A report on the evolving environmental impact of fashion put together by the Global Fashion Agenda, which is responsible for the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit, and investment and research firm Boston Consulting Group, makes clear that while sustainability is more of a priority than ever for fashion firms, the industry is struggling to act.
Of the executives polled for the report, 52 percent said sustainability “acted as a guiding principle for every strategic decision they made” last year, and 66 percent said they have multiple sustainability targets within their companies. That’s 18 percent higher and 10 percent higher than the 2017 report, respectively, but the “pulse” score of the report, GFA’s “health measure” for the industry, is still “weak” at only 38 out of 100 possible points, despite growing six points from a year ago.
“This year’s progress came almost entirely from small and medium companies in the midprice segment,” the report said. “Given this segment accounts for half of the industry by revenue, progress here is particularly encouraging. However, other industry segments showed less progress in addressing their environmental and social footprints.”
GFA pointed to smaller companies offering lower-priced goods as being “significantly behind” in sustainability practices, having made “little to no progress” last year.
“The giant companies and luxury players still lead the way, but finding solutions for the unresolved problems is becoming tougher and impact and returns are receding,” the report said.
While these companies seem to be good at getting the sustainability ball rolling with targets like efficient water use and supply chain traceability, which were outlined in a recent agreement by multiple fashion executives, raw materials are challenging, partly because of the dearth of more sustainable options.
There was some improvement on this point last year, as companies like Nike Inc., Hugo Boss and Inditex have made efforts to cut back on material waste, but the overall score of the industry is still on the “weak” side at 38 out of 100, according to the report.
Then there’s end of use, or how garments are used after they’re discarded. The pinnacle of sustainable production is a “closed loop,” wherein everything is reused or made from recycled fabrics and materials, but the fashion industry seems a ways off from using any recycled products, much less basing its entire production on them. And it’s not just fashion’s concern with image and marketing — the production part of the industry simply isn’t there yet.
“Even under optimistic assumptions, the industry’s existing solutions and business models will not deliver the impact needed to transform the industry,” the report said. “Fashion needs a deeper, more systemic change.”
The report urged fashion companies to “join forces with suppliers, investors, regulators, [non-governmental organizations], academia and consumers to create an ecosystem that supports transformational innovation and disruptive business models,” especially around raw materials and end-of-use issues. With the latter specifically, GFA noted the cost and effort involved to implement a wide system of sorting and recycling goods “is simply too large to be managed by a single brand or retailer.”
“Companies cannot overcome these challenges alone,” the report said.
GFA is pushing for the industry of the future to be based on a “Smart Fashion business model” based on things like smart fibers and on-demand self-creation of apparel that would be based on digital-only designs. The reduction in waste along the supply chain would be enormous, but the report also noted this would tie in with a reduction in consumption, something most fashion brands likely aren’t in favor of.
And GFA admitted that its Smart Fashion scenario “is the furthest from the present” even though “many of the technologies already exist.”
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