Why fashion has to embrace sustainability

When higher consumption equals bigger profits, the balance between sustainable practices and traditional business models is becoming increasingly difficult for brands

Sustainability is like teenage sex: everyone says they’re doing it, but very few are actually doing it right. It has been ten years since American sustainability entrepreneur Joel Makower first coined this now-infamous phrase, but it makes regular comebacks, most recently at this year’s Drapers Sustainable Fashion conference. The quote is always met with laughter, but its longevity reminds us of the fashion industry’s glacial pace towards a solution for the havoc it wreaks on human rights and the environment.

In February, a UK parliamentary committee issued a reprimand for the way we make, use and throw away clothes. Around 300,000 tonnes of textiles, worth £140 million, is sent to landfill or incinerators every year. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined.

“Fashion shouldn’t cost the Earth, but it is on track to consume a quarter of our carbon budget by 2050. The industry has a responsibility to set out how it will be a net-zero carbon emitter,” says Mary Creagh, chair of the Commons environmental audit select committee, which made recommendations to government. The verdict was clear: fashion had marked its own homework for too long.

Is H&M’s sustainable clothing action plan enough?

“We absolutely support the work of the committee, but for positive systemic change to take place, the introduction of industry standards needs to tackle multiple elements of the supply chain and involve collaboration among all parties, including governments, brands, third-party experts, trade unions and NGOs,” says Giorgina Waltier, sustainability manager for H&M UK and Ireland.

H&M aims to ensure 100 per cent of its materials are sustainably sourced by 2030; currently the figure is 57 per cent. By 2020, it pledges to increase its use of recycled or sustainably sourced-cotton from 95 to 100 per cent. “We have joined the Swedish research group RISE in their project MinShed, which aims to find methods of designing clothes with minimised microfibre shedding,” Ms Waltier adds. “On hm.com you can now see which factory every item we sell was produced in. Transparency drives positive change.”

Yet for all this good work, H&M is part of the fast-fashion model, driving changing trends to make and sell clothes at speed. When the single biggest thing a fashion consumer can do to help mitigate environmental damage is to buy fewer clothes, how does H&M rationalise its business model?

“Currently a large proportion of textiles cannot be recycled, so increased consumption is directly linked to an increase in waste,” says Ms Waltier. “But we can close the gap between consumption and waste by transforming to a circular business model, whereby we only create products made using materials that can be recycled and regenerated, and by maximising existing resources.”

How to make the apparel industry take responsibility

However, retailers cannot continue to just make more “stuff”, however sustainably made; they must also look for new revenue streams, including a service-driven model of repair and rental. “This will be the only way to achieve growth in a sustainable way,” says Rebecca Thomson, head of commercial content at Drapers. “The two – sustainability and growth – can absolutely co-exist, but there is upfront cost and businesses need to view it as a long-term investment to ensure they are keeping up with their consumers.” In a recent report, the fashion trade magazine found that half of Generation Z shoppers had abandoned purchases because a retailer didn’t match their sustainable values.

The Commons select committee called for a 1p charge per garment to be placed on retailers and producers to pay for better clothing collection and recycling. The MPs also called for the chancellor to use the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible companies.

“Just 1p per garment?” questions Graeme Raeburn, performance director at fashion brand Raeburn. “Look what a 5p tax did for carrier bags. Be brave and apply this to textiles: a £10 per kilo deposit scheme – a pair of men’s jeans weighs 250g – or a supplier credit system. Suppliers would be forced to design better-quality products, or more suitable for fibre-to-fibre recycling, if they knew consumers would bring them back at end of life to claim the deposit. In the same way we cultivated a voracious consumer market – aka fast fashion – in the UK, we can surely pioneer novel, creative alternatives.”

The fashion industry must explore how to create value sustainably

Alongside industry standards and legislation, fashion must tackle the root causes of why we have reached such reckless levels of waste and consumption. Professor Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, believes climate change should be part of school curricula. “The whole system is broken,” she says. “How can government incentivise businesses that emit high levels of CO2? We need new ways of defining what business is. The current model undervalues nature and the underlying principles of humanity.”

Professor Williams says businesses must ask themselves how they can create prosperity in four dimensions: nature, economy, society and environment. And she sees hope in young designers such as Bethany Williams and Sara Arnold, and Ms Arnold’s clothing subscription and rental business Higher.Studio. “But you need to look at change across the system,” says Professor Williams, crediting luxury group Kering for its introduction of an environmental profit-and-loss account. “It shows a horrific debt to nature, but it’s a bold move and will become something that investors will look at.”

To hope for a single industry standard in a market with a hugely complicated supply chain is unrealistic. But to dismiss any form of measure is lazy and irresponsible. A set of standards, backed by legislation, is a necessity. And it’s exciting. “We have the heritage, best colleges, expertise and a market receptive to new experiences; we are primed to be global leaders in responsible, accountable fashion,” Mr Raeburn concludes. “To ignore this opportunity is not only reckless, but terrible business sense.”