Becoming a sustainable fashion brand
Reconomy’s Head of Sustainability for the Business & Industry Division, Nathan Gray and Valpak’s Waste & Resource Traceability Manager, Holly Smithson share their thoughts on sustainable fashion and how a brand can catwalk its way to zero waste.
The environment and the fashion industry have been at loggerheads for some time, with many brands historically opting for a race-to-the-bottom approach, where sustainable practices were sacrificed to gain an advantage over the competition and cheaper manufacturing costs. Sadly, this approach has had major repercussions on the environment, with virgin materials regularly utilised to mass produce single-use items.
Times are changing though, as not only is sustainability becoming an ever more critical focus-point for globally recognised brands, but it is also now a key purchasing incentive for consumers. A study conducted by Forbes confirms this, with 88% of all respondents claiming they are more likely to purchase from brands who put sustainability at the forefront of their approach.
In this piece, we explore what it takes for fashion brands to improve their overall sustainability and environmental performance.
Why is sustainability important in fashion?
Waste has arguably never been so high up the corporate agenda, and there is broad acceptance that fashion brands need to take action to protect their reputations. The more proactive and forward-looking brands recognise this as an opportunity to realise genuine commercial, social, and environmental value. As for the rest… it is amazing what a little fear of alienating the customer can do! The headline is that the race has started, and the direction of travel is set for net zero. So, businesses need to get serious about taking action, set meaningful targets with hard numbers and firm dates. Customers are becoming savvy to wishywashy pledges of good intent as greenwash and are expecting planned action.
It is becoming ever more apparent just how fragile a brand’s reputation can be if sustainability isn’t a point of focus. For example, Burberry suffered considerable damage to its reputation in 2018 after it was reported in the press that the fashion label had destroyed unsold clothes, accessories, and perfume worth £90m over a 5-year period. Burberry claimed that the energy generated from burning its products was captured, making it environmentally friendly. This is a pretty poor justification, with energy recovery only one step up from disposal on the waste hierarchy and the resources lost to a thermal process.
This is where a change of attitude is required. Brands with such high volumes of waste must be encouraged to think about it differently and view items as resources that retain an inherent value and can potentially be pushed back into their respective supply chains to create a circular economy.
Fashion brands committed to sustainability
Awareness of issues associated with waste are at an all-time high. As a result, globally recognised fashion brands that are committed to improving their sustainability and environmental performances have never had a better platform to present their achievements to a receptive audience. Here we explore some of the best:
The sportswear giant identified a great opportunity to combat the global issue of plastic waste, turning it into a fashion item. Adidas now has its own range of trainers created from recycled ocean plastic. Adidas says this has prevented 2,810 tonnes of plastic from reaching the ocean.
A fashion brand with a strong focus on sustainability, Patagonia has been at the forefront of highlighting the issues that surround the industry. Recently they reported that 64% of their latest season of clothing was made using recycled materials, equivalent to over half of their clothing line. A great way of using waste as a resource! Worn Wear is a program set up by Patagonia, which aims to keep clothing and gear in action for longer by means of repair, recycling garments beyond repair, and by creating a market for second-hand Patagonia garments, on their online store.
Denim has a notorious relationship with sustainability, mainly due to the high levels of water that are needed to create a single pair of jeans. Fortunately, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of denim is committed to changing this approach.
Levi’s Water<Less range uses up to 96% less water in its production, so far saving an estimated 3 billion gallons. Wearing a garment for just 9 months longer, shrinks its carbon footprint by 30%. The company has also innovated to find an onward solution for old pairs of their jeans, recycling them into home insulation products instead of disposing of them.
How to become a sustainable fashion brand
It doesn’t happen overnight; it requires commitment and focus to achieve corporate sustainability and environmental goals. Here are some of our tips to get you started:
Look at waste as a resource
A great starting point is for brands to look at designing out waste they are producing, or looking at it as an onward resource, exploring opportunities for reuse or recycling. Clothes Aid confirmed that over 700,000 tonnes of clothing are sent to UK recycling centres every year, and we see this as an opportunity for the industry to really make a difference. While it is commonly acknowledged in the waste industry that some materials receive a rebate if generated in the correct volumes, clothing and textiles are not always held in the same regard. Despite market fluctuations across all waste streams, the demand for textiles in the UK has remained steady for the last few years. Treating your clothing waste as a resource will not only help to push your waste up the waste hierarchy but will also help to improve your environmental performance.
Examine your supply chain
The manufacture of clothing typically has a very intricate supply chain, so it is crucial to focus on reducing the environmental costs of production. Levi Jeans has done this brilliantly, examining their supply chain and targeting the areas most in need of change. Building a relationship and working closely with your supply chain is an effective way of ensuring visibility at each stage of the production. This in turn can then help to identify areas for improvement, tackling issues from where they begin. Just a simple review of current processes can cut the volume of resources being used or waste being produced, delivering significant results.
Make your approach unique
At this point we should add a note of caution. In much the same way as we should be wary of letting the media dictate our environmental priorities, it is imperative that whatever action you choose to take is strategic and designed to bring about credible, sustainable change. It is easy to be led into a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction which, although services the need to be seen to be doing something, may end up achieving little more than papering over the cracks.
Reconomy works with global brands to develop practical and cost-effective sustainability strategies, which deliver substantial and long-lasting value. This enables our clients to become more resource efficient, both in their own processes and those of their supply chains (Scope 3 emissions inventory). Wherever possible we look to develop circular models that feed valuable secondary resources directly back into suppliers, securing their raw materials of the future.
To assist businesses in promoting their sustainable brand, we have developed an approach around 5 Steps to Circularity which links zero wasted (ZWi) resources to the target of global warming below 1.5°C. As a starting point we encourage businesses to take a look and complete our zerowasteometer to get a performance baseline now.
For those early in their sustainability journey, needing support to achieve zero waste to landfill, Valpak has a Zero Waste to Landfill certification service where businesses are given the chance to evaluate their production process and the treatment of their waste streams. We will identify key areas for improvement which can then drive sustainable changes on-site. An independent audit process comes with many benefits including better management of wasted resources, improved Corporate Social Responsibility and the ability to demonstrate your businesses commitment to the environment.