In the first quarter of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a 3 percent drop in global trade values — and now, the outbreak could now trigger the biggest economic contraction since World War II, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
All this, aligned with the many changes in consumer behavior that were already in motion pre-COVID-19, raises countless questions about the future of retail — and the future of the planet. But more specifically, how will the coronavirus pandemic impact fashion’s budding sustainability movement, and how can consumers continue to help facilitate positive change?
Here, Florian Heubrandner, vice president global business management, Textiles, Lenzing AG, talks to WWD about the COVID-19 impacts on sustainability and sustainable materials, as well as trends and opportunities in the post-pandemic world.
WWD: What changes or challenges are you expecting COVID-19 to bring into the textile industry, and how will the sustainability movement be impacted?
Florian Heubrandner: The textile industry has been undergoing many changes over the last few years, not only due to COVID-19, but even before the pandemic. For instance, in recent years, we have witnessed an increasing number of brands trying to enhance sustainability and transparency in their supply chain.
As more industry practitioners realize the need for greater transparency and sustainability, established industry indicators like the Higg Index and Canopy’s Hot Button Ranking have been receiving more attention. Very soon, fast fashion will be replaced by a new era of sustainable and quality fashion purchases in the textile industry ecosystem.
While COVID-19 could be slowing down the global economy, it has been a wake-up call to many. More consumers now realize how damages to the environment would impact our once “normal” lives. This leads to an acceleration of change among consumers toward sustainability. We are already seeing trends that consumers will likely pay more attention to their consumption patterns and make more conscious shopping decisions as we recover from the pandemic.
With such change, fashion brands are yet to face new challenges brought about by the lack of transparency in their supply chain, as they try to add sustainable products to their collections. At the same time, it could also be costly for less experienced fabric mills or brands to commit to eco-products, when the whole industry is under pressure to reduce production costs.
WWD: What has the Tencel brand been doing to support business partners to address such challenges and changes?
F.H.: Lenzing has been in this industry for more than 80 years, and to us, building and sustaining long-term relationships with industry partners and customers is key to our success. As we face the global pandemic alongside partners and customers, we are committed to assisting business recovery, where our ultimate goal is to help brands move toward a more competitive and sustainable business model. In order to achieve that, instead of being a mere supplier of fiber materials, we also hold discussions with partners and customers on how to best source high-quality raw materials for their sustainable collections.
For instance, with limited experience and low level of transparency along the supply chain, some brands are unsure about whether the fabric mills or spinners they work with can really provide sustainable solutions. This is where we step in, as an industry consultant, to deliver added value to brands by connecting them with the right partners who commit to sustainable products. This could help brands save time and costs to identify the perfect sustainable partners in their supply chain.
At Lenzing, we are committed to producing high-quality sustainable fibers, including fibers made of recycled materials. Additionally, our partnership with TextileGenesis, a pioneering blockchain fiber tracing system, can help brand partners achieve transparency across their supply chains at ease. Our pilot project with Hong Kong-based brand Chicks last year was a great success. We were able to drive data integrity and demonstrate ease of use for the brand, while at the same time, Chicks’ consumers were able to verify the garment composition simply by scanning a barcode.
WWD: What elements would you advise retail brands to look into when adopting sustainable raw materials and practices in their supply chain?
F.H.: For me, the best place to start with is looking at the definition of sustainable raw materials and making the right material choice for your products. Nowadays, there are different international standards such as the Higg Index, which compares different sustainable materials, or Canopy’s Hot Button Ranking of wood-based fibers that can help track material sourcing and production. While these standards provide an overview of sustainable practices being taken, like all other guidelines or regulations, there is no one-size-fits-all standard for sustainability. Brands should pay attention to other factors such as government regulation, policies and actual consumer’s purchasing habits before making decisions.
Another point to consider is the afterlife of a material, whether it’s clean, like biodegradable or compostable, when returning to nature. For Lenzing, we believe the growing adoption for biodegradable and recyclable products is the way forward and is an essential part of the fiber industry’s future growth strategy. Such industry shifts can help revolutionize the fashion industry and empower brands who are looking for eco-responsible textile value chains.
In terms of sustainable practices, recycling and recollection have already been key actions for some brands. To take one step ahead, it is important to introduce traceability and transparency to the supply chain. While this may seem difficult at first glance, with new technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and wearables, it is now much easier for companies to reevaluate their supply chain and remodel their business operations. With increased transparency, brands will have more control on the entire production process along the supply chain to improve aspects such as transparent certification and quality assurance.
WWD: What are the true costs of producing sustainable and fair products, and what has Lenzing invested in to achieve that?
F.H.: The extra cost of sustainable products partly comes from the higher standards of sourcing. Similar to food, 100 percent natural ingredients are usually more costly than conventional ones. Currently, sustainable fabrics and garments are still considered as “niche products” and are produced at lower quantities. Without economies of scale, this typically results in higher costs per item.
Hopefully, this will change in the near future. I believe that as more brands commit to sustainability, eco-fashion would become a norm, without the added label of being “niche” or “premium.” With greater demand and supply, the benefits of economies of scale will help reduce overall production costs and make sustainable fashion more affordable.
WWD: What would you recommend consumers and brands do to make their consumption and production more sustainable?
F.H.: For brands, it is crucial to invest more in the development of sustainable and recycled products and build up clean sourcing and production capacity. To achieve this, it is important to engage reliable value chain partners and raw material suppliers. A stronger commitment to sustainability will mean moving away from the fast-fashion model and invest in product quality and durability. With a longer life cycle, products will not need to be discarded after a few uses, reducing waste in the long run. Educating consumers about eco-fashion and telling the right stories will also be vital to driving the successful execution of a brand’s sustainability strategy.
For consumers, they should take a deeper look at product hangtags and be more proactive in finding out more about the raw materials used, place of origin and production processes. This information would give them a head start in shopping consciously.
WWD: Would you share your top three tips for incorporating sustainability into day-to-day activities?
F.H.: I think everyone can find their own little ways to be more sustainable in everyday life. There are a few things that I try to do. Instead of driving my car all the time, I opt for public transport, I cycle or walk. Secondly, I try to “eat consciously,” and go for more organic or sustainable food options — which I find often also tastes better. Thirdly, to reduce waste, I go for quality garments that last longer.
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