Five ways fashion retailers are becoming more sustainable

22 February 2019 7 min. read
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The growth-based model of the fashion retail industry has led to a massive market of cheaper, less durable clothing in order to sate the desires of international consumers for new products. As the industry strives to become more sustainable, Jennifer Nixon, a retail expert at management consulting firm Gate One, has explained five best practices which fashion retailers can learn from.

In the digital age of instant purchasing and next day deliveries, the desire for fast fashion is growing constantly. This saw the average consumer buy 60% more garments per year between 2000 and 2014, while they only retained their clothes for around half as long as 15 years ago. As a result of this clamour for new clothing, many high street brands now put out new ranges every month, while committing themselves to a price cutting war to attract consumers. In order to pay for the lower prices, stores have had to alter their supply chains to cost less, reducing their quality in the process.

According to the Council for Textile Recycling, this now means that the United States alone produces around 25 billion pounds of clothing waste every single year. At the same time, a mere 18% of clothing is currently reused or recycled. This state of affairs has also developed alongside a growing appetite for sustainability, however, which over the same period of time has become a keystone topic for most of the boardrooms. This contradiction between business beliefs and practices is seeing more and more retailers working to bring their operations in line with sustainability goals

Five ways fashion retailers are becoming more sustainable

It should be noted that this is not merely out of the goodness of their hearts, of course. The appetite for sustainability in retail is borne out of the fact that consumers are increasingly expecting it. A global survey of nearly 30,000 consumers in 35 countries recently found that 62% want companies to take a stand on issues such as sustainability, transparency and fair employment practices. Firms that fail to adapt to these needs face losing significant levels of business, then. Ultimately, in a $3 trillion-dollar industry, fashion retailers must consider sustainability to win over consumers, or face a severe bottom-line impact.

This is not something which fashion retailers can wait to take action on, either. According to Jennifer Nixon, a Manager at management consultancy Gate One, new, ethical entrants to the market that only sell recycled clothing are increasingly entering the market, while a number of more-established brands are also progressing on the sustainability front.

One example is Burberry, a core partner of the Make Fashion Circular initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The circular economy project aims to create business models which will keep garments in use, utilise materials which are renewable and find ways of recycling old clothes into new products. In order to learn from the best practices of sustainability leaders such as this, in an article originally posted on Gate One’s own website, Nixon subsequently outlined five ways in which retailers are becoming more sustainable.

1. Sustainable material

The first, arguably most obvious, step to improving a fashion firm’s sustainability is to change the materials it uses. Materials which are not biodegradable have suddenly come under heightened scrutiny due to their horrendous impact on the natural world. As a result, if retailers want to show customers they are taking sustainability seriously, they must show that they are willing to work with less damaging materials.

Nixon explained, “[One] example is “better cotton”: cotton grown under the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). The BCI promotes better standards in cotton farming and aims to eliminate harmful pesticides and encourage strict water management. Retailers need to think about how they could introduce these materials into their supply chains and analyse the potential additional costs of sourcing these versus the benefit.”

2. Recycled material

“We are also seeing a growth in the number of new companies using exclusively recycled materials in their supply chain,” Nixon added. “One example, Elvis & Cresse, a London-based accessories brand, produces luxury products out of waste material. In 2017 they made a deal to use around 120 tonnes of leather offcuts from Burberry for their products.”

Recycling is also making an entrance into a number of fashion’s other subsectors. These include noted new entrants making clothing, jewellery, accessories and home-wear from recycled and sustainable materials, while press interest in such alternative companies sits at an all-time high. The rising status of these brands has also provoked traditional players to develop their own solutions on these lines, with sports company Adidas having partnered with recycling group Parley to prevent plastic entering oceans and transforming it into high performance sportswear.

3. High quality and long lasting

Fashion retailers are moving away from the concept of ‘fast fashion’ to instead prioritise durability. The thinking is that customers will pay more for quality produce which they will not need to regularly replace, meaning companies can compensate the smaller volume of sales this fosters with higher value. This is also boosted by a resurgent desire for ‘timeless’ pieces in collections.

Nixon expanded, “This can be seen in brands such as Ralph Lauren and Levi’s. There are certain brands that will even mend your items or will allow you to send them back no matter when you bought them to ensure the lifecycle of the product lasts much longer. To do this, retailers will need to consider their operating model and whether costs may need to be reduced elsewhere.”

4. Brands with a purpose

“As with the modern vegetarian movement, people are now taking more time to think about the brands they buy,” Nixon argued. “They want to see brands with a purpose such as shoe brands Toms and Gandys; what do they represent and what charities do they support? Brands need to consider their values and strategy to consider how they might be able to give back.”

To this end, the Gate One expert surmised that once a brand has committed to an ethical strategy, it should consider the long-term risks and actions associated with it. If firms cannot follow through in a consistent manner, they will be hit with negative PR, and so a robust governance structure should be installed to ensure values or targets are met by firms.

5. Ethical supply chain

Lastly, reviewing supply chains is now more significant than ever according to Nixon’s essay. Brands should subsequently be able to substantiate claims that the materials they use and the environment from which they source their materials are ethical and safe for their workers, while workers receive a fair wage for their labour.

She concluded, “This means brands need to review their end-to-end business model to be able to move towards sustainable materials, a fair working environment and supply chain.”

Related: European retailers upping sustainability efforts for a better environment.