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May 8, 2019

Brands struggling to scale up sustainable initiatives

By Hannah Abdulla

Larger brands are struggling to scale up their environmental and social initiatives – which, in turn, is slowing down sustainability progress in the industry, according to a new report.

The 2019 update of Pulse of the Fashion Industry, an annual survey of the fashion industry’s environmental and social performance, has revealed sustainability progress in the industry slowed by a third in the past year, and is not moving quickly enough to counter the “harmful impact” of the industry’s rapid growth.

The assessment is organised by the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and asserts unless the current trend of the Pulse Score improves, fashion will continue to be a net contributor to climate change, increasing the risk that the Paris Agreement’s objective of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius during the remainder of this century will not be achieved.

In 2019 the Pulse Score increased by four points, from 38 to 42 (out of 100). In 2018, it increased by six points, so the speed of measurable progress in the past year has decreased.

While the industry has made some progress towards better social and environmental performance, it is at a slower rate than previous years. The improvement has mainly come from rapid progress among brands that are in the early stages of their sustainability journey and have put in place foundational measures in strategy, governance and target setting, says the report.

But progress, as reflected in the Pulse Score, has slowed among larger companies – who must now figure out how to scale disruptive business models and harness innovative technologies.

As detailed in the 2019 findings, the pace of positive change does not match the expected growth of the fashion industry. Projections suggest that by 2030 the global apparel and footwear industry will have grown by 81%, to 102m tons, putting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources.

If the industry’s Pulse Score – a metric of sustainability – remains on its current trajectory, the gap will continue to widen, and the harmful consequences of increased production will become even more challenging to overcome.  

However, awareness of environmental and social practices is growing among consumers and one-third of those surveyed say they have switched from their preferred brand to others based on responsible practices.

But sustainability is still far from being a key consideration in purchasing decisions, adds the report. Solving the challenges of scale and developing disruptive technologies will lead to new ways of doing business. Governments and businesses need to collaborate closely, too, and investors should urge their investees to improve their social and environmental practices. 

“These latest findings emphasise the dire need for the whole industry to join the race and accelerate change now,” says Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at Global Fashion Agenda. “Scaling existing solutions will depend on leadership from brands. However, some transformational changes will take cooperation among policymakers and stakeholders across the entire value chain.”

Amina Razvi, interim executive director at Sustainable Apparel Coalition, adds: “To achieve the transformational change required, we must collaborate and make meaningful commitments to end our industry’s damaging practices. We need to scale our efforts to assess impacts through a common framework and increase improvements in sustainability performance globally.”

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