Today's retailers and brand owners work at a frantic pace, producing and selling more and more garments at ever-cheaper prices - even though it's a model that seems at odds with steps being taken by many of these firms to build sustainability into their supply chains. However, the keys to narrowing this divide are increasingly held by designers, as Leonie Barrie finds out.

From Wal-Mart and Marks & Spencer to Timberland, and even the China National Textile and Apparel Council (CNTAC), sustainability is taking centre stage in today's apparel industry. 

Indeed, Wal-Mart's sustainability index, M&S's Plan A corporate responsibility platform, and Timberland's efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and use more organic cotton are all laudable attempts to get garment firms to understand the impact of what they're making on society and the environment.

But there is also increasing concern about the fundamental disconnect between policies like these that are undoubtedly good for business, and the retail business model that works at a frantic pace to produce more garments at cheaper prices and still make a profit.

The dilemma, it seems, is that a truly sustainable fashion and textile industry depends on a lot more than simply switching production to 'green products' that use organic cotton, renewable energy, new modes of transportation, local suppliers and green packaging that reduce the sector's environmental footprint.

In fact, one of the keys to sustainability is to look at the design of a product and how the consumer will use it.

The power of design
Sustainable fashion expert Kate Fletcher agrees. "It's essential we recognise the power of design," she said earlier this month at the annual RITE Group (Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment) conference in London.

Fletcher, who is a reader in sustainable fashion at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) adds: "80% of a product's environmental cost is decided in design - so if you get it right in design you can effectively design foresight into the whole process and you can change what follows."

But designers also need to understand that the implications of working closely within nature's limits will have knock-on effects elsewhere, perhaps requiring the use of higher quality materials, no dyeing or press-studs.

Sury Bagenal, head of design at Ascension, the online ethical clothing retailer formerly called Adili, warns that different choices may also be required in the design process - such as using hand embroidery that gives work to hundreds of women, but not using organic Fair Trade cotton.

"At the end of the day it's about producing a commercial collection that will give gainful employment, instead of churning out lots of stuff that will end up in landfill," she points out.

Management buy-in
Switching to a more sustainable mind-set doesn't just hinge on the designer of course, it also requires buy-in from CEOs, buying and marketing directors.

"Unless there's a directive from the top, a designer working for a big corporate company can design as much ethical and organic fashion as they like, but it won't happen," Bagenal points out.

And big companies changing their supply chains will also have a huge impact upstream too.

"If you want big change you have to start small, but you start where it counts," Fletcher notes. "Generally [in companies like Patagonia where sustainability is at the heart of their business] there's a conversion moment from the CEO down."

But while retailers need to behave more responsibly, shoppers have to make changes too.

Everyone who buys clothes on the high street has to realise that if they made a few changes it would have a phenomenal effect, but this message just hasn't got out.

"If companies work out that customers want it [sustainable fashion], then they will change," comments Alex McIntosh, business support manager at the CSF, which is part of the London College of Fashion.

Also at fault is the current business model that focuses on producing and selling more clothing more cheaply across a sourcing network that spans the globe.

"When you look at why we need so much certification and monitoring it's because the scale of the industry has got so big that we no longer have a direct relationship with producers anymore, and you can no longer trust your relationship with them," says Fletcher.

And because everyone's on a treadmill all the time, no one seems to ask the right questions: like do we really need an anti-microbial finish or that stonewashed look?

Price distortion
Price is another contentious issue, leading to a distortion in expectations. A sustainable solution might cost twice as much as a non-sustainable one, but until there's a mindset shift and price is not a key factor for both retailers and consumers, then there won't be change.

"People often ask questions why organic or eco garments are so expensive, and the answer generally is 'why is everything else so cheap'?" Fletcher notes.

Bagenal laments that fact that while companies can be profitable if they sell fewer clothes for more money, it's hard to persuade shoppers to part with more cash.

"In my experience after two years at a sustainable company I'm very saddened that most customers still don't want to pay," she says.

"There's a very limited number of people who really understand an item of clothing cost so much because somebody sat for hours hand embroidering it and the cloth has been grown by hand and it's organic."

A new relevance for today?
So how can retailers and the textile industry find new ways of being relevant today?

Unfortunately there are no clearly defined guidelines or best practices for sustainable design - and designers are advised anyway that the process is much more complex than just ticking the boxes on a list.

So as well as formulating their own processes and ideas, they are encouraged to "find ways to make money but not by selling in the traditional way."

"Instead of selling more units to consumers you make money from getting those units to work harder or helping consumers wear those units for longer," Fletcher explains.

"So you shift maybe from just selling goods to offering a repair or styling service where [customers] pay you to help to re-style their garments when they're fed up with them."

At the end of the day, though, it's not a question of how companies can remain commercial and be ethical and sustainable at the same time. Instead they must recognise that they can't be commercially viable or competitive in the long run without addressing these issues.