PARIS — Acknowledging the darker sides of the apparel business — such as the staggering amounts of clothing that winds up in landfills each year — two of the most popular fast-fashion giants have set ambitious goals.
At this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Hennes & Mauritz AB said it aims for a circular and renewable business model.
“We don’t know when we will get there or how we will get there,” said Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, the group’s environmental sustainability manager. This fall, the group said it plans to use only recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030, and only sustainable cotton by 2020.
Spanish rival, Inditex, the owner of Zara, is also focusing on recycled textiles.
“We will not send anything to landfills in 2020,” declared Inditex. The company’s pledge extends to its headquarters, logistics centers, stores and factories. Planned measures to reach the goal include training all of the company’s designers in circular design principles, setting up garment collection in 2,000 stores, bulking up partnerships with local nonprofit organizations to resell used clothing, and using more recycled textiles. The Spanish group, which plans to invest $3.5 million in textile recycling technology by 2020, has also forged partnerships with MIT and Lenzig, an Austria-based pulp and paper mill that has moved into the business of making textiles out of recycled fabrics and sustainably sourced wood fibers.
Such an approach has to go beyond greenwashing, as it is a matter of survival, industry observers stressed.
“We can’t all be producing luxury products — so they need to be there,” said Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer of the nonprofit organization Copenhagen Global Fashion Agenda, referring to fast-fashion retailers. H&M is among its members.
“But the only way they can be there is if they become circular. If they become part of a circular system, then they have their place,” he told a seminar held by the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris. In its latest “Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report,” the Copenhagen group noted that the largest entry-priced fashion companies are leading the charge when it comes to sustainability issues.
For Natasha Franck, founder of Eon, a company that is seeking to create a digital marking system for clothing, applying the so-called “Internet of things” — which is basically a type of digital tracking system for objects — is key for brands and retailers seeking a circular model.
“We digitalize the physical world and we use that data to unlock transparency and the circular economy,” she said at a recent retail conference organized in Paris by Microsoft.
“If you can identify assets and track them, you can facilitate sustainable life-cycle management so you can optimize the product use, you can identify the material content of the product to recycle it, you can introduce legislation that effects the taxation around the resources of that material if not recycled, so it creates a whole global logistics operation that’s essential for sustainable life-cycle management,” she added.
The idea would be to attach a tracking system to clothing that offers information such as the makeup of the fabric, or where it is from.
According to Franck, one of the first hurdles to such a system was physical: Today’s metal RFID tags are a bit impractical to attach to a blouse, and most of them usually come off at the point of sale, she explained. So Eon created an RFID tag in the form of a thread, thus invisible and washable, she explained.
The challenge now is to come up with a system to which brands and retailers can adhere.
“A crucial next step is widely accepted standards, and in order to create that you need brands and retailers coming together to define that,” she said. The executive sees the push by retailers into the digital sphere as likely helping the industry on this front.
“In terms of business value, this is really the key for many brands in terms of their omnichannel strategy, their personalization, their ability to engage with customers after point of sale, even the tracking throughout the entire supply chain…the digital ID actually acts as a bridge between all these fragmented initiatives or technology-focused work,” she said.
In the meantime, H&M has installed sewing machines in some stores as it tests services like customizing apparel with hems or patches to expand the lifespan of clothing, while Inditex sends used clothing and fabric scraps to organizations like Caritas, Oxfam and the Red Cross for reselling or recycling.
In a promotional video by Inditex, the company acknowledges that the company’s role in the life of an item of clothing stops at its stores: “From now on our stores won’t be just the end. They’ll also be the beginning: a second chance for used clothes,” it says.
Lehmann notes that the larger players tend to face the most pressure.
“We are always asking the best in the industry what they are doing and it’s fair. They’re out there and we see them; they’re huge and have a huge impact,” he said.
Then he added: “We should…also ask those brands that are not taking center stage.”