothing sales would reach 160 million tons in 2050 – more than three times today’s amount.
Changing habits of fashion consumption… for worse
According to fashionrevolution.com, apparel industry impact on environment is mainly due to:
Toxic fashion, that stands for chemicals, insecticides and water consumption
CO2 emissions, for all the product lifecycle, not only production and distribution but also usage and disposal
Waste, which has to do with the impact of such a huge and still growing volume of disposed garments
While toxic fashion and CO2 emissions may exclusively be related to the apparel production and distribution processes and therefore apparel brands have almost complete accountability on tackling them, waste has a lot to do with individual consumers.
In parallel to this already mentioned insatiable appetite for fashion, the clothing utilization changed significantly. The number of times a garment is worn dropped by 36% compared to 15 years ago.
That sense of disposability means, globally, that people miss out on up to USD 460 billion each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear. Do you know what happens when a jersey ends in a landfill? It can sit there for +200 years, and as it decomposes, it emits methane—a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon.
Key levers to make fashion sustainable
The key to sustainability will be based on the commitment and collaboration of all the fashion cycle stakeholders: designers, producers, retailers and consumers.
Lines of action could be gathered into 3 topics: Model, Material and Mindset.
Case Study: Filippa K. Designing for full recyclability
Filippa K is a Swedish fashion brand founded in 1993 whose purpose is to inspire a movement of mindful consumption by showing that simplicity is the purest form of luxury through the responsible creation of timeless, high quality, practical fashion for a complete wardrobe that promotes a lifestyle of buying and using fewer pieces for longer and giving them a second life after ownership.
Filippa K has the ambition to make all its collections fully circular by 2030. In order to achieve that, every 2 years, a new set of garments, called Front Runners, are developed based on the criteria shown in the following table.
Apart from those Front Runners pieces, Filippa K has also developed other projects, such as:
The Curated Wardrobe, which provides support to customers on which garments to buy as well as maintenance information
Second Hand Stores, either through own outlets or in partnership with other retailers, to give a second life to used garments
Collect project, to foster recycling and reuse as customers get a coupon in return of their clothes
Filippa K lease, the rental clothing service
Other brands committed to sustainability
There are several clothing brands that are leading the sustainability revolution. Some relevant ones out of them would be:
Patagonia. With a mission statement that reads, “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet,” it’s no surprise that Patagonia is out to change the fashion industry. In fact, there’s a lot to love about this company that’s increasing wages for makers and protections for migrant workers, figuring out how to use reclaimed and recycled materials, and helping its customers extend the life of their products so that they can buy less. There’s no doubt Patagonia occupies a special place as a true activist company—digging in on environmental protection and donating 100% of its Black Friday profits to benefit the planet.
Ecoalf. Ecoalf introduces recycled materials in the design of all-occasion comfortable garments: high-quality clothes made of recycled plastic bottles, fishing nets and other sustainable materials. The Ecoalf Foundation has undertaken its most ambitious project to date: Upcycling the Oceans, an unprecedented global adventure that will help rid the oceans of rubbish through partnership with fishermen.
Reformation. Created in 2009 by Yael Aflalo, Reformation is so much more than just a stylish clothing brand. With sustainability at the core of everything they do, Reformation makes sure to use the most efficient, eco-friendly technologies and practices they can get at their factory. In addition to investing in green building infrastructure, Reformation scores big with their RefScale—which measures the carbon, water, and waste involved in making each product, and how it compares to the industry norm. Also important to the Reformation brand is its employees. The company is on its way to paying its makers a living wage, offering hourly workers more than minimum wage, health benefits to all full-time employees, and Metro passes to encourage more use of public transportation.
Veja. Founded in 2004, Veja is a Fair Trade brand that uses the finest materials to create the finest of footwear and accessories. Labeling their company philosophy as a “project,” Veja is serious about knowing who grew the cotton, tapped the rubber, and stitched your shoes together. They work with organic cotton and food farmers whose crops are cultivated without chemicals or pesticides, use wild rubber from the Amazonian Rainforest, fighting deforestation, and tan their leather using natural acacia extracts rather than heavy metals, decreasing pollution. Although Veja is doing their part to take care of the environment, they also make sure that the people they work with and do business with are getting paid well. Veja even sacrifices their marketing budget (instead of makers’ wages) to keep their shoes affordable.
Which is the real, current status of sustainability in the fashion industry?
According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update report, the fashion industry has improved its social and environmental performance in the past year, but at a slower rate than the previous year. Despite this improvement, the fashion industry is still far from sustainable.
Furthermore, the findings demonstrate that fashion companies are not implementing sustainable solutions fast enough to counterbalance negative environmental and social impacts of the rapidly growing fashion industry.
But sustainability is not only about brands, consumers are also part of the change and report results are showing that there is still a lot of work to do. Although sustainability has become a hot topic, most of purchasing decisions are based on other criteria.
There is no doubt that fashion is a polluting and resource-intensive industry that, combined with consumers pursue for short term gratification, has a highly negative environmental impact.
But, although it may seem that we live in an era of disposable everything, there’s an increased consumer interest for sustainability and more and more fashion brands are doing things right.
The future of fashion is therefore a matter of brands and consumers and the key to success will depend on the ability to create a consumer desire for limited consumption of high-quality slow fashion while finding new ways to reuse or recycle garments as opposed to currently frequent consumption of low-quality fast fashion. As the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report says “The question is no longer whether it is necessary to improve sustainable business practices, but rather how long it will take before consumers stop buying from brands that do not act responsibly”.