Does the trend for sustainable fashion make for sustainable businesses?

Topics Weekend Reads | Fashion | Zara

In July 2018, British luxury label Burberry came in for heavy criticism after it was revealed that it had destroyed merchandise worth $37.6 million in the previous year, in an attempt to safeguard its reputation of exclusivity and ensure that none of its surplus products fell into the hands of counterfeiters. The Times further reported that the company had burnt products worth almost $65 million in the last five years.

#Burnberry, as the scandal came to be called on social media, enraged activists and customers, and led to calls for a complete boycott of the iconic 163-year-old brand. The disclosure was all the more embarrassing since only the previous month Burberry had announced that it was a signatory to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular project, a global initiative committed to creating a greener and less wasteful textile economy. The blowback, however, came with a silver lining. The company — ironically, in another attempt to preserve its brand value — said that it would put an end to the practice of discarding unsold stock. 

Burberry is the first company to make such a pledge publicly, even as other retailers claim to have introduced cleaner supply chains and embraced greater sustainability. “Sustainable”, or “slow”, fashion has been a buzzword for a while now — in the last few months runways have been dominated by recycled fabrics more than ever. In comparison, popular retailers, owing to quick turnarounds and highly competitive pricing, have been slow to take to the concept. However, as more brands get called out for rapid mass-production and subsequent wastage, it is now picking up.

Earlier this year, fast fashion giant Zara announced that all its clothes would come from sustainable fabrics by 2025. Rival H&M hopes to transition to 100 per cent sustainable cotton by as early as next year — in India, in fact, all its basics are already made from recycled cotton. Earlier this month, it even started testing a weekly rental service at its flagship store in Stockholm. The urgency seems only just since, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry produces a shocking 20 per cent of global wastewater and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions — more than the aviation and maritime shipping sectors put together. According to the UN Environment Programme, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally.

“In the last 10 years or so, fast fashion chains have changed the way we look at clothing. Nobody wants to pay too much for a pair of jeans that they’ll only wear for a few months,” says Baqar Iftikhar Naqvi, business director at Wazir Consulting. “But there was always going to come a point when brands would have to show more responsibility towards the environment, and we’re looking at that shift right now.” 

The change has partially been triggered by buyers’ willingness to be more approving of sustainable clothing. Not to mention how it has a fashionable side to it, which appeals to consumers who like to keep up with the latest trends. A YouGov survey from August revealed that eight in 10 Indians were open to buying sustainable fashion items. “The initial challenge is to determine if this is just a passing fad. Is it one of those ‘fashion comes and fashion goes’ things,” wonders Naqvi, who specialises in retail strategy.

H&M started testing a weekly rental service at its flagship store in Stockholm earlier this month

The earnestness with which the industry has taken to the idea, however, points to a conscious effort at containing climate change. Uniqlo, the Japanese retailer that made its India debut in October, for instance, swears by its philosophy of “LifeWear”, a type of everyday attire designed to make everyone’s life better. “Uniqlo has always been known for simplicity and durability. Now, we’re trying to make it synonymous with ethical and sustainable products as well. We want to redefine sustainability in apparel by making purchase choices effortless and anxiety-free for customers,” explains a company spokesperson. Contrary to popular perception, Uniqlo insists that it is not a fast-fashion brand, but instead a company that takes pride in producing apparel that is non-disposable.

Uniqlo’s jeans innovation centre in Los Angeles has pioneered a technology that cuts water use in the jeans-washing process by as much as 99 per cent. That is striking since denim production is particularly harsh on the environment. According to some estimates, producing a single pair of jeans requires more than 7,500 litres of water. “Reducing water consumption and adopting non-toxic alternatives are two of the biggest challenges in the denim business,” says Manjula Gandhi, chief product officer at Indian denim brand Numero Uno. For the 2019 Lakme Fashion Week, Numero Uno collaborated with designer Anurag Gupta to create “denim master pieces” from leftover stock. Two years ago, it tied up with Spain’s Jeanologia — a firm that develops eco-effective technologies for the finishing industry — for the “one-glass water denims” collection, jeans manufactured with minimal water and toxic chemicals. 

“For us, sustainability is not about coming up with one range and labelling it as environment-friendly. It is about introducing a real change at every stage of the product lifecycle, from manufacturing and finishing to delivery and recycling,” adds Gandhi.

If sustainable jeans are hard to make, sustainable sneakers are even harder. Unlike apparel, shoes — the athletic kind, in particular — are extremely complicated to produce. They require different materials, many of them derived from petroleum. That, however, hasn’t deterred shoemakers from taking up the challenge. Last year, Adidas launched the Parley, a variant of its UltraBoost running shoe constructed with nothing but plastic recovered from the ocean. The plastic is collected by members of Parley for the Oceans, an environmental organisation, and then sent to an Adidas plant, where it is processed and turned into yarn. Reebok unveiled something similar last week: the Reebok Forever Floatride GROW is the world’s first plant-based training shoe, made with castor beans, algae, eucalyptus and natural rubber. In 2017, Nike came out with the Flyleather, a revolutionary shoe made with at least 50 per cent recycled natural leather fibre.  

“Sustainability is something we’ve always looked at. It is very critical for us,” says Abhishek Ganguly, managing director, Puma India. The German sportswear brand was, in fact, among the first to recognise the importance of sustainable footwear, recreating its popular 1970s Suede sneaker with modern recycled materials back in 2011.

The challenge here is that people primarily buy apparel not for its environmental viability but for how they look. In the case of shoes, that choice is based on utility. In an interview with Mint in October, Pernilla Wohlfahrt, H&M’s design director, said that even as the Swedish retailer moves towards organic cotton and recycled polyester, style always comes first. “We should do everything we can to get the sustainability right. But it needs to look good as well,” she stressed. (H&M could not be reached for comment for this article.) 

It’s a delicate balance that brands are still striving to achieve. Says Harkirat Singh, managing director at Aero Club, the promoters of Canadian brand Woodland in India: “It is all about research. If you get that right, and employ a good marketing strategy, you can get quality as well as sustainability.” Woodland’s initiatives in the space include biodegradable footwear, as well as its line of “Pure Green” t-shirts made from recycled plastic bottles that are sterilised and processed into fibre strands.

Of course, there is almost no way to verify such claims. It’s easier to believe Woodland, which operates on a relatively small scale, compared to Zara, which has been repeatedly questioned for its vague sustainability claims. A Swiss investigative group called Public Eye recently traced a “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” Zara hoodie — an Aretha Franklin tribute as part of its “Join Life” collection — back to the sewing factory. It broke down costs and found that the sweatshirt was anything but sustainable — workers involved in its production were being grossly underpaid. Similarly, in July, the Norwegian Consumer Authority was quoted in Fast Company magazine as saying that H&M was “misleading” consumers by failing to provide adequate details about how their garments are less polluting than others as it claims.

Popular American comic Hasan Minhaj recently took on the likes of Zara and H&M on his Netflix special, Patriot Act. Talking about their quest to achieve sustainability, he said: “It’s like when businesses talk about synergy, or when Subway talks about meat. They use ambiguity to sell you the feeling of responsibility.”

Adidas has been working with Parley for the Oceans to make shoes from recycled ocean plastic

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that despite the switch to greener fabrics, 90 per cent of the world’s textile workers have no negotiating power when it comes to wages or working conditions, as was revealed by global trade union IndustriALL. A 2018 report by the Clean Clothes Campaign, for instance, found that Nike and Adidas still pay “poverty” wages to workers. Additionally, the transition to organic cotton burdens cotton-growing regions like India and adds to their water woes.

“Supply chain transparency relies on creating a culture of continuous improvement. It may not fall under anyone’s job description yet, but very soon it will,” feels Harkirat Singh. H&M, to its credit, does make its suppliers’ list public by putting it online.

But as far as businesses are concerned, a lot of it comes down to cost. There is normally a trade-off between price and sustainability. Material that is kinder on the environment is also more expensive to source. Modern technology and brands’ deep pockets have been able to offset that somewhat, but convincing customers to pay more for a sustainable product remains a problem. “The issue with the Indian market is that our sensibilities are yet to evolve. We want everything cheap,” says Naqvi. “It has to start with the consumer. Retail will give us what we want, so that maturity has to kick in. And that may take three to five years.” Adds the Uniqlo spokesperson: “There is a conscious effort on the part of customers. They will gradually start finding merit in these offerings.”

Merit can only be sought if consumers are educated right — simply telling people that a product is environment-friendly isn’t good enough. Information about particular products or eco-friendly collections in stores remains scarce. “It’s all about getting your processes across to the customer. Break it down, explain why one thing is better than the other,” says Gandhi. High-street labels in the West are even considering adopting a universal labelling system to make things simpler for shoppers. 

Of course, none of this would be such a problem if we just started buying less. Due to high demand, the fashion industry has doubled production globally in the last 15 years. Of all the clothes bought, almost 60 per cent end up in landfills; 35 per cent of the material in the supply chain ends up as waste. These are staggering statistics, the kind that force brands such as Burberry to send their production cycles into overdrive. And also the kind that need us to rethink our shopping impulses urgently.

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