Last week, the UK became the first country to declare a climate emergency – one of the key demands put to the Government by Extinction Rebellion after haranguing London last month. But, the fact that it’s the 10th anniversary of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit proves that sustainable purchasing among consumers caught on a while before that pink boat was bolted to the crossroads outside Oxford Circus tube station.
Last year, the UK spent over £83bn on ethical goods. The appetite for sustainably sourced goods is clearest in the food and clothing sectors. In the past two years alone, the number of people opting for a vegetarian diet has risen 52%. Last year, the market for second-hand clothes grew 22.5%. People are more willing to buy from ethical brands because they want to know where their products come from – a trend which is here to stay.
Over a third of consumers have already switched from their preferred brand to another because it credibly stands for positive environmental and/or social practices. Moreover, nearly half of UK shoppers are likely to shop with a rival retailer if it offers delivery options that are kinder to the environment.
Whether it’s eco-friendly textiles, fairly paid workers, or the brand’s carbon footprint, effectively embedding sustainable practices into a fashion brand can become an enormous competitive advantage.
It’s not just customers that are attracted to eco-friendly brands. Our candidates are becoming more interested in the environmental footprints of their potential employers. Candidates now want to work for labels that have a positive impact on the world. We’ve even found that people will say no to brands without purpose or a social compass. Ignoring this mood means closing yourself off to a significant part of the talent pool.
It’s not surprising then that large and small brands are eager to trumpet their values and ethical policies. The business case for running a values-driven firm also extends beyond recruitment. Having company-wide aspirations for positive change boost morale, motivation, and productivity.
Selfridges becoming the first major retailer to remove palm oil from its own-brand products, while this week’s release of the annual Pulse of The Fashion Industry report has summed up just how important this issue is. Most of the improvements in the past year were the result of rapid progress among smaller brands that are just getting started. Femme Luxe, a Manchester-based fast fashion etailer which was founded in 2015, announced this week that it will partner with recycling app ReGain to encourage its customers to recycle unwanted clothing in return for exclusive discounts.
Designer Katharine Hamnett has urged brands to do more than “just shout about sustainability”. In response to an environmental audit she requested for her eponymous brand in 1989, Katherine’s brand only uses ethically sourced and organic fabrics. The difference between now and when she first started lobbying for sustainable fashion 30 years ago is that consumers today are more concerned about where their clothes are from and how they’re made.
So, how can fashion brands prevent environmental efforts from stalling? One way would be to invest in green roles. Some companies are already ahead of the curve. Ganni’s head of sustainability and CSR, Lauren Bartley, is a member of several working groups spearheaded by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the UNFCCC on climate action. H&M’s head of sustainability Isak Roth is an advocate of introducing supply chain transparency. In fact, one of the brand’s new initiatives means shoppers will be able to see details including suppliers’ names, production countries, factory names and addresses. In addition, H&M recently launched its most sustainable collection yet. Its 48-piece Conscious line is made from innovative plant-based fabrics; including a silver jacket made from Piñatex pineapple leather and an off-shoulder blouse produced using orange peels. Their long-term goal is to only use 100% recycled or other ethically sourced materials by 2030.
Beyond green roles, there are other trends taking root in the industry. Designing for longevity, adopting practices from the circular economy and shifting towards eco-friendly materials are just a few of them.
With Stella McCartney’s new “upcycled” material collection at Paris Fashion Week and advocates like Alexa Chung, vintage wear is becoming increasingly available on the high street and could be another solution to reducing fashion’s environmental impact. According to ThredUp’s annual resale report, fashion circularity is projected to reach $51bn in five year’s time, up from the current $24bn.
Some labels have taken it upon themselves to drive sustainable fashion. The first step for lots of brands is to audit their supply chain to discover where the problems are. Burberry started an assessment of its supply chain in 2012, which led to its first sustainability strategy. The luxury label is now planning to use more sustainable raw materials. In 2017 the Burberry Foundation gave the Royal College of Art a £3m grant to establish the Burberry Materials Futures Research Group, aimed at developing new environment friendly materials.
Last year marked the largest ever Copenhagen Fashion Summit with a two-day conference. More than 1300 players from the fashion industry, politicians, NGOs, scientists and media from around the world came together to discuss the future of sustainable fashion.
Next week marks the summit’s 10th anniversary with huge names including François-Henri Pinault, chair and CEO of Kering and Emanuel Chirico, chair and CEO of PVH Corp. The 2019 agenda outlines eight core priorities for fashion leaders: supply chain traceability, combating climate change, eco-friendly material mix, circular fashion system, efficient use of water, energy, and chemicals, respectful and secure work environments, and promoting fairer wage systems. With almost 60% of the participants coming from top management, it’s safe to say that sustainability has found its way onto the agendas of CEOs.
Acknowledging that it’s not only the right thing to do to protect our planet’s finite resources, more and more labels are integrating these practices into their business models. There’s also an increasing demand from consumers – making it a business imperative. However, much more work has to be done before we can call fashion “sustainable”.