By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
More than one thousand members of the fashion industry met last week at the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit to discuss sustainability.
Fashion is a notoriously dirty industry – and the problem is getting worse. As Fast Company reported in Bad news: The fashion industry is actually slowing down on sustainability:
Fashion is a massively polluting industry that is accelerating the pace of the predicted climate disaster. In 2015, the sector generated 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. (It also responsible for a fifth of the global water pollution, and a third of the microplastics in the oceans.)
As more and more attention is focused on fashion’s polluting ways, an increasing number of companies have announced sustainability initiatives. But while some sensible changes have been implemented, these lag the rate of growth of the fashion sector, as documented in the 2019 update of Pulse of the Fashion Industry, an annual assessment of the fashion industry’s environmental and social performance in terms of the Pulse Score, produced by the Global Fashion Agenda, the Boston Consulting Group, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
That means the sustainability situation is deteriorating overall, despite the modest gains. According to Fast Company:
“The industry is still improving when it comes to sustainability,” says Morten Lehmann, Global Fashion Agenda’s chief sustainability officer, and a coauthor for this report. “The problem is that the pace of improvement is slowing down, while the industry as a whole is growing between 4% and 5% every year.”
I think this isn’t assessment isn’t nearly critical enough. As Fast Company also reports:
… The fashion industry is still far from sustainable. In fact, the report finds that 40% of all fashion companies have not even begun to take sustainability seriously by setting targets and rethinking their supply chain. Among the rest of the 60%, a lot of the improvement is happening with small companies (or those with less than $100 million in revenue a year, which includes many startups) and mid-sized companies (which make less than $1 billion in revenue a year). Among the biggest players in the market, which make billions in revenue every year, the pace of improvement has basically stalled out.
Findings of Fashion Sustainability Report
The Pulse report found consumers are aware of sustainability – which is a factor driving some purchasing decisions – particularly those of millennials. Yet the report acknowledges that consumer sentiment alone isn’t powerful enough to force changes in how the industry operates:
This awareness is beginning to have a greater effect on consumer purchasing decisions, with more than a third of survey respondents reporting they have already switched from their preferred brand to another for reasons related to responsible practices. More than half of the respondents said they anticipate that their next purchase decision will be based on these practices. For the first time, this data confirms that most consumers include sustainability considerations in their decision-making framework. …
However, consumer considerations of sustainable practices are not yet powerful enough to be the most important driver of purchasing behaviour. Quality and aesthetics still dominate decision making. Nevertheless, for 7% of consumers sustainability is the most important decision-making criteria. Yet, the industry cannot wait for the consumer to lead this movement—it is up to fashion leaders to take bolder moves today to transition to a sustainable industry. (Pulse report, p.2; citations omitted; emphasis added).
To put this in even starker terms, a recent article in the Business of Fashion, 5 Takeaways From Fashion’s Sustainability Summit, makes clear that although a concern, sustainability alone doesn’t motivate the purchasing decisions of most consumers – including millennials:
Even though there’s increasing demand from consumers for brands to operate more sustainably, that’s still not what’s driving their purchasing decisions. In fact, for the average consumer, the biggest considerations remain style and price, “everything else is way down on the scale,” said PVH Chief Executive Emanuel Chirico.
To move things forward, brands need to be more vocal in educating their customers on their initiatives, while continuing to push for change.
“It’s on us as an industry to drive this change,” the [Global Fashion Agenda’s Eva] Kruse said. “We cannot expect consumers to drive this forward.”
This is just the latest example I’ve seen of excessive hand-wringing over the failure of magical shifts in consumption patterns to materialize and solve these difficult problems (see my earlier post, Fast Fashion: Magical Shift in Consumption Patterns Will Save the Planet?).
So, What Should Companies Do?
I won’t recap here any of the individual efforts some companies are making to address sustainability concerns here. These by themselves are insufficient to fix much of anything.
The situation may be changing, with the industry moving to take a more comprehensive approach to act collectively to address sustainability. As Vogue reports in At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Kering’s François-Henri Pinault Shares a Radical New Vision of Sustainability: “Kering chair and CEO François-Henri Pinault revealed he’s been hired by French president Emmanuel Macron for a first-of-its-kind role: to create a “coalition” of CEOs and top brands in the fashion industry to join forces and set ambitious sustainability targets together” – a mandate he addressed this issue in his opening address to the conference.
According to Vogue:
What’s significant about this is that it could mark a new era of collaboration and open-source cooperation across the fashion industry, and eventually other industries, too. In an exclusive interview after his keynote, Pinault explained that fashion’s long-held values of competition and exclusivity simply aren’t conducive to serious change. Instead, he believes brands should be sharing ideas and sources (and, in Kering’s case, working with suppliers to bring down the costs of new technologies to make them accessible to mid- and small-size brands).
“Despite what we’re doing, things are not moving,” Pinault said. “I could understand it if we were the only company working towards this, but we aren’t. It’s amazing what some of the biggest companies are doing. But the results don’t work.” Evidence suggests that the current way of doing things—i.e., brands working alone, defining what sustainability means for their own purposes, and setting different goals—simply isn’t adding up. That’s where Macron’s mandate comes in: “We really need to define targets together. The first stage is to choose three or four objectives that are top priority for the industry and commit to working towards them together to find solutions,” Pinault explained. “I’m [confident] we will reach a level that none of us individually could reach by working alone.” (Later in the morning, his friend Paul Polman summed it up with an old African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”)
Forbes featured an article today, Sustainability Is Linked To Privilege – Teasing Out The Truths From Copenhagen Fashion Summit, that suggested the problem may be untrammelled, unregulated competition in the fashion industry. What’s needed is government regulation in order to get companies to act in ways that may not be in their individual competitive interest to pursue if others fail to act similarly.
The Forbes article emphasized:
Two key areas needing action were identified throughout the two days of panel discussions at the summit. The first was government and legislation, and the second was brand competition. Without legislation (or taxation), restrictions that will deliver the reduction in carbon emissions urgently needed are not a business imperative. Implementation of carbon-reducing initiatives is not currently rewarded. A brand CEO I spoke to said that operating more sustainably is costly and squeezes a company’s profitability, so what is the incentive? No company wants to give their competitor an edge by doing things in a more expensive way without justification, and it seems that the fear of climate doom is not a strong enough carrot, hence Paul Polman presenting the stick.
The other area that needs addressing is that brands want to maintain their competitive advantage and will continue to do so unless a level playing field is established across the industry. Achievement of a level playing field is linked strongly to trade unions and governments establishing industry standards and regulation. Currently, if one factory chooses to pay its workers a fair wage, for example, that will drive the price of their goods up and brands will simply move their production to a cheaper factory. The lack of collective bargaining is reinforcing the problems discussed each year at the summit around fair wages and exploitation in the supply chain. [Jerri-Lynn here: emphasis added.]
It’s all very well and good to talk about more sustainable fashion. But if we were really serious about confronting the industry’s environmental costs – especially its climate change impacts – I think more attention must be paid to our throwaway culture. For clothing, this is not just limited to the “fast fashion” segment – cheap, of-the-moment clothes, never meant to last – but the overall deterioration in the quality of clothing over recent decades (to which readers often attest in comments). (For more on fast fashion see Fast Fashion Juggernaut Rolls Along and The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion for an introduction and overview).
McKinsey addressed this disposability issue in a 2017 report for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A NEW TEXTILES ECONOMY: REDESIGNING FASHION’S FUTURE:
Worldwide, clothing utilisation – the average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used – has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago. While many low-income countries have a relatively high rate of clothing utilisation, elsewhere rates are much lower. In the US, for example, clothes are only worn for around a quarter of the global average. The same pattern is emerging in China, where clothing utilisation has decreased by 70% over the last 15 years.
Globally, customers miss out on USD 460 billion of value each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear, and some garments are estimated to be discarded after just seven to ten wears.Clothing users are acknowledging this as a problem, with, for example, 60% of German and Chinese citizens admitting to owning more clothes than they need. (McKinsey report, p. 19; citations omitted).
Another issue conspicuous in its absence from the Business of Fashion’s Five Takeaways report (as well as the other press accounts I’ve seen) is the globalization of fashion production, and supply chains. The long distances clothing is shipped, from producer to consumer, is a major contributor to the industry’s carbon footprint. Now, there’s a long history of trade in textiles and apparel – a very long history indeed. Pliny the Elder decried the appetite of his fellow Romans for Indian textiles – and the costs to Rome of those appetites. The Silk Road was named after one of the most important products transported from Asia westward. But it wasn’t so very long ago that most textiles were produced locally – or regionally. And if when were shipped, it wasn’t via air. At the start of the Kennedy administration, IIRC, one of every eight American jobs was in textiles and apparel production. So shipping everyday clothes halfway around the world, more or less immediately, in large quantities, is a relatively recent phenomenon. And even if it weren’t, if climate change is indeed the threat it appears to be, do we really need to continue to do this?
What Is to Be Done?
I don’t have any particularly wise words of wisdom to impart here. As in so many areas, it seems to boil down to: reduce, reuse, recycle, and repair (see Four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and…Repair ). To which I suppose I could add another R: Refuse. Just say no.
This would be easier to do if clothing producers again offered high quality clothing, intended to last. The disposability problem isn’t restricted to the low-end of the fashion spectrum. I’ve been shocked and amazed when I look at many high-end “designer” duds to see the shoddy textiles from which they’re made.
If we ever hope to stop accelerating the pace of climate change – not to mention curb global water pollution and stop the proliferation of microplastics everywhere – it’s necessary to get serious about fashion and sustainability. Waiting for millennials to shift their clothing consumption patterns won’t cut it.