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What Can the Ethical Fashion Movement Teach Us About Tackling Sustainability In Challenging Industries?

Image credit: Zephie Begolo/The Sustainable Angle

The sustainability challenges facing the clothing industry today are immense. In 2013 the Danish fashion institute estimated it to be the second-most damaging industry in the world, with 25 percent of the world’s pesticides used to grow cotton alone, and one-fifth of industrial water pollution stemming from the dyeing and treatment of fabric. The U.S. alone throws away 13 million tons of clothes per year and conditions in clothing factories worldwide are often poor, with incidents such as the Rana Plaza collapse serving to illustrate the human impact of an industry largely built on outsourced, low-paid labour.

In an industry that produces more than 150 billion items of clothing per year (enough to provide 20 new garments to every person on the planet) addressing these impacts isn’t easy. Fashion is fickle and trend-driven; no product solution typically stays on the market for long. The economics of fashion are also limiting: per-item profit in the industry is typically as low as 4 percent, driving decision-makers invariably toward cheaper options. Questions therefore arise as to how this behemoth of an industry, founded on creating ever-increasing amounts of product for ever-decreasing margins, can ever truly hope to transform itself?

Last week, the Future Fabrics Expo, an exhibition at London’s Olympia exhibition centre, hoped to provide answers to those questions and demonstrate the practical steps being taken to stimulate change under these challenging conditions.

Does ethical manufacture have staying power in trend-driven markets?

One of the accusations levelled at sustainable clothing and, by association, sustainable products in general, is that a limited range of manufacturing materials makes them unsuitable for markets with fast product turnover. Essentially, they would go out of fashion too quickly. The Future Fabrics Expo roundly challenged that perception. The exhibition, developed by not-for-profit organisation The Sustainable Angle, the exhibition showcased over 1,500 ethically and sustainably produced materials, from luxury haute-couture fabrics through to specialised textiles for sportswear and upholstery. The innovation embodied in the event was exceptional, with fabrics derived from diverse crops such as tree bark, pineapple leaves and mushrooms, or created from industrial by-products or special polymers intended for fully closed-loop recycling.

While it is true that in trend-driven markets such as apparel, the rate at which products are updated or replaced may call for constant changes in manufacturing specifications, Future Fabrics highlighted the sheer range of sustainable solutions available on the global market today, and demonstrated that the pace of innovation in sustainable technology is reaching the stage where it can comfortably keep up with consumer demand in industries such as these.

Is ethical manufacture viable for low-margin products?

In high-volume, low-cost fashion, production costs are everything and it can be difficult for sustainable practices to compete with their budget alternatives. Is ethical manufacture viable in highly competitive markets with low profit margins? Tamsin Lejeune, Founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum thinks so. Speaking at a Fashion SVP seminar session chaired by Oliver Horton, she disputed the idea that ethical business practices must necessarily hurt revenues.

Using Marks & Spencer’s recently extended Plan A initiative, she illustrated how striving to meet 100 sustainable and ethical goals had already netted the company benefits worth £625 million.

“Every business needs an efficient supply chain,” she remarked. “How can it be efficient if it’s damaging the environment through wasteful manufacturing processes?”

Lejeune also touched on M&S’ partnership with ethical labour project Better Work, explaining how investment in sustainability could generate greater returns for the business.

“Evidence proves that raising wages for garment workers increases productivity,” she said, citing the 65 percent of Better Work Vietnam factories have seen a corresponding rise in sales as a result.

Rounding off, Lejeune highlighted the growing resonance that sustainable business values have with consumers.

“They may not always directly increase revenue, but they do increase customer loyalty,” she explained. “People are also far more willing to donate to, and financially support, ethical businesses through initiatives such as crowdfunding.”

How can we speed up transitions in industries such as these?

Ultimately, high-volume manufacturing industries will always be challenging to reform. As Lejeune observed: “The elephant in the room is that every time a suggestion comes up that could create the most widespread change, the fact is it’s against the business model.”

So how do we move forward?  

  • Through support of events such as the Future Fabrics Expo, which raises the profile of sustainable technology and challenges negative preconceptions.
  • By sharing expertise, inspiration and resources at all levels to maintain the pace of innovation within sustainable business practice.
  • By accepting collective responsibility and forging roadmaps for industry at global level. “How can we get to where we need to go without directions?” Lejeune asks. “At a national level Governments can place restrictions on their businesses, but that limits them at international level.”
  • Finally and perhaps most importantly, by working to develop and support new business concepts such as product-to-service, shared ownership and closed-loop production methods  that offer new ways to satisfy consumer demand in trend-driven markets.

Adam Tassle Gerschel-Clarke is a freelance sustainable business writer. He explores key topics such as emerging technologies, consumer engagement and business model innovation to identify the opportunities and the risks they present for brands. Adam writes for networks including Sustainable Brands,… [Read more about Adam Gerschel-Clarke]


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