While some are still thinking about their New Year’s resolutions, French businesses already have theirs mapped out for them — by law.
Starting Jan. 1, measures from the anti-waste and circular economy law adopted by the French parliament in February 2020 kicked in.
Among them: the end of plastic wrapping around fresh produce, newspapers and magazines; the creation of public funds to support reuse, and — most importantly for fashion and retail — visible signage revealing the environmental impact of products as well as prohibiting the destruction of new, unsold nonfood merchandise on principle.
Despite ominous headlines and the threat of fines of up to 15,000 euros, this is a welcome step for many in the industry. “If we are being completely lucid, there are a number of consumers for whom [environmental concerns] aren’t a priority. Regulation makes certain that [no business] can ignore these issues, even when their consumer isn’t prioritizing them,” said Elizabeth Cazorla, general manager of BazarChic, the Galeries Lafayette Group-owned digital sales platform.
Beyond fashion goods themselves, the law’s ramifications include rethinking the packaging to adhere to previous bans on single-use plastics, and sharing better information with consumers.
“It’s a succession of challenging subjects — not just because of costs but also in terms of feasibility. This will contribute to homogenizing practices across the board, making them legible and coherent for the consumer. And no one can say ‘I don’t have time or resources to handle this’,” Cazorla added.
“This law sends a clear signal, and [for brands] it speaks of common sense. Destroying is a mind-boggling, disgusting practice,” said Pierre Mahéo, founder of French label Officine Générale. “But destruction isn’t the only aspect of waste. Resources are consumed at every step, so it’s the entire chain that needs to be broken. It brings back key questions around purchasing, the rhythm of collections, production management and sustainable, rather than artificial, business growth.”
Although product destruction made for sensational headlines, it remains a marginal practice, according to Damien Pellé, corporate social responsibility director of the Galeries Lafayette and BHV department stores.
“For a brand, destroying stock is an absolute failure, and makes no economic sense,” he said, citing a recent study by the French Agency for Ecological Transition, or ADEME, that estimated the retail value of unsold fashion goods in 2019 at 1.7 billion euros, amounting to 4.1 percent of the industry’s turnover.
Of those, only 5 percent ends up destroyed, with 23 percent sold through off-price circuits, 20 percent donated to charity and around 10 percent repaired or recycled. Still, that’s between 10,000 and 20,000 tons — the weight of two Eiffel Towers — in new textile items ending up destroyed every year, according to another statistic from the ministry for ecological transition.
In fact, finding a destination for unsold merchandise isn’t the biggest issue at hand. At Officine Générale, Mahéo has implemented a re-dyeing and customization program to extend the shelf life of seasonal styles and is about to open an outlet store for the brand.
“When possible, items are returned to suppliers, offered with a markdown, in clearance operations, or employee sales. What is left to the Secours Populaire, Dons Solidaires and Association Josephine charities,” director of operations of Groupe Le Bon Marché Laurence Gayraud wrote in an email.
At Galeries Lafayette, a voluntary policy was put in place in 2014 that saw 100,000 and 150,000 pieces donated between then and 2020, from its own brand and from labels the retailer purchased that did not sell within three years of entering the department store’s inventory.
And donating isn’t the only solution. “The law doesn’t say you have to do that, it just forbids destruction,” Pellé said, noting that premium and luxury brands could opt for upcycling or recycling in a bid to protect their brand equity. “What is needed is massive investment in the development of new technologies that allow recycling and reuse of materials, because that’s where we are lacking in viable solutions.”
Those are still in the works, with the emergence of actors such as ReValorem, a Paris-based company that recovers and recycles unsold items and raw materials for the luxury goods industry, and fashion tech start-up Tekyn, which won the innovation prize at the 2020 ANDAM fashion prize for its on-demand production solutions.
Other players — like resale platform Vestiaire Collective — are also working on ideas such as “resale as a service,” or RaaS, or the implementation of digital IDs for garments, which would allow for more transparency — and authenticity tracing.
“This new application of the anti-waste law comes at a critical time, and will 100 percent revitalize the circular economy in fashion,” said Vestiaire’s chief sustainability and inclusion officer Dounia Wone, noting that the European regulation intending to give clothes a rating similar to the one given to household appliances heralded an exciting time for pre-loved and vintage fashion.
That’s an opinion shared by Pellé, who called the environmental scoring system a potential game-changer. Inspired by the nutritional and energy-efficiency scores, it will grade the environmental qualities of a product on an easy-to-read scale of A to E. “What will change in 2022 is that they [consumers] get the keys as objective as possible to understanding the choices they make when buying garments or fashion items, information they have been demanding according to polls and studies.”
According to Pellé, a unified official notation system — be it within France or at the European level — would also work toward restoring consumers’ trust at a time where “there is mistrust and suspicion because they see much of the [ecological messaging] as marketing and communication ploys.”
But “two years [since the law was voted] is a very short time to meet all the legal requirements, especially since the decree that should have come into effect on Jan. 1 has still not been published,” noted Pierre-François Le Louët, president of France’s women’s ready-to-wear federation.
Another pain point brands, institutions and retailers agreed on is the environmental impact notation system, or rather, the criteria that underpin this consumer-facing indicator that was made mandatory by France’s 2022 measures and by the 2021 Climate and Resilience law voted into effect last summer.
“It’s not something you can throw together in a few days. The information can be difficult to identify, and claims aren’t easy to back up with proof [at this stage],” Cazorla explained.
Several methods are being considered and the French government has given the industry a six-month test period to come up with suitable proposals. And this might be the biggest challenge of the year.
Take the Product Environmental Footprint and its life cycle analysis, the method favored by the European Commission. “But that doesn’t cover biodiversity, microplastic or organic agriculture, relying too much on hypotheses rather than tests or audits,” said Philippe Schiesser, who founded eco-design consultancy firm Ecoeff Lab.
He is working on the EcoDesign Score, an evaluation method that takes on board product durability and eco-design practices. Supported by all of the industry’s federations and the DEFI, France’s commission for the promotion of textiles and apparel, it relies on ISO norms, in hopes to take root at a global level. In the medium term, a successful trial could lead to the score being adopted across Europe, especially given France’s presidency of the European Union for the first six months of 2022.
“We have to see beyond the French or even European context. There is no sense in creating a system for one territory only, because for better or for worse, the industry is global,” said Schiesser.