Fashion may do a lot of bad, but there were a number of sustainable wins this year, including on the legislative front (bolstering garment worker rights) as well as strides in the circular fashion space — led by bio-based material innovators, luxury players, pre-owned purveyors and systems thinkers alike.
Labor Rights Became Something to Shout About
This year marked a hard-earned victory for garment workers and ethical business allies in California with the signing of the Garment Worker Protection Act (known as SB 62) into law in September.
In its immediacy, the bill takes a stab at the industry’s high rates of wage theft and subminimum wages by first eliminating the piece-rate system of pay while closing a dated loophole in the original legislation that let brands evade responsibility for their supply chains. Under the new law, joint liability will exist so brands, subcontractors and workers are all brought to the negotiating table.
But the law’s passage is far-reaching, and by some experts, it ushers in a new sustainable era for fashion and chance to shift the power balance.
“Over the past 20 years, fashion has changed.…Labor laws become obsolete because the economic structure of that industry has changed,” Victor Narro, project director and professor of Labor Studies at the University of California Los Angeles Labor Center, previously told WWD. Narro was on the team that drafted California’s landmark worker protection law in 1999.
Fashion is changing and more than 140 fashion brands (among them Reformation, Boyish, Mara Hoffman, Eileen Fisher) have been threads of change.
Home to the largest garment manufacturing hub in the U.S., California counts more than 45,000 garment industry workers. Highly skilled women of color (20 years of experience on average) are the majority of this workforce, powering labels like Fashion Nova, Forever 21, Windsor, Charlotte Russe, Urban Outfitters and Lulus. All of which were cited as “top violators” in wage theft cases according to SB 62 bill cosponsor the Garment Worker Center.
Evidenced in GWC’s data and that of UCLA’s Labor Center, for far too long, power was kept from the hands that made the clothes.
“I would say that I think that the bill is bordering on revolutionary, not just for garment workers, but also other low-wage workers in farming and agriculture,” said Ngozi Okaro, executive director of Custom Collaborative, a New York City-based workforce development nonprofit and social enterprise. “What’s important is it drills down to holding everyone along the value chain responsible.”
Accountability — that’s the power of SB 62.
In another sweeping and time-sensitive move for garment worker protection, The Bangladesh Accord on Fire Building Safety saw a last-ditch revision in The International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry.
As of December, the International Accord counts 155 brand signatories (just shy of the 200 signatories for the original document) with H&M, Inditex, Bestseller and C&A among the first to sign. The goal of the International Accord is to expand health and safety coverage for factory workers in Bangladesh — and beyond, to other high-risk sourcing countries in South Asian regions.
This would not be the first time this year brands rushed to pen their support for a sustainable cause.
Brands like Everlane, ThredUp, Rebecca Minkoff, Allbirds, Reformation and more signed a letter to President Joe Biden to appoint a “fashion czar” (or high-level policy adviser to fashion) while in the U.K., similar calls echoed out for a “garment trade adjudicator.”
In any of the cases, stakeholders across industry were clear in their intent for advancing social and environmental progress.
Resale Retained Momentum
Fashion is turning to resale left and right, seeing major partnerships, continued investments, evolved conversations and too many start-ups to count.
“Buying a pre-loved handbag from the same brand’s online store that you bought a new pair of boots from is going to be a billion-dollar game changer for the fashion community,” said The RealReal’s former director of business development, Karin Dillie, who went from Sotheby’s, The RealReal, to now, brand-owned resale space at Recurate.
While 2020 was the breakout year for resale, traction has sustained and increased since early efforts — and this year was no different.
In 2021, direct-to-consumer brands like Boyish Jeans, Coclico Shoes and Époque Évolution, partnered with branded business-to-consumer marketplace Treet, while Cuyana, Vera Bradley and Fabletics partnered with ThredUp.
As far as investments go, Kering announced a $216 million investment in Vestiaire Collective in March. Richemont rolled out resale partnerships (via Watchfinder) at Net-a-porter and Mr Porter in July. By August, new partnerships were forged in-store and online, one highlight being luxury pre-owned purveyor Fashionphile teaming up with Neighborhood Goods.
New Balance launched its “New Balance Renewed” program with The Renewal Workshop. H&M recently launched its own “Rewear” resale marketplace in Canada, and URBN announced its “Nuuly Thrift” platform in fall 2021.
As resale matures, conversations on the degrowth movement and waste equity emerged in the past year (with initiatives like “Design for Decomposition”) as the pandemic sees resale gain ground while used goods pile up.
Innovation Became Sexy
Sustainability innovation is getting its day in fashion.
Over the past year, brands like Adidas, Nike, H&M, Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren, Patagonia, Gap and more started to pilfer learnings from nature and invest in buzzy next-gen materials.
“There are exciting innovations for clothing production that are designed to have less of an environmental impact after its intended use; for example, fibers and fabrics designed to: be collected and mechanically or chemically recycled back into new textiles; biodegrade (under specific conditions); or compost into non-toxic constituents,” Barbara Martinez, open innovation director at Conservation X Labs, a technology and innovation hub based in Washington, D.C., told WWD.
Several circularity and biodiversity-billed pilots, consortiums and brand initiatives launched this year, too.
A September report from nonprofit Material Innovation Initiative and consumer research firm North Mountain Consulting tallied $1.29 billion invested in standout material innovation firms from 2015 to May 2021. MII found vegan leather alone could command 54 percent of the market, according to Nicole Rawling, cofounder and chief executive officer of the Material Innovation Initiative. “The findings reveal that cost-competitive next-gen materials could command the majority of many markets,” she said.
Once married to their leather craft traditions, even luxury is seeing the potential.
Hermès in particular, a house steeped in tradition, made waves when it announced a partnership with the California-based start-up MycoWorks to develop a leather-type material out of mycelium – marking the first time the luxury house stepped away from the signature calfskin leather of its famous Birkin and Kelly bags.
Stella McCartney has been experimenting with fungi, too, partnering with Bolt Threads at the start of 2021 and developing Mylo, a new trademarked material made from the root system of fungi.
She presented a mushroom leather bag during her spring 2022 show, which began with a voice stating that “In fashion, mushrooms are the future,” across its Paris venue. McCartney’s aim is to soon “offer the innovation commercially” to other brands and help bring the use of sustainable materials into the mainstream.
Until the material becomes more accessible, younger sustainably minded designers (like Coperni, which launched a range of apple leather bags with Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams) will exercise their own eco-alternatives within their own means.
Luxury, Resale Boast B Corp Chops
Fashion labels, even the ones within the luxury domain, are usually criticized for the fast pace of their production calendars, hosting shows in far-flung locations, and having little visibility in their vast supply chains.
But in recent years, many brands are taking sustainability seriously by reaching for a new title-grab. This was the pathfinding year when luxury brands (including luxury resellers) bought into B Corp status.
Regarded as the “gold standard” in sustainable companies, the Benefit Corporation (abbreviated as B Corp) certification is provided by nonprofit B Lab, when companies showcase that they can fulfill its strict ESG criteria. B Corps are legally bound to act in the interest of both people and planet.
Charting new ground in September, Kering-backed Vestiaire Collective paved the way as the first in resale to earn B Corp status. Richemont-owned Chloé was the first luxury fashion house to receive the much lauded certification, setting a new kind of benchmark of how brands should operate in the fashion space.
“Beyond the fact that we are proud of it as a company, we also aim to inspire many others to join,” said Riccardo Bellini, chief executive officer of the Compagnie Financière Richemont-owned brand. “We upgraded our operations, governance and policies in a way that allows us to operate in a more environmentally and socially responsible manner.”
The brand started shifting to a purpose-driven business model before the pandemic and with the arrival of Gabriela Hearst (named creative director in December 2020), whose entire design ethos revolves around environmentally friendly practices. Some of the policies Chloé implemented along the way included its “Women Forward for a Fairer Future” mission statement; the appointment of an advisory board of experts; as well as the inclusion of more social entrepreneurs in its supply chain.
Chloé’s achievement was shortly followed by announcements that Khloé Kardashian’s Good American and buzzy contemporary label Sézanne also attained the certification.
Richemont’s Bellini summed up the B Corp differential — and broader eco-strides — best: “It’s all about the mindset of continuously challenging ourselves to improve, and to bring the full equation of financial, social and environmental value to the table in every decision we make.”