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Four ways fashion is embracing sustainability in 2021

Their industry is notoriously wasteful, but fashion brands and retailers are intent on improving its reputation. Here are four ways in which they’re trying to do so

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to research published in 2019 by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. That’s more than the total produced by international flights and shipping combined. As the UN prepares to hold its 26th conference on climate change in Glasgow this October, what have fashion businesses been doing to make their sector more sustainable?

1. Even slower fashion: the made-to-order model 

Retailers Net-a-Porter and Selfridges have started stocking brands that operate on a made-to-order model, while H&M is offering custom-made jeans on demand in selected test markets. This approach can reduce waste and the number of unsold items by producing only what consumers have already committed to buying, rather than ordering high volumes and pushing sales.

But this approach faces a big challenge: continual oversupply in the industry has trained consumers to expect to get what they want straight away. Can they be re-educated to become more patient? 

Cally Russell believes that it’s possible. He is the founder of made-to-order online brand This is Unfolded, which offers a limited capsule collection with a six-week turnaround. The trick, he says, is to keep in touch with customers over that time.

“We’ve had to think about to we make it an interesting period, so we talk to our shoppers about every stage an item goes through,” Russell says. “We have had huge amounts of feedback from people who’ve actually enjoyed that time, because we have engaged them in the process and made it a bit more of a spectacle. This kind of approach, we hope, is getting results.”

Those hopes are being realised if the business’s numbers are anything to go by. The return rate is just over 1%, compared with an industry average of about 30%. 

But the made-to-order model needs to use more efficient technologies and processes to keep turnaround times to an absolute minimum, stresses Vanessa Barboni Hallik, founder and CEO of sustainable luxury brand Another Tomorrow. 

This is the only way that brands using this method can compete effectively against their mainstream rivals, she argues, adding: “How do you ask people to wait when at the same time there’s an excess of products already available – often at a lower price?”

2. Repairing is caring: restoration services

Offering repair services to keep customers’ purchases in the best shape used to be the domain of specialist providers, but the provision of aftercare is becoming more widespread. High-end retailers Farfetch, Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges have partnered with The Restory, for instance, to offer repairs to premium products. 

The Restory is keen to make aftercare the standard in the luxury sector, helping to boost its sustainability credentials. But what potential is there for such services in mainstream fashion? 

Swedish denim label Nudie Jeans has long made free lifetime repairs a selling point. The brand’s sustainability manager, Sandya Lang, says: “For us, it comes naturally to take care of our product. We see it as our responsibility to do that. We’ve trained our store staff to explain to customers the benefits of prolonging the life of each purchase.” 

Is this another area where more mainstream players can step up to ensure that sustainability doesn’t become the preserve of high-end customers? To Lang, the principles of aftercare appear incongruous with those of fast fashion.

“There might not be the same opportunity in that sector,” she says. “Certain items are more suitable for aftercare than others. If you buy something from a fast-fashion brand, its quality might not be good enough in the first place to enable a nice repair.”

3. Sheer ingenuity: biodegradable tights

French entrepreneurs Sophie Billi-Hardwick and Marie Bouhier knew that biodegradability was becoming a successful solution in the fashion industry, but it had never been applied to hosiery. For such small garments, tights are a big problem when it comes to waste management. Worldwide, 8 billion pairs are purchased, worn a few times and discarded each year. Most are non-recyclable and can take up to a century to decompose in landfill. 

It was for these reasons that Billi-Hardwick and Bouhier started their biodegradable tights brand, Billi London, on the back of a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign in May 2020. This was the culmination of an 18-month collaboration with Italian fibre experts to find the correct weaving technique to achieve a premium product designed to biodegrade in landfill in only five years. 

“Women tend to dispose of their ripped tights robotically, without realising the impact this has on the environment. This is how it’s always been,” Billi-Hardwick says. “Because of this, we’re also trying to educate our customers and bring them on a conscious living journey with us.” 

She and Bouhier are planning for their brand to become the leader in biodegradable intimate wear in Europe by 2025. They sell on their own website; through online marketplaces Wolf & Badger, Know the Origin and Lone Design Club; and in Parisian designer boutique La Maison Perchée. Billi London is also set to feature in a pop-up store at Covent Garden this year.

4. Second-chance salon: recommerce 

The pandemic has heightened consumer demand for sustainable shopping choices – and retailers have been responding. The value of the global market for secondhand clothes, for instance, is expected to leap from £21bn in 2020 to £47bn in 2025, according to research by ThredUp and GlobalData Retail. 

Retail Gazette has estimated that 17% of retailers will have started selling secondhand items by the end of this year. Meanwhile, dedicated secondhand platforms such as ThredUp, Depop, Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal are innovating with brand and influencer partnerships in the effort to maintain a competitive edge.

The RealReal in particular has seen an upsurge in the popularity of its B2B programme, which enables luxury retailers and brands to sell to its community of 20 million shoppers – one-third of whom use the platform as a replacement for fast fashion. So says Allison Sommer, its senior director of strategic initiatives, who adds that consumer demand for the sustainable products featured on its website has nearly quadrupled in two years. 

She puts these trends down to a combination of factors. “Retailers and brands are coming to us directly, while we’ve been contacting some of the most in-demand brands on the site that we think could be looking for additional sales channels. Because we sell to a global audience, seasonality doesn’t affect us. Knitwear is performing just as strongly as summer dresses right now, for example.”

Sommer continues: “We’ve seen a real shift in how brands are prioritising sustainability. The Covid crisis has been a catalyst for them, expediting their commitment to support resale. Nearly half of our buyers say that they will shop with more sustainable retailers and brands over the coming decade, while 60% say that they’ll be buying more resale items.”