Discussions surrounding sustainability are at an all-time high. But some fashion retailers continue to lack eco-responsible supply chains, and consumers still face challenges when searching for sustainable fabrics. Consumers today, equipped with more information about clothing’s potential negative environmental impacts, have become more sustainably inclined, and brands have renewed a focus on understanding these ecological effects. As a result, retailers are now making efforts to increase traceability throughout the value chain. According to the Fashion Transparency Index, 33 percent of the top 100 biggest global fashion brands made their tier-one supplier list public in 2017, an increase from just 12 percent the year prior. This is an encouraging start since retailers typically shy away from transparency, but for sustainability to work in the long run, brands must move toward collaborative openness throughout the entire supply chain.
The complex nature of the fashion industry means that efforts to increase sustainability now require collective action, in addition to individual efforts, both across and throughout the value chain. To assist brands in their traceability initiatives, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index offers a standardized assessment framework that allows visibility across the supply chain and measures sustainability performance in addition to offering suggestions when improvements are needed. Regardless, brands themselves must also take proactive measures to increase traceability. For instance, Kering, a global luxury company, has implemented a “Clean by Design” initiative that audits suppliers, such as textile mills, across the supply chain. Widely publicized advances in new preferred fibers are also increasing the ability of brands to track their supply chains’ ecological effects. Two-thirds of the fashion industry’s environmental impact occurs during the raw materials stage of production and preferred fibers, such as those sourced from sustainably managed forests, are crucial to minimizing environmental impact.
Ensuring sustainability through a choice of preferred fibers and collective assessment frameworks is only part of a wider solution. Brands must have the capability to ensure and track their sustainability at every stage of the product life cycle. Upholding transparency and traceability across the supply chain will better position brands to oversee the creation of a closed loop system whereby fabrics are kept around for a longer duration. Fiber blends based on recycled materials, such as those produced via Refibra technology, which incorporates upcycled cotton and natural wood pulp, necessitate a circular economy for manufacturing.
Ecological accreditations have also become more prevalent in fashion. An example is the EU Ecolabel, which provides clarity for consumers with the certification of sustainability rating of a brand’s entire supply chain. Another example is Lenzing Ecovero viscose fibers, which can be identified in the final product even after the textile processing and conversion steps in the value chain. In addition, to better promote traceability, fashion brands such as Gap, Nike and Burberry, joined the Make Fashion Circular initiative to commit to keeping clothes in use and sourcing them from sustainable and renewable materials.
In the digital era, technology and innovation have been enabling brands to embrace greater transparency. For instance, blockchain technology promises to automate supply chain transparency by creating a traceable digital link with goods as they move through the supply chain. Consumers will also be able to use technologies, such as QR codes, to quickly understand where a fabric comes from and suggest the most effective way to dispose of them. These technologies will simplify the understanding of a complex supply chain system and enable both consumers and brands to better keep track of a fabric’s journey throughout the product’s life cycle.
As it stands, brands have made significant strides in transparency. Fast-fashion retailers are retreating from a throwaway economy toward producing fabrics that are designed to last. Consumers now have greater awareness regarding a product’s life cycle, alongside increased visibility of retailer’s supply chains, is also being achieved. Today’s environmental credentials continue to remain too complex for consumers to truly understand. Consumer-friendly industry standards are necessary to allow brands and consumers to move forward together. Change will not be swift, but with enhanced transparency across the product’s life cycle, the industry can ensure long-term sustainability and work together to reduce its global impact.
Florian Heubrandner is the vice president of global business management, textiles, at Lenzing AG.