Sustainability in fashion. Is it achievable?

Sustainability is a priority for many consumers. But it hasn’t always been. Back in the Noughties, ASOS, Primark and Topshop revolutionised the UK fashion market. Consumers could buy cheap clothing modelled on designer items and wear it a few times, or even once, before throwing it away. Fashion on the High Street has became so fast that trends change multiple times in a season, but no matter, a new on-trend outfit can arrive in the post within 24 hours.

Over the past few years, global warming, plastic pollution and sustainability have finally become a priority in the collective consciousness. However, within my social group, whilst many of us have tried to cut down on single use plastics, thought more about our carbon emissions when we fly, and even boycotted some products that are shown to have a particularly bad environmental impact, the sustainability of our fashion choices has barely seemed to register. Until now.

The Duchess of Sussex has been repeatedly praised her emphasis on fashion sustainability for wearing sustainable jeans, coats and dresses and for carrying sustainable bags; the BAFTAs recently had a sustainability dress code; and in December 2019 Stella McCartney launched the UN Sustainable Fashion Industry Charter for Climate. The Charter has been signed by many well known brands including Burberry, Levi’s, H&M and Gap and pledges to reduce industry greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030.

So is the fashion industry now waking up to the importance of sustainability?

What do we mean by sustainability?

Sustainability is not only about the materials used in clothing. It is about the entire supply chain, production processes, and product afterlife. For example, bamboo fibres are used in many sustainable-branded clothing as bamboo breaks down far quicker and with fewer carbon emissions than polyester (which takes may years to breakdown). However, growing bamboo is not necessarily truly sustainable – forest is often cleared to provide space for bamboo to be grown, water can be contaminated, labourers may be subject to poor conditions and big business may put local farmers out of business. For a product to be truly sustainable, we have to look beyond the materials and dig deeper into the supply chain.

A key topic in the fashion industry is “circular design”. It means that designers and brands must consider the entire life cycle of the garment when they initially design it and think about where to source materials. Whilst that sounds great in theory, the problem for brands is understanding the supply chain of their materials.

Leather used in a handbag, for example, may be purchased from an ethical and sustainable retailer. That retailer will potentially have a range of suppliers, who themselves may source materials from lots of places. Different people employed by different businesses in different parts of the world may contribute to the creation of the handbag. The supply chain is potentially so long and so complex that the brand cannot realistically know that every link is ethical and sustainable. Stories regularly appear in the press of popular British businesses who discover that parts of their product are made in Chinese prisons or by child labour. Most of the time, those businesses had no idea evidencing the difficulty in auditing large international supply chains.

Of course, sustainability isn’t simply about the materials used in clothing and its supply chain. It is also about consumers changing their fashion habits and ensuring that clothing they buy is re-used as much as possible rather than simply thrown away. This can be achieved by renting clothing, buying second hand clothing, swapping clothing and owning and wearing a smaller wardrobe.

In London and the UK, many fashion entrepreneurs are creating fantastic businesses based on sustainability. Companies like Dundas (https://dundaslondon.com) who make and sell sustainable linen shirts, Front Row who allow consumers to rent designer items for an event or period and then return them for other people to rent, and Clothes Doctor who repair and alter damaged or ill-fitting clothes, all contribute to encouraging consumers to change their fashion habits to become more sustainable.

What does this mean for fashion startups?

Consumers are becoming more sustainability conscious. But so are investors. Most startups need to raise investment to grow and scale and investors (both angels and VCs) are increasingly requiring brands to prioritise sustainability. Moreover, many larger corporates now require service providers from all sectors to agree to comply with their sustainability policies and build audit rights into contracts to ensure that the suppliers do indeed comply.

Several years ago, most fashion startups had a slide on sustainability in their pitchdecks. To some extent, it was treated as a mandatory tick box, in much the same way that tech businesses have tended to include a slide on AI in their pitchdecks. Now, many investors will challenge founders on how sustainability will be achieved including drilling down into their supply chain as part of due diligence before an investment round.

Sustainability has become not just a buzz word but a core business requirement. In my view, fashion businesses who can’t demonstrate that they promote sustainable and ethical business practices will increasingly struggle to survive.

This post was written by Michael Buckworth. If you would like to discuss any of the topics in this article, or would like help with your fashion business, please contact us through the Contact page.

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