The fashion industry has made strides towards increased sustainability in the clothing we produce, but as outlined by the 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) report, ***A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's Future***, the need to advance these goals is paramount. Global apparel production has doubled in the last 15 years, and if growth continues as expected, it will triple by 2050. The report calls for transformation across the apparel industry — from the way clothes are designed, to how they are sold, used and reused in a circular model. To achieve this, one thing is necessary: a commitment across the entire industry to drive material, design, production and performance innovation.
Sparking an encouraging dialogue at events
Whether you’re a supplier, spinner, manufacturer, designer or brand, we’re all charged with bringing innovative solutions to the table and shaping consumer education and perception of sustainability. Industry trade shows and conferences can serve as a litmus test for sustainability progress, hosting innovation labs and roundtables that encourage dialogue and collaboration. This year, the issues of climate change and lack of transparency drove programming and conversation throughout key events. At the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show 2018, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) debuted a new online education platform, created by their collaborative Sustainability Working Group. At ISPO Munich, winners of the annual ISPO Award were recognized for their product innovations, with an emphasis on sustainability and individualization. Partners and participants of EMF’s “Make Fashion Circular” initiative were announced at the 2018 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, uniting stakeholders from across the industry, including suppliers, brands, NGOs, cities and philanthropists.
The ongoing narrative at apparel and fashion conferences is a promising sign that the industry is poised to increase investment in textile innovation, but more is needed to propel the industry forward. According to recent research by OEKO-TEX, only 26 percent of millennials and 16 percent of boomers cited the textile industry as a major polluter. Furthermore, even fewer consumers are taking action; an Eastman report estimated that sustainable apparel shoppers only account for about one in ten global consumers. This is evidence of the continued need for action and collaboration among fashion retailers to help change the mindset of consumers and make sustainability more affordable, accessible and valuable to them.
Driving change through action
Many fashion brands are already doing their part to advance innovation and change the culture of the apparel industry. Brands in their infancy have become unlikely changemakers by intrinsically tying innovation and sustainability to their corporate mission and consequently increasing consumer awareness around slow fashion. Outdoor Voices — an activewear brand at the intersection of style and function — designs high-quality, durable garments using technical materials that feel good to wear. Similarly, Allbirds aims to “to create better things in a better way” by using natural materials to create quality footwear and packaging it in 90 percent post-consumer recycled cardboard. Their products — which have gained attention and approval from consumers, department stores, and the investment community — are raising the bar for other brands in the space for both their performance and mission.
More established retailers are also pioneering the industry towards sustained change, embedding innovation and sustainability into their mission statements and business plans. Long before Outdoor Voices and Allbirds, brands such as Patagonia, Royal Robbins, The North Face and Columbia Sportswear were established with the intention of creating durable and in many cases, sustainable apparel — leading the way for the industry by taking clear steps towards an innovative future. Most recently, REI has taken bold strides by establishing REI Product Sustainability Standards for its brand partners.
Although these companies should be applauded for their endeavors, the collective industry still has a long way to go to truly move the needle. The second edition of the Pulse of the Fashion Industry — released last month by the Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group — rated fashion’s sustainable pulse at just 38 out of 100, demonstrating the enormous opportunity to drive sustained change. The report, which leverages data from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s self-assessment Higg Index tool, also estimates that around a third of the industry has yet to take any action towards improving environmental or social performance. While there are some positive advancements, progress isn’t happening fast enough — nor going far enough.
Shifting consumer culture
Incremental improvements need to shift to industry-wide collaboration and commitment to truly create systemic change. While there is promising action from a number of brands, the onus is on the entire industry to unite not just to produce innovative products, but to educate the end consumer on the long-term, meaningful value of sustainable fashion. Only then can a full-scale cultural shift — from supplier to consumer — truly occur.