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Sustainability in the fashion industry

Sustainability is one of the most discussed subjects today. Many new products are marketed as having positive environmental or social attributes, but it’s important to understand that not all that glitters is gold. A lot of companies claim to be very sustainable and are taking advantage of the eco-conscious consumer’s demand for sustainable products and services that won’t impel the already deteriorating condition of our planet. But the real question is do these products live up to their definition of being sustainable? And how can businesses and consumers actually determine product sustainability?

In this article I will discuss:

  • What is a sustainable product?
  • Why does sustainability matter in fashion?
  • Changing views on sustainability in the fashion industry
  • How can businesses make more sustainable apparel products?
  • Sustainable innovation in fashion
  • Brands that are proving the business case for sustainability

What is a sustainable product?

A simple and widely used definition of a sustainable product is one that respects both the environment and the people who are part of the production chain. From the collection of raw materials, to processing, to the transportation of the articles, there is more to it in my opinion. It is very multidimensional and various factors have to be considered for a product to be given the tag of being completely sustainable. These include: life-cycle orientation, placing importance on environmental, economical and social factors, being 100% transparent with all stakeholders, and seeking out and listening to improvements.

Why does sustainability matter in fashion?

The fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water and is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the United Nations Environment Program. It's just an enormous amount of environmental resources that are required for making the clothing that we wear. Harmful chemicals, global transport of goods and non-biodegradable packaging add to the environmental cost. 

One of the major reasons for the fashion industry being the major contributor to emissions is the whole idea of ‘fast fashion’. Fast fashion uses trend replication, large scale production, and low-quality materials in order to bring inexpensive styles to the public. Fast-fashion companies have been scrutinized for evidence of unethical practices throughout the manufacturing process, conditions in the factories their clothes are made in, to the fact that cheap clothes are filling upland fills.

Most products manufactured till date have been following the age-old cradle to grave philosophy, but with the increasing awareness its important businesses switch to the cradle to cradle method of production. This means that from the extraction of the raw materials to the disposal of the final product, there must be no permanent damage to the environment.

Changing views on sustainability in the fashion industry

There is a huge rise in public demand for not just better products, but better buying habits. We're looking at a new generation – Gen-Z – that is much more critical and wants brands to be accountable. According to statistics, around 45% of Gen-Z’s research elaborately on a brand before they make purchases and give a lot of importance to transparency.

Gen-Z’s are at the vanguard of these new buying habits, but the desire for sustainable consumption extends to every generation. We live in an on-line world with ever-increasing pressure to make quick decisions and click buy. This has caused a haunting disconnect between consumers who care about the sustainability of their products and the simultaneous inability to heavily research and dissect each product they purchase. [LF1] 

There is so much complexity for these consumers to weigh in those few minutes. The environmental impact of a product means different things to different people, and everything about a company and a product must be considered through the scope of sustainability.

This includes factors like:

1)    Greenhouse gas emissions

2)    Labour equity

3)    Corporate citizenship and philanthropy (ie. Corporate social responsibility)

4)    Using sustainable and biodegradable resources

Businesses that want to build trust and boost sales need to be responsive to the sustainable consumer’s plight. That may mean examining their marketing for greenwashing and focusing on slowing down the consumption cycle so we consume and waste less. Most consumers are aware of the negative impacts of fast fashion, so positioning yourself as an alternative is beneficial. The large-scale production that most of the fashion giants boast of is causing an irreversible damage to the planet, and this outweighs all the efforts they take towards being more mindful about the environment.

How can businesses make more sustainable apparel products?

There are potentially thousands of environmental impacts that consumers care about in their purchasing. The lack of transparency among companies to reveal if they have a sustainable impact, paired with the opacity of sustainable certifications, makes shopping sustainably harder on consumers than it needs to be. The key is transparency and the willingness to drive the change. Performing a life cycle assessment, upcycling products, reusing and refurbishing already existing fabric are other ways to accelerate the change.

Building trust with the consumers and taking greater responsibility and ownership of their supply chain is also substantial.

Sustainable innovation in fashion

There are a lot of services and start-ups that can guide businesses towards modifying and making certain changes to suit the needs of the consumers alongside being environmentally conscious.

One such start-up that has launched recently is Voiz Reviews. It’s a platform where Gen-Z voices guide consumers on sustainable purchases. Sustainability means different things to different people because of it being such a broad concept, and Voiz does a great job in bringing in a diverse set of opinions from passionate students all across the world.

Another useful step on the journey to becoming more sustainable is to research leaders in the industry. Brands that are proving the business case for sustainability in fashion include:

  • Allbirds – A footwear company that practises sustainability from their raw materials to packaging. Even the laces of the shoes are made from recycled plastic bottles!
  • Ermenegildo Zegna Group – An Italian luxury brand that makes garments out of discarded material.
  • E.L.V.DENIM – Zero Waste denim brand, with upcycling as their ethos. Each pair of jeans is made from discarded jeans.
  • Kotn – A Toronto based apparel company that is focussed on making clothes that last long.
  • Burberry-They released a new collection of parkas and trench coats made from regenerated fishing nets, fabric scraps and industrial plastic. Also claim to use less energy and water intensive techniques.
  • People Tree – Practising Fair Trade fashion since 1991, all their garments are made to the highest ethical and environmental standards from start to finish.
  • Rent the Runway – Lets you borrow clothing to save money and increase the life cycle of garments.

Sustainable Fashion Case Study

To demonstrate the case for sustainable fashion, I'll walk you through a case study. While doing a detailed analysis on how sustainable a particular product is there are three important questions one must address:

  • Who is making it?
  • What is it made of?
  • How is it made?

For example, I’m going to discuss Allbirds shoes.

Allbirds is a leader in sustainable fashion

Who is making it?

Allbirds promotes both the comfort of their shoes and their sustainability. For example, the average sneaker has a carbon footprint of 12.5 Kg CO2, Allbirds claims to have a carbon footprint of 7.6 Kg CO2 and they are constantly striving to become a truly carbon neutral company.

What is it made of?

They make their shoes with natural ingredients like eucalyptus fiber sourced from South Africa, Sugarcane from Brazil, and Wool from New Zealand. Their shoelaces are made of recyclable plastic and the cardboard used for packaging is completely recyclable. The fact that they use wool helps them cutdown energy usage for this section of the manufacturing process, by  nearly 60% in comparison to companies that use synthetic materials.

They use trees from farms that rely on rain instead of complex irrigation systems and minimize the use of fertilizers which leads to 95% less water usage and according to Allbirds also cuts  their carbon emissions in half. In addition to information on their website, they also have product carbon footprint report, where they’ve performed a detailed lifecycle assessment.

How is it made?

Allbirds' manufacturing plant is in Italy, and they source their raw materials from around the world. In my opinion, this is a little impractical since they aim to be a carbon neutral brand. It would be more helpful if they publicly disclosed the carbon emissions of transporting their raw materials to the manufacturing plant. This would give a clearer idea to the consumer of the kind of trade offs the company is making when striving for sustainability in all aspects of its operations. They are one of the very few sustainable shoe brands in the market seeking to make improvements and giving accurate and honest information to consumers to help them make mindful choices.

I have already mentioned this, but I will emphasize again, that sustainability is a multidimensional concept and every company has to make certain trade offs in their aim towards becoming completely sustainable. 

A more sustainable fashion industry is possible, but it requires using existing and recycled materials, eliminating the the concept of waste, and reframing the way we value our garments. Even the slightest effort to ensure complete transparency, responsible supply chain management and focusing on quality rather than mass production can have a massive long-term impact!

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