The global apparel and textile industry needs to take a holistic view on how it tackles sustainability, speakers said

The global apparel and textile industry needs to take a holistic view on how it tackles sustainability, speakers said

The key message at this year's Copenhagen Fashion Summit was that the global apparel and textile industry needs to take a holistic view on how it tackles sustainability and responsible sourcing  with collaboration the key to making any real impact.

According to a McKinsey report, clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, with consumers buying around 60% more garments annually but keeping their clothing for half the time they did 15 years ago. Around 85% of these clothes end up in landfill.

A further report – Pulse of the Fashion Industry – published last week and presented at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group, says that based on current trajectories of production and consumption, pressures on natural resources and social conditions will intensify by 2030 to the point of threatening industry growth.

Fashion industry's environmental 'pulse' scores low

"The report really shows what fantastic value the fashion industry can bring both in terms of financial value but also in terms of emotional value," Anna Gedda, head of sustainability for Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), told Summit attendees. "The problem is, we can't really do it today within the planetary boundaries, so what we need to do is change the way we make and enjoy fashion. For us, the way to do that is simply to go into a circular system, to ensure we have a completely different way of using resources."

H&M is one of a number of brands including Kering and Nike, along with the C&A Foundation, to launch the Circular Fibres Initiative earlier this month, aimed at bringing together key stakeholders to build a circular economy for textiles – starting with fashion.

The new system aims to generate growth that benefits consumers and businesses, while phasing out negative impacts such as waste and pollution.

"The vision we have set is that we want to become 100% circular," Gedda says of H&M's company goals. "That is a huge vision and requires a lot of hard work. For us that will mean taking circularity on a broad perspective, all the way from design into material, to processes, and ultimately how that is used by customers.

"We want to make sure all the materials we use are either recycled or sustainably sourced by 2030, use renewable energy and ensure we mitigate climate impacts. We also have a goal to ensure we have a climate positive value team by 2040."

Sustainable clothing Target

The pressure to offer a solution to the sustainability problem means brands are increasingly launching more sustainable clothing lines. US retail giant Target is one of those. Kelly Caruso, president of global sourcing for the group, says the retailer is expanding its range in this area, ensuring they hit the right balance of price, performance and convenience.

"That's where the circular economy really comes into play and I'm excited about some of the work we're doing around raw materials. We really need to ensure our supply chain upholds worker well-being, human rights and responsible resource use. I fully recognise [that] for us to truly have the industry impact we want to have, we have to work extra hard with our partners and other brands – that's the start of this process."

That sentiment is a shared one, with the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance, the Global Fashion Agenda and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition good examples of initiatives that bring brands together to use a common set of tools and goals in order to make a positive impact.

"Sustainability should not be a competitive advantage for anybody, it should be a value we all support across the industry," Caruso explains. "By working together and really bringing the best of our collective capabilities to the table and sharing information we can achieve that."

In 2015, Target developed a verification protocol for its facilities, and shared with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to benefit the whole industry rather than just one company. Piloted in 2016, Target discovered around 15% of its supplier base overlapped across the industry, and has since reduced its audit fatigue.

"We could tell through the benchmarking and the information we were okay with manufacturing and transportation, but boy did we have opportunities when it came to materials. It helped us prioritise and focus what we worked on," Caruso says.

Catalyst for collaboration

Rick Darling, executive director of government and trade relations at Li & Fung Trading, points to Rana Plaza as the real catalyst for collaboration with the inception of the Accord and the Alliance.

"We need to collaborate to get a common set of standards, we need to collaborate to get a common set of language and terminology. And we need to continue the idea that what a lot of us do from a sustainable and compliance standpoint is duplicative and absolutely can be done together, or data that can be used together. I think we are finally getting there."

H&M's Gedda says that while collaboration is not necessarily crisis driven, there is a need – given the size and fragmentation of the industry – to work together to make change happen, as well as a need for fewer initiatives, since many are "so ineffective".

Leading the way

But while the big brands appear to be driving the headlines and making most effort, collaboration means also working with SMEs to help them make strides and close the gap.

"Being a small company with limited resources puts a whole new set of challenges that is worth acknowledging," Gedda says. "What we can do as big brands is really lead the way and take the risks and the chances that small brands are not able to do. One way is how we can break ground with the SAC and the use of Higg, for example, because that is something that will benefit everyone in the fashion industry. Another way is to create a level playing field and ensure everyone in the industry is competing on the same terms."

Li & Fung's Darling believes this is also true for developing countries since European companies and unions are ahead of the curve in terms of their sustainability and ethical work.

"In the developing world, which has some of the biggest growing consumer markets, such as South America and Africa…they have a very early stage view of this, if they have a view at all. We have to take the position that 'this is not what we do', and try to bring them along. It's an education process."

Challenges and future focus

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg Index is one example of a tool being developed to connect the supply chain. CEO Jason Kibbey says the group's objective is to first standardise measurement through the industry so all are working on the same goals.

"One of the challenges this industry has had, and has been guilty of for many years now, is that there is often one hot topic that comes up in conferences that it will work on for two or three years, maybe make some progress, but ultimately not lead to the impact we need to see.

"There is a need across all areas, from the production phase to the way we manage chemistry, to the way we manage energy – all of them need improvement, and we need to look at that holistically so that ultimately we make an impact. We don't want to just make a dent on small problems for a few years and then move on to something else."

Kibbey points to end of use as an example of where the industry "really has a long way to go" in order to move the needle. But ultimately, he says every area of the value chain down to raw materials would benefit from innovation.

"When it comes to materials that use less energy, that last much longer, that can be circular – that will be a game-changer. Also supply chain factories – we have seen some already that have doubled their energy and water efficiency. And the selling of a service and the change to new business models; I'm a strong believer that standards help point us where we need to go but it's not going to be better at what we're doing today. We need radical innovation in order to have a truly sustainable supply chain and value chain."

Positive developments

Target is trying to change its business model so it doesn't overproduce, and instead produces on-demand.

"We stage raw materials and production capacity further up the product development lifecycle so we can truly push back decision-making closer to customer need – it is really driven by commercial relevancy and market demand, thereby lowering our total production."

Target has also implemented a textile acceleration programme, working with quality assurance and inspection software firm Inspectorio to enable real-time information from its suppliers on production status and quality management. The company says it has "significantly" improved the productivity of its auditors.

"We believe this is the path forward to have self auditing factories. It's using the resources of your company for the good of the industry."

Caruso says support from the top down is helping drive sustainability and responsible sourcing – a sentiment echoed by Kibbey.

"I've seen companies where their leadership isn't enthusiastic about sustainability and climate change but they are now seeing it as a business imperative. They do not think they can operate without being a part of the solution, even if it's not aligned with their personal values."

Darling agrees: "It's really encouraging that CEOs of companies, regardless of their geographies and what their governments are thinking, are punching through this. They are being open and saying 'we're going down that path anyway', and I think that's really exciting because businesses are taking a real active role in terms of being able to push through this."