The Clock is ticking on Fashion’s Sustainability Effort
A dichotomy exists between ethical practices and a business’ natural incentive to drive sales. The challenge is in the balance.
Following the rise of movements which span ends of the earth, such as #metoo and #blacklives matter, today’s consumer is woke. Nine out of ten of them believe that there’s a corporate responsibility to address these issues. By 2020, they would represent 40 percent of global consumers so this is not an opinion to sleep on. In fact, power lies dormant in their views. When it was revealed that Burberry had been destroying unsold clothes as part of their business strategy to maintain their ‘prestige’ by not having to sell at a price cut, the public and British MPs were outraged. The result of this outcry — Burberry halted their burning of millions of dollars.
There’s a twelve-year deadline to make substantial change. To ignore this would be to welcome disastrous environmental consequences. The fashion industry plays a heavy part for this — accounting for 10 percent of global carbon emissions (more than that of all international flights and maritime shipping combined) and it produces 10 percent of all wastewater.
© Michelangelo Pistoletto, Venus of the Rags, 1967
They are right behind oil, as the world’s second largest polluter. And for years, the social cost of fashion lies with exporting labour to countries with a low production cost, often at the expense of worker rights and poor safety conditions.
We have to recognise that we are all accountable for the environment. Consumers are part of the equation. Weekly streetwear drops championed by Supreme and Palace are a manifestation that overconsumption has become the driving force of fashion sales. With the normalised approach of reselling, streetwear is less about subculture and more about ‘clothing and capital’. But perhaps, that’s exactly the culture we’re living in.
With overproduction on the rise, clothes find their homes in landfills instead of wardrobes. In France alone, the destruction of new and unused consumer goods is worth 800 million euros each year. As part of a bill, the French Government will debate in July to outlaw this wasteful practice by 2023. Manufacturers and retailers will have to either donate, reuse or recycle their goods. Destruction won’t be an option and production would have to be well thought out.
The fashion industry understands the need for change and there have been many steps of progress but — is it enough?
Since 2015, H&M’s Global Change Award gives recipients monetary aid to further their sustainable brand. The goal of the fund is to ‘speed up the process of finding, supporting and scaling up disruptive innovations that can make the entire fashion industry circular’. It begs the question: do we really need another sustainable fashion brand? It does not go to the heart of the issue as most of fashion’s emissions and waste happens at the production stage of clothes. A recurring theme in reports consolidated by brands and retailers is that they focus on new materials and innovation but choose to ignore fashion’s overgrowth and overconsumption issue which is an essential part of the discussion.
Leaders of the fashion industry recognises that more has to be done. In a five-year partnership with UNESCO, French luxury conglomerate, LVMH has looked beyond their own supply chain by preserving biodiversity around the world. The program ‘Man and Biosphere’ operates in 122 countries and on 686 biosphere reserves, comprising of marine, terrestrial and coastal ecosystems. In their own backyard, LVMH has set environmental targets for the house as a whole to be achieved by 2020. Indeed, ambitious yet attainable goals are what the fashion industry needs in their fight to be a sustainable industry. French president Emmanuel Macron has enlisted CEO François-Henri Pinault to move in that direction, forming a “coalition” of CEOs and top brands in the industry to set sustainability targets together in order to create lasting change.
It’s important to recognise that the industry will only continue to grow. By 2030, the global apparel and footwear industry will move by 81 percent, placing an unprecedented strain on depleting resources. With the clock ticking, it’s important that we are aware of the cost of our actions and to start progress now. If fashion’s sustainability efforts are to truly count, it will take everyone — both brands and consumers alike. Sustainability is a collective effort.