The following is a member post by Alisha Bhagat that was originally posted to the Forum for the Future blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of the APF or its members.
It’s worth three trillion dollars
annually; engages complex and interconnected global supply chains; provides a vast range of consumer choice, and appeals to every conceivable rational and emotional human aspiration and motivation. There is little doubt that the fashion industry is a vast, complicated system which in some way touches practically every person on the planet.
Today, the long-term sustainability of the fashion industry (which is the world’s second-biggest polluter after oil), is under significant threat from a wide range of social, human rights, environmental and commercial governance factors.
In early November, we hosted a “Futures Salon” event to address the many challenges facing the industry and identify potential solutions to ensure fashion’s viability. Held at the Levi Strauss and Co. offices in Manhattan, the event was formatted to draw upon the expertise of over 50 invitees including fashion brand representatives, designers, and entrepreneurs.
The Viability of the Fashion Industry
A panel discussion established at the outset the industry’s unique challenges, including a system which incentivizes rapid production of a high volume of items generally disposed of after consumer use (in the US, each person discards an average of 85lbs of textiles per year
– with 70lbs going straight to landfill).
The global cotton industry is also impacted by human rights issues and multiple long-term risks including climate change and drought, population growth and food scarcity.
All of these factors affecting the future of mass-produced fashion are converging to demand an urgent response. Innovations in production, consumption, and disposal are beginning to challenge the business status quo and provide opportunities for a more sustainable future:
•Levi’s recently partnered with Evrnu
, a textile recycling start-up, and produced its first pair of fully recycled cotton jeans; each pair made from 5 used cotton t-shirts and requiring 98% less water than a pair of virgin jeans.
•Campaigns such as “Who Made My Clothes
” connect consumers with the people who stitched their clothes in an attempt to raise awareness of labor abuses.
•To curb waste, new businesses such as Rent the Runway and Le Tote allow for consumers to rent clothes rather than buy them.
•Companies such as Zady
are encouraging consumers to forego fast fashion for timeless style and well-crafted pieces that will last longer.
Despite these innovations, however, much needs to be done to support a fashion industry that minimizes waste, pays workers well, and produces quality garments. A common theme which always emerges is the absolute necessity for consumer demand to increase for sustainably produced garments. All participants agreed that with many of the social and environmental issues impacting elsewhere – i.e. away from the end-market – it was difficult to get most consumers to care.
Industry attendees also agreed that the relevance of sustainable business practices needed to be emphasized at each stage of the fashion supply chain – from the production of raw materials such as cotton, to the disposal of garments by consumers at end of life.
Responding to the challenges… all along the supply chain
Recognizing the requirement of a multi-faceted approach, and as a reflection of the systems-wide methodologies promoted by Forum for the Future, industry break-out groups generated ideas and areas for further development, encompassing all stages of the value chain.
To address the many challenges of production, the need for improved financial incentives was identified, along with support for government regulation to reward companies adopting sustainability best practices. Levis, for example, challenged and incentivized their internal sourcing team to develop products that met the criteria of waterless jeans
(which use on average 28 percent less water, and up to 96 percent for certain products) and now, 45% of all Levi’s products are made using waterless processes. These stories of success needed to be told, and sustainable best practices needed to be promoted by harnessing the profile of CEOs through a range of communication tactics including television and social media.
The design challenge was to create affordable and sustainable product while remaining financially viable – design being the bridge between the consumer and the finished product. In this area, biotechnology holds considerable promise, with science and new technologies combining to create fabrics that are more sustainable. Designers need to understand the capabilities of these new fabrics and learn how to work with them.
Designers do not work in a vacuum, however. It was pointed out that industry business models needed to evolve away from the short-term quarterly cycle in the fashion industry, while simultaneously accelerating innovation.
A number of strategies were identified to drive consumer demand and to make fashion purchase decisions based on their values: From a brand perspective, sustainability can be a differentiator if all other factors – especially style and price – remain competitive.
All manner of tactics can be considered: supportive government policies to encourage consumer choice, to deployment of key influencers such as celebrities and pop culture films can push consumer awareness towards sustainable choices
Rating systems and QR codes on tags will facilitate the standardization of sustainability and provide enhanced transparency through relevant and accessible information – provided that the consumer is not deluged with information overload.
Finally, industry collaboration will be vital to promoting a systems-level view to influencing the future of fashion. One successful example, the Better Cotton Initiative
, achieved a 10% sustainable cotton level despite its diverse stakeholder population and time-consuming processes. Collaborations present their own challenges, however: they do not lend themselves to speed; varying levels of ambition are at play and different organizational structures (even between public and privately held companies) can impact rates of progress.
Strong corporate cultures, together with industry leadership will be required to transcend operational realities along the supply chains. In the meantime, all participants in this Futures Salon event agreed that ultimately the end consumer will be the final arbiter of the success of sustainability – not as a fashion trend, but as an industry necessity.
Forum for the Future believes that the fashion industry can be changed for the better, but that it will take collective action.
Among our programs underway, Forum’s Cotton 2040
project is focused on building demand for sustainable cotton, improving traceability, training farmers and scaling cotton recycling. Separately, through our Fashion Futures
project, we created a free toolkit that can be used by businesses and educators in designing products or strategy. These tools were deployed when we hosted the design sprint with Parsons, which you can read about here
. We are now looking for companies to co-host a very similar challenge with designers in the industry to inspire innovation. If you are interested in collaborating with us, please contact:
Alisha Bhagat, Senior Sustainability Advisor