Sustainability in clothing is top of mind for brands now, more than it has ever been

Sustainability in clothing is top of mind for brands now, more than it has ever been

With London Fashion Week kicking off today, how can the fashion industry make sure that sustainable fashion is always in season rather than a passing fad?

Sustainable fashion has never been more in vogue thanks to initiatives such as the Fashion Switch to Green campaign supported by London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Vivienne Westwood and the intervention of high profile supporters including Stella McCartney and Livia Firth. Not to mention disruptors like the Reformation and Everlane weaving green and ethical practices into their businesses. But how can the fashion sector make sure these initiatives take root?

1. Clarity is key

From how our blue jeans are sourced and dyed all the way to last season's sequined dress going to the trash, the fashion supply chain is ripe for a sustainability makeover. But where do fashion brands begin? Reducing landfill by using organic materials? Streamlining logistics? How do brands ensure consumers are clear about their sustainability initiatives and that these are authentic?

There are three initial steps that fashion brands need to take. The first is to draw up an environmental cost canvas to evaluate the likely environmental impact of both the resources the business uses (inputs) and the products and services it creates (outputs). What opportunities are there to take a sustainable approach to our consumption of non-renewable energy or transport? Or to lessen the impact of the products and services we create? Could this season's look be restyled and reborn, to be worn again?

A second area where fashion brands can have a significant impact is by vetting suppliers' sustainable practices. Tools such as transparency platform Provenance can improve supply chain integrity by helping businesses to verify supplier profiles and share their business impact and values. Requiring suppliers to have sustainable practices means fashion brands can augment the effects of their own internal sustainability measures by creating wider demand.

A third area is to consider is whether fashion brands can nudge consumers towards more sustainable habits and behaviours. This could involve increasing the durability, lifespan or repairability of an item. Nudie Jeans for example offers customers free repairs as well as using organic cotton.

2. Planning for endings

Built on delivering the newest styles at the lowest prices quickly, the current fast fashion model leaves little time to consider what happens to clothes once we are done with them. With UK consumers discarding 1 million tonnes of clothes a year, tackling the impact of our wardrobe cast-offs on landfill moves from nice to necessary.

The Ethical Fashion Forum claims that if everyone in the UK bought one reclaimed woollen garment each year, it would save an average of 371m gallons of water and 480 tonnes of chemical dyestuffs. Retailers are already actively encouraging consumers to recycle. H&M offers incentivised garment collecting at stores to ensure that fewer textiles end up being dumped in landfill (Mango also does this via its Second Chances strategy while Zara has its own Closing The Loop programme). At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017, transitioning to a circular fashion system that regenerates and restores materials became an industry wide agenda backed by 64 leading signatories.

3. Make smarter use of smart tech

Innovative technologies including machine learning and data analytics are transforming sectors from automotive to finance to healthcare, and now fashion. From automation to using 3D models to get measurements right first time, designers and technologists need to forge closer links so that sustainability becomes integral to fashion's supply chains. Only in this way can the sector hope to deliver fast fashion that is environmentally-friendly.

There are signs that this is beginning to happen. Take Adidas' partnership with action group Parley to create sportswear from ocean plastic; an example of eco design innovation. Adidas is also leading the way in terms of robot-led production lines. With Speedfactory, the company is achieving four goals: a shift to mass personalisation; efficiency; less reliance on the use of workers in low-paid economies; and greater sustainability. The latter is achieved by bringing production closer to the end consumer, slashing transportation costs.

Meanwhile experiments with blockchain are underway, to see whether this ledger technology can boost transparency and sustainability in supply chains. De Beers has just announced an industry-wide diamond blockchain with the potential to securely track diamonds from the moment they are mined, each time they change hands, to provide a digital record they are conflict-free.

4. Rethink the business model

The business model behind many fashion brands is measured by sales, profitability and delivering shareholder value. Looking ahead, businesses need to recognise that being more sustainable can increase profitability, reducing inefficiencies and waste in the supply chain.

For example, it is estimated that as much as 3-5% of every factory's output never even gets into the retail ecosystem because of an order mistake or an issue with the colour – instead being discarded on local rubbish dumps. Estonian designer and clothing waste researcher Reet Aus is trialling software developed by her and her team to track potential garment waste data during production. The aim is to obtain information about the volume and type of surplus material so that this can be designed back into a product before it becomes waste.

Sustainable business case

The good news is that there is a great deal of entrepreneurship and ingenuity going into the issue of fashion sustainability. For 'big fashion' there is a business case for getting closer to this activity through incubators, accelerators and start-ups. Failure to do so opens the door for platforms like Factory45, which helps sustainable fashion businesses launch and grow.

Fashion brands that are authentic about sustainability can gain an edge on the high street or via e-commerce. Patagonia is creating a loyal customer base through sustainability, while Everlane is winning customers by delivering high quality timeless products against the backdrop of a transparent production process. At a time when millennials claim they are willing to spend more on sustainable brands, the industry should heed The Guardian's warning that "fashion waste is set become an environmental crisis to rival plastic pollution in oceans". You only have to look at how social media has blown up the issue of plastic in the oceans to realise that visibly investing in sustainability makes excellent business sense.

About the authors: Written by Futurice business designer Giuliana Mazzetta and design principal Alex Crowfoot. The company of developers, designers, data scientists and cultural change agents work with multinationals on digital strategy and innovation culture to help them become future capable. Founded in Helsinki, Finland, Futurice employs 450 people and has offices in Berlin, Helsinki, London, Munich, Stockholm and Tampere.