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November 3, 2022

Sustainability in fashion more crucial than ever – report

The fashion retail sector cannot return to its environmentally damaging pre-Covid processes and unsustainable levels of mass production, a new report has warned, with innovation now more important than ever.

By Michelle Russell

Market Intelligence platform Edited, which reports on retail sustainability trends, warns that while the fashion industry grapples with rising inflation and a looming recession, sustainable initiatives can’t afford to fall by the wayside, especially with climate shifts accelerating and customers becoming more vigilant about greenwashing.

“It’s clear that the businesses poised to thrive are those that are doubling down on innovation designed to minimise environmental impact,” the report says.

With several elements falling under the umbrella of sustainability, the report suggests that retailers need to take a “stripped-back approach” and focus on improvement across the main areas bearing the most significant brunt on the environment, namely, material extraction, production and transportation and consumption and end of lifecycle.

Edited found that 37% of products described as ‘sustainable’ contain some level of recycled polyester. Despite overproduction levels and textile waste, most recycled polyester in the market comes from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, not recycled garments.

“These can’t be recycled at scale, underscoring the need for new solutions with less reliance on plastics and strains on natural resources,” Edited says.

Retailers are diversifying their assortments with other natural alternatives to neutralise inflated cotton prices. Hemp has seen an upswing of 15% year-on-year, while the use of bamboo in material compositions has grown 5% year-on-year. Leather has experienced a plant-based overhaul, driven by retailers such as Coperni, Stella McCartney and Ganni investing in animal-free options like grape, mushroom and apple leather to minimise their footprint. The market hasn’t widely adopted bio-based leathers despite these investments – products described as vegan are still dominated by synthetics, further adding to plastic pollution.

Material extraction bears a significant impact, Edited warns, whether natural or synthetic, including pollution, deforestation and extreme water consumption. The total number of in-stock non-organic jeans tracked by Edited is equivalent to 28,016,711 people’s drinking water for a year.

The report offers suggestions on how brands can act:

  • Turn to recycled fibres such as recycled cotton, nylon and polyester; however, be aware that recycled plastic-based textiles will still release microfibers.
  • Incorporate deadstock or upcycled fabrics.
  • Explore plant-based innovations, including corn fibre and apple or cactus leather.
  • Use organic textiles where possible. Organic cotton uses 91% less water to grow than conventional cotton and avoids toxic pesticides and chemicals.
  • Use only responsibly-sourced products that feature certifications such as BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), Responsible Down & Wool Standard (RDS and RWS).
  • Invest in regenerative farming that replenishes and strengthens the plants, soil and nature, in comparison to just reducing impacts.

Production and transportation in the supply chain are also highlighted as an area for improvement in the report.

Factory workers and nearby communities often face exploitation and are subjected to poor working conditions and illness, Edited explains. Additionally, wet processing is one of the most polluting and energy-intensive aspects of the industry and shipping accounts for more than 80% of trade and at least 2.5% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Suggestions on how to act, include:

  • Maintain transparency at all levels of the supply chain and a thorough auditing process. Consider garment workers when pushing for shorter lead times and invest in schemes to support them, such as the Fair Wear Foundation.
  • Invest in greener manufacturing, including the use of renewable energy, more efficient production processes and sufficient wastewater treatment. Reduce impacts of wet processing through technological innovations such as digital printing and environmentally-friendly, natural dyes.
  • Explore lower-impact shipping methods, such as shifting from air to ship or truck. Cut down on short lead time, trend-reactive products that minimise transport efficiency, and consider carbon offsetting for essential emissions.
  • Switch to recyclable, biodegradable and reusable packaging alternatives.

Post-production, the transportation, washing and discarding of garments is also detrimental to the planet, Edited warns. The US throws away 2,150 pieces of clothing every second, mostly resulting in methane-rich landfills.

How businesses can act:

  • Produce more curated ranges, reduce arrivals and maximise seasonless appeal to reduce waste.
  • Design with the entire product lifecycle in mind, considering recyclability and longevity.
  • Promote good garment care through offering advice on how to increase the lifespan of clothing and reduce microfiber pollution, such as repair and upcycling tutorials and the use of eco-friendly washing bags.
  • Close the loop by introducing recycling projects such as take-back schemes and partnerships with charities and recycling companies. Avoid rewarding customers for recycling with discounts on purchases as this promotes further consumption and risks being perceived as greenwashing.

Click here to view the full report.

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