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A More Sustainable Fashion Industry: What are leading fast fashion brands doing to address their environmental impact?

By now, most clothing brands should know that creating a sustainable fashion brand and going green are not necessarily the same thing. Sustainability is as much about creating a long-lasting business that can weather changes, as it is about creating a company that isn’t contributing to greenhouse emissions.

This is why the biggest brands in the world are making sustainability pledges. By embracing recycled materials, adopting slow fashion or reducing their carbon footprint, they can safeguard their bottom line in the decades that come.

Yes, they have an ethical responsibility to tackle the environmental issues associated with the manufacturing of clothing, but no businesses can adapt if it results in self destruction. Many circular fashion ideas can help reduce environmental damage and help fashion brands stay profitable.

These include approaches such as the improved use of recycled materials, slow fashion, the use of natural fibers or organic cotton – ideas that can serve the planet and help keep a business profitable. Sustainability is good for business.

Leading fast fashion retailers Zara, Cos, Uniqlo, Mango, Asos and H&M are now officially committed to improving their sustainability. They are in a race to become the most sustainable fashion brands in the fashion sector. Their approaches may vary, but include commitments to using only sustainable cotton and sustainable fabrics to novel recycling technology and the total elimination of toxic chemicals from their production. Many of them are keen to reduce the use of harmful man-made polyesters and some of them plan to expand their recycled materials drive.

In the fashion industry, most approaches to sustainability are focussed on the production of new garments, but fail to address the issue of discarded materials. As of 2022 80% of all clothing ever made now lives in landfills.

In this article, we will list some of the most effective steps brands are taking to be more sustainable and highlight some options that could help the whole industry be more sustainable.

Zara and Sustainable Fashion

Founded in 1975, this Spanish retailer now has over 2000 stores and owns other popular retailers Bershka, Pull & Bear and Massimo Dutti. With 12,000 distinct garment designs for 20 collections a year, they are one of the biggest clothing brands with an estimated revenue of around 20 million dollars a year.

In 2011 Greenpeace alerted Zara to the hazardous chemicals being used in production and Zara quickly pledged to create a toxic chemicals free supply chain by 2020, a goal they have since achieved.

More recently, they pledged to ensure all their cotton is organic, recycled or produced in line with the Better Cotton Initiative by the year 2023. The retailer also pledged that 100% of its polyester will be recycled, reducing the need for more man-made polyester.

Further commitments to using renewable energy in their stores and offices and eliminating all plastic bags are hoped to inspire the wider industry to take action.
Describing the decision, Marta Ortega, the daughter of the company’s founder said “It’s the right thing to do, both morally and commercially, and it’s an approach that we’re absolutely committed to.”

H&M and Sustainable Fashion

Founded in 1947, the Swedish brand H&M operates over 4000 stores around the globe and employs over 100,000 staff. Since 2013, the company which had previously been targeted for its lack of sustainability pledges has worked hard to become a more responsible retailer.

To encourage recycling, the world’s leading fast fashion retailer, was one of the first brands to invite customers to swap old clothing for vouchers and more recently took the bold step of committing the entire brand to become a climate-positive company by 2040.

Recognising waste and the frustration of having to buy clothing to be rarely worn, the company is currently trialling a clothing rental service to extend the life cycle of garments. This service could allow consumers to rent suits for important occasions but not be committed to having them all year round.

Demonstrating how far they have come, H&M was among the highest scoring brands in Fashion Revolution’s influential Fashion Transparency Index in 2021. While the Index doesn’t score brands on their sustainability practices or manufacturing process, it does rank them according to their efforts to set out their commitments publicly.

The founders of the index argue that supply chain transparency, openness and accountability are the first steps to making brands more sustainable.

Shein and Sustainable Fashion

Founded in China in 2008 by Quist Huang, by 2022 Shein had rapidly become the biggest eCommerce fast fashion retailer in the world. Listing 6000 new items on the site every day, the company has redefined the notion of ‘fast fashion’.

The newest kid on the block, the company only invested in developing its own supply chains in 2014 and trialled smaller-scale fashion production of garments to establish demand. While this innovation might seem environmentally forward thinking and sustainable, the brand was routinely criticised for simply being yet another clothing brand promoting cheap, disposable fast fashion.

To fend off criticism the company, valued at 100 billion dollars, created a 50 million dollar fund to promote and fund sustainability and waste initiatives. In June 2022 the company pledged 15 million dollars to help support the textile waste and recycling communities in Ghana highlighting major issues around textile and clothing waste.

Adam Whinston, head of Environmental Social Governance at Shein, said the company had an “ambitious” impact agenda. “Addressing secondhand waste is an important part of the fashion ecosystem that is often overlooked. We have an opportunity to make change in this space, and we look forward to working with the Or Foundation on this first-of-its-kind effort.”

While Shien might be interested in addressing global apparel waste, they show no signs yet of committing to a sustainable production model. The company of now being heralded as a perfect example of Greenwashing, whereby the clothing brand takes steps to ensure they have positive environmental news stories, and credentials but nothing substantive to back it up.

Fashion waste vs Sustainable Clothing

While each of these fast fashion brands has varying degrees of sustainability and has approached the issue of responsible consumption differently, only Shien seemed willing to highlight (accidentally or otherwise) the truly devastating reality of excessive consumption and waste generated through their production processes.

Most brands focus on their supply chains and the ecological integrity of their production sites, ignoring the fact that around the world mountains of discarded textiles continue to grow. While most people assume these mountains are made of old garments, many would be surprised to learn that a large percentage is made up of unused, unworn, unsold or barely used clothing.

While statistics vary, it is estimated that around 30%-40% of all clothing produced each year never finds its way to a wardrobe. The vast majority of this is either incinerated or sent to landfill. Only 8% is estimated to be recycled.

The reasons for the waste also vary with much of it being unwanted returns, excessive production or bad design. In addition to fixing their supply chains to become more sustainable, brands need to look at their infrastructures, logistics and business model to see where efficiencies and improvements can be made.

Other solutions

What are the leading brands not doing enough of? With climate and sustainability pledges, many fashion retailers need to do more if they are going to deliver on their climate change goals.

It’s clear now that all would-be sustainable fashion brands should reject poor quality items and produce smaller collections designed to meet the demand of customers and not vastly exceed it.

Fashion brands should be actively using better sourced raw materials such as recycled materials, organic cotton and local production to minimise their carbon emissions.

Where the use of recycled materials isn’t possible, garments must be designed with recycling or composting in mind. If a piece of clothing is no longer wanted, can it easily be recycled or potentially disposed of without leaving a trace?

Reducing waste

Lastly, free returns and delivery can be enhanced to reduce paper and plastic waste and deliveries should be made by vehicles that don’t require fossil fuels. Better still, by using mobile technology, customers should be able to virtually try on clothing, and provide better sizing data to minimise the likelihood of costly, unwanted returns in the first place.

For higher-end items such as gowns and suits, brands can learn from the likes of Uber and Airbnb and enable rental and borrowing services between owners. By increasing and facilitating borrowing, they can reduce the need to buy new, and make new every time.

While big brands may be adopting some sustainability pledges, there’s still a vast amount of steps the whole fashion industry can take. The key is to think of sustainable fashion as something important for the planet, but also vital to the long term security of the business.

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