Textiles are an important part of today’s global economy yet have a significant impact on our environment. The manufacturing of apparels burns 132 million metric tonnes of coal every year and uses 6 to 9 trillion liters of water. Therefore, the apparel and retail industry must step forward to develop a sustainability strategy that encompasses environmental, social, and economic initiatives in order to demonstrate accountability for the impact of their business.
Apparel production has doubled in the last 15 years with sales reaching $1.67 trillion in 2016. While ever increasing consumerism is good for the apparel and retail sector, environmental and social issues have put businesses under extreme pressure to innovate and take future proofing actions. The key sustainability issues that the industry has been grappling with are:
- ‘Take-make-dispose’ model including fast fashion led by producers and retailers
- Cotton production is resource intensive, it requires large amounts of energy, water, and pesticides
- Long-term availability of cotton remains uncertain due to high price fluctuations
- Lack of appropriate working conditions across the supply chain from cotton production, sweatshops, and high street stores
- Harmful chemicals in the working environment especially dyeing that can be toxic to the environment and workers
- Unsustainable man-made fibers can take longer to degrade in landfill sites
- Standards related to animal welfare during leather and wool production
- High energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in retail and consumer phase
Industry leaders have started recognizing that the existing business model is inherently wasteful, and the current rising demand is increasing the negative environmental and social impacts. Many apparel and textile brands have taken a lead in developing sustainable products and responsible business practices. This has been driven by increasing consumer awareness and preference to buy because they believe it is doing social or environmental good. New regulations around Circular Economy, Climate Change and Waste Management are increasing pressure on companies to develop responsible products with lower environmental impact. There are ongoing initiatives by leading apparel and retail brands aimed at diverting waste from landfill through innovative product design, stewardship and strategic brand communications. Hence, sustainability initiatives are increasingly becoming a tool for marketing and branding as well as compliance management.
Implementing a sustainability strategy in an organization is more pertinent today than ever to support the company’s growth, community involvement, and stakeholder engagement. As one third of the consumers now choose to buy brands based on their environmental and social impact, according to new research by Unilever. Such consumers are more likely to choose a brand if its sustainability credentials were made clearer on packaging or in marketing. Consequently, ‘green consumers’ represent an untapped opportunity, given that the study shows that market size for sustainable goods is $2.7 trillion. Green consumers regularly pay more for brands they trust.
Responsible brands demonstrate economic, environmental, and social sustainability through innovation, sustainable product design, and responsible partnerships. In order to generate a positive impact and be fully accountable, the entire industry can learn from key initiatives taken by responsible brands across lifecycle stages:
- Raw materials: H&M and Patagonia use variety of sustainable raw materials in their products such as Natural fibre, Hemp, Organic cotton, Recycled nylon, Recycled polyester, Recycled wool, Reclaimed wool, Yulex etc.
- Fabric and garment manufacturing: Companies are working with suppliers to promote use of green innovative technologies such as Eco-dyeing to reduce climate impact. Additionally, suppliers’ sustainability performance is audited and tracked with Codes of Conduct (CoC).
- Supply Chain: Issues related to environmental impact, working conditions, human rights, subsidies, and price pressures are being addressed through industry associations and international standards such as Fairtrade
- Retail: The retail sector’s focus has been on reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) Emissions. For example, H&M has set a long-term goal of becoming climate positive across the entire value chain by 2040.
- End of Life: Patagonia offers free repairs as well as lessons for customers to fix their own gear. Also, H&M’s garment collecting initiative has gathered more than 32,000 tonnes of garments since 2013, and incentivizes consumers through new product discounts.
Apparel and retail industry leaders are taking a strategic approach to positively impact environmental and social scopes both inside and outside their businesses. This is driven by a rising awareness among investors and consumers as well as an increasing demand from a regulatory standpoint. The rest of the industry needs to act swiftly to align with a growing demand of sustainability initiatives which in turn will help them capitalize on opportunities to drive resource productivity while reducing GHG emissions, water consumption, and waste generation across product life cycles.