There is a growing appetite for innovation-led sustainability in fashion

There is a growing appetite for innovation-led sustainability in fashion

Across the fashion industry, there is clear appetite for improved sustainability and positive change. Today, many hope to see the creation of a circular economy, through which old clothes and materials are recycled, recovered or regenerated instead of being thrown away. Industry leaders also want to see a reduction in the environmental impact caused by the manufacturing process.

Senior executives are under pressure to control costs and minimise risk while continuing to drive profitability and business value, but they also want to make their businesses more sustainable, and understand there are commercial reasons as well as ethical ones for doing so.

And yet making clothes for a growing population, while reducing the total environmental impact, means minimising waste at every stage of the value chain – from raw material to wardrobe. This is not easy. Moving to a circular economy is also difficult for an industry in which profits have traditionally been driven by consumption rather than reuse.

What the industry needs is new ideas. And the good news is that innovation-led change is perfectly achievable. As a start, there are three broad ambitions the industry could strive for in the years to come. These are:

  • Connecting with innovators from non-corporate backgrounds; 
  • Accelerating the ideas process; and
  • Challenging societal issues that may be holding some innovators back.

Connect with "unlikely" partners

There is no shortage of groundbreaking ideas out there. For example, Orange Fiber makes fabrics out of the by-products created during citrus-fruit manufacturing. At the same time we see new business models, such as Rent the Runway, that allow consumers to rent designer clothes rather than buy them, reducing the number of garments that are worn once and discarded. There is even growing interest in 'connected clothes', through which a digital tag is added to the thread to give recyclers all the information they need to recycle correctly.

Interestingly enough, many of these ideas are developed by non-corporate technologists and entrepreneurs. Some originate with non-profits, foundations or universities. As these innovators often choose to work outside big business, their solutions can remain modest in scale – unless they attract funding or form partnerships with established fashion brands.

In order for fashion to become more sustainable, leading fashion brands need to form "unlikely" partnerships

In order for fashion to become more sustainable, leading fashion brands need to form "unlikely" partnerships with individuals/organisations from very different backgrounds, to collaborate on new ideas and take them to market on a wider scale.

Accelerate to a larger scale

Creating partnerships is essential for idea-sharing, but ideas can take a long time to spread and to make a real difference. The most sustainable fashion businesses are thinking about how they can scale up sustainable innovation more quickly and to accelerate the process.

In practice, acceleration means supporting innovators and helping them develop the business and negotiation skills they need to connect with others in the ecosystem, so they can operate in a competitive market as quickly as possible. It may also mean getting a better understanding of how data analytics can be used to drive growth. We see many organisations investing in coaching and training to ensure their new partners achieve success as quickly as possible.

Inspire a wider range of innovators

Research suggests that systemic issues may be preventing some individuals from contributing to a more sustainable fashion industry. We hear that women automatically rate their ideas as less market-ready than men, for example – even though, when the ideas are reviewed, the quality and feasibility is the same. Innovators in Africa, meanwhile, are much more likely to encounter difficulty in getting funding, which prevents their ideas from reaching a global scale.

The challenge of getting people from different backgrounds to share ideas is a difficult one, which may include long-term investment in mentoring and accessible open innovation initiatives, but is vital for the industry to get the full range of perspectives it needs.

Our work on the Global Change Award, along with the non-profit H&M Foundation and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, tells us there is a groundswell of interest in innovation-led sustainability in fashion.

H&M Foundation selects sustainable winners for $1m grant

This year alone, we received 3,000 applications from 130 countries – but there is of course more to be done. For real change, the entire industry needs to think differently and to embrace the future together.

About the author: Jennie Perzon is a director within Accenture's Sustainability practice in Sweden. She is committed to sustainable development and has extensive experience in both commercial and civil society sector as a strategy advisor. Her experience also includes leading a global corporate citizenship research programme focusing on collective impact.