Sustainability: the next big thing in fashion

In a world of fast fashion, retailers are being held accountable for the large amount of waste that they contribute to landfills every year.

In a world of fast fashion, retailers are being held accountable for the large amount of waste that they contribute to landfills every year. We throw away 570kg of clothing in the UK every minute and 43% of customers dispose of items after wearing them fewer than 10 times. So, like many other industries, retail is taking big steps to operate in a more green and sustainable way.

Many high street brands offer a sustainable range of clothing—such as the Gap and H&M—and now online retailers are seeing a growing interest in these. ASOS recently announced that it will be adding an ethical category on its website, meaning that customers can browse sustainable clothing from brands such as Ellesse, Monki and Tommy Hilfiger. Other online retailers, including Net-a-Porter and Boohoo, have launched similar intiatives.

While high street shops are making small changes to be green, there are some brands that have shot to popularity because of their sustainability credentials; this includes sports trainer brand, Veja, which offers customers complete transparency about their supply chain and only works with sustainable materials.

The difference is that premium brands can afford to take these measures because they’re not cost-cutting in order to offer inexpensive fashion options to customers. Retailers on the high street will have much thinner margins on their products, making it a challenge to use more ethical and green practices without having to pass the price on to buyers.

Looking again at the Gap’s successful ethical clothing line, which has been around since the 1990s, the retailer announced last month that it would sustainably source 100% of its cotton by 2023 across all brands (including Old Navy and The Banana Republic) and will only work with cotton farmers who use water efficiently. This commitment demonstrates that it’s possible for non-premium retailers to operate in a more ethical way. It’s a great initiative that should make other retailers reassess where they source their materials from.

Recently, Inditex also announced its ambition to achieve 100 percent sustainable fiber use by 2025, and Ralph Lauren set a similar goal. In fact, recent research reveals that more than half of top 100 brands have announced 100 percent sustainable fiber goals for the next three to five years.

This is a highly commendable move by the apparel industry which has been perceived as sluggish in addressing social and environmental challenges. However, for the majority of apparel brands, supply chain transparency is limited to Tier 1 or Tier 2 suppliers, like the garment makers or finished fabric suppliers. Recent research suggests that only 10 out of the top 250 apparel brands can identify the Tier 4 and Tier 5 fiber suppliers for their apparel collections.

Clearly the intention to achieve a 100 percent sustainable fibers target is there but the challenge is on limited transparency in the supply chain. With very little visibility of the entire value chain how will CEOs and executives be able to guarantee these sustainability pledges?

This is particularly poignant given the rising incidence of scandals involving counterfeit fibres that have impacted the likes of Target and Amazon. According to TextileGenesis, a consultancy, up to 30 percent of sustainable fibers in the apparel supply chain could be counterfeited, which presents huge reputational risk as consumers increasingly expect their brands to take accountability for their impact on our planet.

Although the transparency debate has primarily focused on compliance, risk elimination it can also positively contribute to business in terms of price premium and consumer loyalty. Indeed as the habits of shoppers shift towards becoming more eco-conscious, recent research suggests that consumers will pay a premium to support a company which is helping others to earn a fair livelihood or using sustainable materials.

Nevertheless as more apparel brands join the ‘100 percent sustainable fibres club,’ consumers no doubt will be demanding increasing transparency and guarantees about the origins of the fibre in their fashion otherwise we would have failed to meet our sustainability objective.

These developments mean that it’s an exciting time to be in the retail industry and there’s a growing demand for individuals with new skills and experience at all points of the supply chain, whether its procurement, manufacturing, design & innovation, research and development or customer service sustainability will become the core driver of every stage of the new retail supply chain.

Retail Gazette | Asos launches sustainable category as demand grows
Retail Insight Network | Fashion retailers cannot afford to ignore sustainability
WWD | Uniqlo Parent to Slash Single-Use Plastic
Sourcing Journal | What Retailers Should Look for When it Comes to Sustainable Store Design
Sourcing Journal | Can a Sustainable Fiber Pledge Work Without Transparency?

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