Based on the activity on a corporate level, deploying sustainable and ethical fashion practices is well underway. But industry experts note there’s much more work that has to be done to create tangible and measurable change, which includes developing circular economies in textiles.
Large brands and retailers such as H&M, Gap Inc. and Kering, among others, are deploying sustainable tactics across the supply chain while designers and brands such as Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher as well as Patagonia, a pioneer of the practice, serve as vocal advocates on the consumer front.
But the fashion apparel and accessories market is a $1.7 trillion global business, according to Euromonitor International, and it will require ongoing collaboration between brands, retailers and vendors industry experts at the firm noted. Still, there’s big money bankrolling the work. For example, the Walmart Foundation and the C&A Foundation have partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to support the Making Fashion Circular effort, which the foundations describe as a “systemic initiative.”
“Clothes are an everyday necessity, and for many, an important aspect of self-expression,” the foundation stated as its manifesto.”Yet the way clothes are made and used today is extremely wasteful and polluting. Make Fashion Circular drives collaboration between industry leaders and other key stakeholders to create a textiles economy fit for the 21st century. Its ambition is to ensure clothes are made from safe and renewable materials, new business models increase their use, and old clothes are turned into new. This new textiles economy would benefit business, society and the environment.”
Core partners of Making Fashion Circular include Burberry, Gap Inc., H&M, Stella McCartney and Nike Inc. Participants include Kering, VF Corp., DuPont Biomaterials, Fung Holdings Ltd., Inditex, Lenzing and Tintex, among others.
Marguerite LeRolland, a consultant for beauty and fashion at Euromonitor International, said in a recent webinar that until very recently, sustainable businesses tended to be niche and lacked critical mass. But today, LeRolland said ethical fashion has gained momentum amongst start-ups “and giant corporations and is at a turning point.”
LeRolland said in the past the idea of sustainable and ethical fashion was based on the notion that consumers would simply consume less or stop over-consuming. But there’s been a shift that has occurred over the past few years as “companies have realized the commercial potential of ethical fashion, and are now increasingly developing approaches and technologies to help consumers embrace their desires for fashion while not harming the planet or people.”
And putting into place ethical and sustainable practices is no longer seen as counter to business success by adding costs and constraints. “On the contrary, an increasing number of companies are now seeing ethical issues as a source of innovation and a core value that inspires great storytelling,” Euromonitor noted.
That storytelling and narrative are important — especially as consumers conduct more online research about products, brands and companies.
“Consumers are accustomed to researching online before committing to a purchase, and they value peer-to-peer recommendations at least as much as traditional advertising,” LeRolland explained. “They are also increasingly concerned by the image they present to the world on various digital platforms. That means digitization is a double-edged sword for fashion brands. On the one hand, it has opened up new opportunities to engage with customers and help them build their ‘brand me.’ But on the other hand, it is harder to keep control of one’s image. In our age of hyper-transparency, consumers have access to a lot more information and companies are more exposed to reputational risks if they, or their suppliers, are found out to have unfair labor practices or production processes which have a disastrous impact on the environment.”
That said, Euromonitor noted in a report that design, quality and price “remain the top purchasing factors in fashion; green and ethical credentials can only appeal to most consumers when the design and price are right.”
The firm also cited a recent consumer survey it conducted that revealed that 65 percent of respondents “stated that they try to have a positive impact on the environment through their everyday actions.” And that includes purchasing apparel and accessories.
Meanwhile, there’s also been more headlines in consumer publications warning of microplastics in the world’s oceans — an issue that many municipalities are addressing via policy and laws aimed at banning single-use plastic such as drinking straws, which finds its way into rivers, streams and oceans.
In the Euromonitor webinar, participants said Dutch denim brand G-Star, advocacy group Parley and Pharrell Williams’s company Bionic Yarn have been “partnering for years on the ‘RAW for the Oceans’ collection, which transforms recycled ocean plastic into fibers that can be woven into denim pieces.”
And last year, Adidas and advocacy group Parley launched a swimwear collection made of upcycled ocean plastic, which was once from “used fishing nets and debris intercepted in coastal areas, and then converted into technical yarn fibers such as Econyl.” And Patagonia is now offering a recyclable laundry bag made of 100 percent polyamide and called the “Guppy Friend,” which prevents shedding microfibres from ending up in the ocean.
Plastics are dangerous because it takes hundreds of years to decompose. And recent research suggests that it is found not only in fish that people consume, but is also found in humans. For its part, The Woolmark Company touts wool as a natural and renewable resource. “As long as there is grass to eat, sheep will continue to produce wool,” the organization said in a recent presentation. “When wool is disposed of, it will naturally decompose in soil in a matter of months or years, slowly releasing valuable nutrients back into the earth. Synthetic fibers, on the other hand, can be extremely slow to degrade and significantly contribute to the world’s overflowing landfills.”
Authors of the Woolmark report said wool is “composed of the natural protein keratin, which is similar to the protein that makes up human hair. When keratin is broken down naturally by microorganisms, the products do not pose any environmental hazard.”