As more and more fashion firms jump onto the eco bandwagon, with new initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions and use more recycled materials, just-style asks whether there is a real commitment to change or whether they are simply paying lip service to the green movement.

Last January, Marks & Spencer made headlines when it unveiled a GBP200m (US$397m) plan to become a 'carbon neutral' enterprise by 2012. Since then, other retailers have announced similar actions to reduce their CO2 footprint and boost their corporate image and sales.

The latest large retailer to launch such an initiative is Germany's C&A, which introduced its 'We C&Are' programme in October. That came on the heels of similar campaigns by Sweden's H&M, Spain's Mango, and US retailer Gap.

Earlier in the autumn Inditex, the European group that owns the Zara fashion chain, introduced its eco strategy, becoming the first such firm to deploy a CO2-reduction campaign.

Analysts say the actions are just the tip of the iceberg of a growing trend. They expect more fashion and general retailers to introduce green campaigns as they rush to meet increasingly tough European legislation to curb businesses' contribution to climate change.

Renewable energy
As part of 'We C&Are', C&A will gradually switch to renewable energy to power 80% of its 750 global stores by 2010, up from 50% now.

It will also introduce recycling bags, cut packaging materials, introduce eco labels (which tell customers how to save energy with the garment's aftercare) and launch an eco store concept next year which it boasts will be carbon neutral.

The company hopes to cut its CO2 emissions by 70,000 tonnes in 2008 and by over 100,000 tonnes by 2010.

However, underscoring the lack of transparency of many of these plans, the company would not detail its current emission levels or say against which year's emissions the targets will work.

C&A will also introduce an organic cotton apparel line called Bio Cotton next year.

Jumping on the eco-wagon
Meanwhile, US fashion chain Gap Inc is also hopping on the eco-wagon, though its plan is less ambitious than its European counterparts.

The struggling retailer hopes to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 11% per square foot from 2003-2008, in the US, through energy conservation, "cotton/sustainable design" and waste recycling, according to a statement emailed to just-style.

It also intends to reduce energy usage at its distribution centres. Last year, it replaced 7,500 lights with low-consumption fixtures that will bring annual savings of nearly $1m.

San Francisco-based Gap has also increased cardboard recycling by 90% compared with the 2003-2006 period, and cut its energy use by 8.7%.

H&M plans to slash its relative CO2 emissions by 10% from 2005-2009 after cutting them by 9% last year, parting from a base of 241,583 tonnes in 2004.

The Stockholm-based group, Europe's second largest fast-fashion chain, will power stores with renewable energy, adapt transport to become less polluting and force suppliers to introduce ecological practices.

In Germany, H&M's largest market, the firm is using renewable energy to lit shops and plans to launch the strategy in other markets where green power is available.

The 1,432-store chain is also working to move as much merchandise as possible by sea rather than land or air.

H&M requires suppliers' truck fleets to use diesel and low sulphur fuel and educates drivers on 'eco-friendly' practices. It also encourages sub-manufacturers to use wet production (said to be cleaner) during waste water treatment processes.

"We are not there yet"
However, when asked if it has asked suppliers to implement a CO2-reduction scheme, a spokeswoman says: "We are not there yet."

H&M's targets are relative to what it would have emitted had it not implemented the eco programme, the spokeswoman acknowledged, adding that emissions will rise in absolute terms.

Meanwhile Mango, which operates some 900 stores around the world, is working to reduce distribution-related emissions by delivering up to 35% of its merchandise from (mostly Asian) factories to logistic hubs to stores.

The remaining distribution requires a more polluting logistics stopover in Spain.

The retailer also strives to move as much as the remaining 65% of its clothes by sea rather than plane.

Mango is set to open a new 24,000 square metre Barcelona logistics centre that will be powered by solar-energy panels and plans to incorporate renewable energy into future
facilities, a spokeswoman says, adding that other efforts to cut energy usage and increase recycling are under way.

Under its 2007-2010 environmental initiative, Inditex hopes to power half of its logistics and distribution with renewable energy and use energy-efficient systems to run stores.

However, the 3,200-store chain would not provide CO2 cutting targets.

Leading the way
The clothing chains' environmental incursions come after non-specialised retailers such as the UK's M&S and Tesco have launched more ambitious initiatives, at least on an investment basis.

Apart from M&S, which hopes to be 'carbon neutral' by 2010, UK hypermarket group Tesco will invest GBP500m to fund a range of green product and enterprise initiatives to slash emissions by an undisclosed target.

Other clothing chains could benefit from following their rivals green initiatives, analysts say, adding that such efforts will bring important cost savings and corporate image benefits.

"It makes sense for other companies to follow this trend," says Ian Wade, an analyst with Seymour Pierce in London. At a time when consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious, "they could really boost their corporate image and sales."

Many retailers are looking to implement environmental campaigns to get ahead of European legislation that will force high-and-low emitting businesses to sharply cut their CO2 footprint in coming years, Wade adds.

Small and mid-size fashion houses are also going green.

Burberry, for example, is shipping 46% more freight by sea than air, a company insider confirmed, while American Apparel uses solar energy to power its Los Angeles factory and gives free bicycles to employees who want to cycle to work.

"Not enough"
But despite their green crusades, retailers aren't doing enough to truly benefit the environment, says Lisa Feinaldi, a campaign director at Greenpeace in the US.

Feinaldi welcomes Wal-Mart's efforts to become a more eco-friendly enterprise but says they are too weak to have much of a positive effect on reducing green house gases.

"They are taking some big steps and I applaud them for doing so but they have a long way to go in the fight against global warming," Feinaldi points out.

Wal-Mart must work with suppliers to encourage them to adopt eco-friendly practices and find more contractors with environmentally-friendly products.

"This is where they need to work the hardest at now," Feinaldi says.

Echoing other lobbysts, she notes many fashion retailers lack transparency when it comes to communicating their CO2-reduction goals.

"They need to be clearer about how they are measuring these things. Are they including new and existing stores, for example? It's not enough to just say they are using efficient lighting and solar panels. What about their heating and cooling sources and their transport strategy?"

Retailers must carry out more thorough audits to see how they can make their businesses greener.

"They have to measure how much energy they use and how much toxic/waste they emit," Feinaldi says.

"Then they should look at their transport activities and buildings' infrastructure to see how they can cut emissions from that."

By Ivan Castano Freeman.