Few subjects are capable of throwing up as many tangents than that of sustainability, but even fewer present such a vast array of potential savings.

Carbon footprints start at cotton farms and often finish up in landfill when it comes to garments, with each step of the supply chain looking to make efficiencies, outlined speakers at this year’s annual RITE Group Conference.

Sara Giorgi, consultant at Brook Lyndhurst, said: “There’s a lot of clothes going to landfill, and a lot of potential environmental impacts along the supply chain.”

Although seemingly obvious green efficiencies like clothing miles are often overlooked in the interests of profit margins, other sustainability measures can result in long-term savings.

For example, UK clothing retailer Marks and Spencer claims to have created a GBP50m (US$79m) surplus through its Plan A environmental programme during 2009/2010.

Plan A, launched in 2007, drew much publicity through schemes like the Oxfam clothes exchange and hanger recycling, but its most tangible efficiencies are achieved further down the supply chain.

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For instance, the company now uses 35% less energy in its logistics, warehouse and store operations, after investing in greener fuels and eco-efficient buildings.

Therefore, M&S is living proof that beyond the initial outlay, sustainability actually provides a financial opportunity for clothing retailers.

Speakers at last week’s RITE (Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment) conference in London called for fashion companies to collaborate on their green efforts.

Breakout sessions at the event looked at how different parts of the supply chain could play their part, with sustainable fibres and ethical sourcing high on the agenda.

In the area of textile recycling and re-use, one discussion group raised challenges related to the design and quality of collections. Charity shops, swapshops and clothing libraries are at the forefront of the re-use movement.

Overall, the future of sustainability in fashion could dictate the state of the industry itself, says Vicky Murray, spokesperson for Forum for the Future.

Forum for the Future “Fashion Futures 2025” outlines some possible scenarios for the industry depending on its approach to sustainability. It suggests that while low carbon technology and sustainable textiles could result in a prosperous future, the opposite reality is a much bleaker one, with power shortages, soaring prices and short cotton supplies.

“Whilst we can’t predict what the future looks like, scenarios help us to navigate those uncertainties,” Murray said. “You’re the players in this and shaping a sustainable future is what it’s all about.”

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