For years the term ‘sustainability’ has been bandied about the retail sector with the same candid rhetoric as phrases such as consumer centric, omnichannel and mobile first, with few brands giving the topic the focus it deserves.
With consumer attitudes around environmental concerns hardening, however, brands and retailers are taking action and starting to place sustainability higher up their business agenda.
Global fashion giant H&M Group – which includes the H&M brand as well as the likes of COS, & Other Stories and Arket - is aiming to only use 100% recycled materials by 2030 and climate positive by 2040.
Sustainability is such as hot topic these days but, sadly, fashion and retail are playing catch-up with other industries. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world after oil.
But change is afoot.
It seems that, finally, brands are not only discussing the topic but taking action. The wasteful, outdated model of fashion has been highlighted by the Ellen Macarthur Circular Fashion report, and numerous brands are looking at how to change their own processes accordingly.
Climate change is a big focus worldwide, and that has to come down to the industries that are impacting it as well as governments. On top of that, the human lives involved in this manufacturing model are also cause for concern. This was first highlighted by the high-profile Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, in which 1,138 workers died. It’s not just overseas, a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation in January revealed that British factory workers have been paid as little as £3 an hour to make clothes for high street chains including New Look and River Island.
These high-profile cases have hit the consumer conscience.
By definition, the fashion industry is a commercial industry powered by the consumer’s endless desire for the new and the next items for their wardrobe.
Waste, however, is a huge factor. Speaking to the Guardian last month, designer Stella McCartney lamented that only 1% of discarded clothing really gets properly recycled. On top of that, we know from McKinsey & Co that of the 100 billion items of clothing and accessories made every year worldwide, some three-fifths end up in landfill or incineration within the same 12-month period.
The “death of trends” has been lauded in recent years as brands strive to produce timeless pieces rather than appeal to short-term fads with product that the consumer will ultimately throw away. But it’s so much more than just the waste element - sustainability touches all areas of the business: agriculture, fabrics, dyes, finishes, production, washing and of course all the people who work on all parts of the garment’s cycle.
Eileen Fischer is one of the brands leading the way here. The brand’s ‘Vision 2020’ lays out its plan for an industry “where human rights and sustainability are not the effect of a particular initiative but the cause of a business well run”.
The plan covers everything from fibres and dyes to staff and supply chain. Of particular note is its plan around waste. In 2009, it launched a take-back programme that recycles clothing to be resold or renewed. The pieces that are damaged beyond repair even go into their “waste no more” collection of upcycled pieces – from pillows to coats.
At the other end of the scale is H&M. Despite being a fast fashion retailer at its core, and the second largest of those in the world, it has a huge drive to focus on moving towards an entirely circular system, with some ambitious goals to get there by 2030.
What’s interesting here is the fact the organisation is highlighting that being more sustainable is not just good for the planet, but good for business as well.
If we can start from the bottom up, shift mentality with not just the retailers, but with their suppliers as well, then there’s a much broader opportunity for change. This is a seismic challenge, meaning everyone across the industry needs to collaborate and the entire supply chain fundamentally buy into the shift.
There is no denying that sustainability is usually last on the list of considerations when shopping, if it features at all. More commonly, aesthetics, fit, wow factor and value for money influence decisions to buy. It is important that change is driven by brands, particularly those in fast-fashion, so that the sustainability conundrum doesn’t just become a choice and consideration for the privileged few who can afford to buy into brands with the right credentials, but a standard that we all accept and live by.
Insights provided by Rosanna Falconer and Rachel Arthur, founders, FashMash
Partnering with Isobar, FashMash Pioneers is an annual programme of monthly talks featuring the world’s brightest minds dissecting the future of technology. The fourth talk will feature Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at H&M. Those interested in attending can find ticket information here.