Sustainability for retailers is a particularly slippery slope. While some are lauded for campaigns that make a significant impact, others are cited for hyperbole or greenwashing.
Regardless, having an environmentally friendly ethos is important to consumers — a Nielsen study found that 75 percent of millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — and brands have taken note. It’s not enough to just sell run-of-the-mill goods, brands need to have a defined social and societal impact.
We took a look at some of the recent efforts by eight major retail brands and assigned them letter grades based on genuine transparency ventures, reception by consumers and industry leaders, and commentary from outside experts.
Patagonia has long been the frontrunner when it comes to sustainability in retail. In November, it pulled an unprecedented move and donated 100 percent of its global Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organizations. Patagonia also has a robust repair program that helps consumers maintain longevity of their products, in addition to selling used branded clothingfrom its Portland retail store. (And no one has forgotten its watershed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign in 2011, which asked consumers to think twice before making a purchase in an effort to prevent waste.)
“Patagonia has done a tremendous amount of innovation for people and the planet. It’s been in their DNA from the beginning,” said Rebecca Mallard, founder of Maven Women, a sustainable women’s wear company.
Levi Strauss and Co. recognized it had to do something to cut its abundant water usage, so in 2011, it implemented its Water<Less program, which streamlines its production process to reduce water used to make denim. However, what really sets Levi’s apart is its focus on inter-industry collaboration when it comes to environmental efforts. It hosts an annual “collaboratory” that convenes retailers from around the world to glean insight and tips about more sustainable operations. It also expanded its worker well-being program last year to benefit more countries.
“They’re taking their role seriously in supporting innovation,” Ballard said. “It’s open source and about creating a cohesive network, rather than having a clutched fist attitude. Partnership is an essential element of ethics and sustainability.”
Gap, Inc.: B
Earlier this week, Athleta, part of the Gap, Inc., announced that it is launching its first line of athletic wear fully certified by Fair Trade USA, which is focused on supporting global factory workers. For every garment sold in the collection, factory workers are given an additional financial premium to use to benefit their community in areas like childcare, transportation and education. With its Fair Trade line, Athleta primarily aims to support female factory workers — the new styles are made by a factory in Sri Lanka where more than 80 percent of employees are female.
The move by Athleta follows Gap, Inc.’s announcement last year that it has begun disclosing global factor lists in a push for transparency, taking a cue from companies like UK-based Marks & Spencer and Belgium-based C&A. While it’s an important move, it only serves as the initial step before making tangible improvements to working conditions and Gap has yet to launch a program like Levi’s worker well-being efforts.
“It’s a really great first step in transparency and accountability, saying ‘these are our factories and we’re going to own up,’” said Natalie Grillon, co-founder of Project Just, a informational platform focused on sustainable fashion and beauty.
Kering Group: C+
Kering came under fire in December when it received low marks in the Apparel & Footwear Benchmark Findings Report, developed by watchdog organization KnowTheChain. Kering was positioned fourth-to-last on the report, which ranked mass retailers in several categories, including risk assessment, recruitment, monitoring and governance.
Kering claims the score was a result of issues around its information disclosure practices and that information highlighting its most recent sustainability efforts was not considered. Among these ventures is Kering’s environmental profits and loss app, which launched in October as an educational tool to track the environmental cost of fashion design. In response, Kering launched a “next generation” sustainability strategy at the end of January, a comprehensive plans to curb emissions and increase working conditions.
Though H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2012 and has since worked with organizations to help improve transparency standards, the actual level of transparency from H&M is minimal, with sporadic posts on social media alluding to improved working conditions. Additionally, the company has been caught in several troubling incidents, like the revelation that it had used refugee workers in Europe.
“The issue with H&M is they brand themselves as better than they actually are,” Ballard said. “When you find Syrian refugee children working in factories in Turkey, which happened, and a recycling campaign that has a greenwashing component, it makes me pause.”
Like H&M, Zara has been plagued with similar challenges falling upon fast-fashion retailers. However, it took four years longer than H&M to launch its first eco-friendly line. As part of its new effort, launched late last year, the Spanish company began offering recycled packaging and boxes and also started a clothing donation program (modeled largely off of H&M’s existing program).
“As any retailer is planning for the next generation of customers, and its business in general, sustainability and social impact have to be a top consideration, and it’s positive to see Zara take a step to improve its supply chain,” Brooke Blashill, svp and director at Boutique@Ogilvy, told Glossy in a previous interview.
Despite operating on a mantra of “radical transparency,” Everlane has shown this notion is particularly elusive. Even with its push to share “Transparency Tuesday” Q&As on social media and its efforts to take customers on tours of factories, it is prohibited from disclosing its factory list and has unspecified compliance guidelines for locating new factories. However, the company audits every facility each quarter and avoids at-risk countries so there is no compliance risk, according to CEO Michael Preysman.
Preysman told Glossy in a previous article that the lack of information about its factories is an attempt to protect other brands that operate out of the same spaces. “Everlane makes products in the same factories as luxury brands,” he said. “We make the same quality product as these other brands, pay the same cost, but charge a much lower markup. We may jeopardize their business.”
In September 2016, an investigative report by BuzzFeed found that Asos workers were subjected to particularly brutal conditions, including being discouraged from taking bathroom and water breaks and getting fired for taking sick time. Despite numerous reports, the brand denied that it was complicit in the allegations. “There have been a number of allegations about the working conditions at our warehouse in Barnsley that are inaccurate, misleading or based on out-of-date information,” it said in a statement.
*This story first appeared on Glossy
It may surprise you that 95 per cent of all textiles thrown away across the globe each year could be recycled. With this in mind, in 2013 H&M launched the world’s biggest retail garment collecting system. Since then the high-street retailer have introduced new collections which contain 20 per cent recycled cotton from their garment collecting programme. There was more exciting news from the press room yesterday as H&M have just announced an exclusive 2017 Conscious Collection using Bionic material – a recycled polyester from recovered shoreline waste.
Additionally, this week Emily O’Dowd spoke to Mattias Bodin, a Sustainability Business Expert for Materials and Innovations at H&M. He explained that the company have been very early contributors to the sustainable economy. In this interview, Mattias provides an insight into his role and his 14 years of experience with the company, along with some of the solutions that H&M have been making to improve their sustainability performance. He is just one of 200 employees looking to explore how this retail giant can improve their sustainability targets. With the ethos, affordability meets responsibility, H&M believe that “looking good should do good too.”
H&M (Hennes & Mauritz) is a Swedish multinational clothing corporation identitfied on the high-street for its fast fashion in 62 countries across the world. It is the second largest global retailer. But as more of us are becoming aware, the textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. This negative media attention has meant that retailers like @hm are finding solutions across the supply chain to make their businesses more environmentally friendly. Mattias informs @Bio_BasedWorld that H&M was one of the first clothing retailers to set the benchmark for sustainable business. So in 2013 they launched a garment collecting initiative in an attempt to change some of their customers’ mindsets as well as their attitude towards recycling textiles. As part of the scheme, a shopper can donate second-hand clothes to H&M in any UK store and they will receive a £5 voucher or a 15% discount in participating European shops.
H&M then sells the donated clothes onto I:CO (I Collect) a Swiss based recycling start-up who sells the garments onto second-hand or vintage markets. The clothes in poor condition are then converted for other use or upcycled into textile fibres. Like most other retailers, the company does not own any factories but works with independent suppliers instead.
What are the challenges?
Unfortunately, the amount of textile recyclers in the market to promote this activity are very few and far between. Whilst, many polyester manufacturers will now offer recycled polyester, the uptake of other recycled textiles remains small. Additionally, the textile industry is lacking essential technological advancements to convert unwanted fabrics into their natural fibres. The only method at the moment – mechanical recycling, is still costly and far from perfect. It looks highly unrealistic that clothing will become 100 per cent recyclable any time soon. Despite this, since H&M launched the initiative, 32,000 tonnes of garments have been recycled and reused amounting to the production of 100 million t-shirts. So any step, however small in this polluting industry is a step in the right direction.
H&M’s brand new Conscious Exclusive range
H&M are excited to announce their new Conscious range which is hoping to change the stigma towards environmentally friendly fashion. The collection will be available in 160 stores worldwide and online from April 2017. But for the first time in the high-street fashion history, H&M have designed bold statement dresses made from recovered plastic from shorelines. The Bionic Yarn is soft and adaptable, flexible enough to make anything from jeans to cocktail dresses.
“For the design team at H&M, this year’s Conscious Exclusive is a chance to dream and create pieces that are both quirky and beautiful. It’s great to be able to show just what is possible with sustainable materials like we have done with the delicate plissé dress made of BIONIC,” Pernilla Wohlfahrt, H&M’s Head of Design and Creative Director. In addition to a full collection for women and relaxed formal wear for men, the collection will for the first time include kids’ pieces, as well as a Conscious Exclusive fragrance made from organic oils.
Conscious Exclusive is the drive in H&M’s move towards a more sustainable fashion future. Across all of H&M’s product ranges, 20 per cent are now made from more sustainable materials (2015), with the aim each year to increase the share. H&M is one of the world’s biggest users of recycled polyester and one of the biggest buyers of organic cotton. The goal for cotton is that it is to be 100 per cent sustainably sourced by 2020.
The Journey of a Dress. New for the 2017 H&M Conscious Exclusive collection is the material bionic
To find out more, Mattias provides a personal account of his experience with H&M and how we can all help to improve the future of the textile industry.
Mattias Bodin will be a guest speaker at this year’s Bio-Based Live conference in partnership with the University of Amsterdam.
Emily O’Dowd (EOD): What first led you to your role with H&M?
Mattias Bodin (MB): Environmental issues have always interested me. I studied a chemical engineering degree at university and I hadn’t even considered working in the textile industry before. It wasn’t until a friend of mind told me that H&M were looking to fill a chemist vacancy that I conducted further research into the company and the textile industry as a whole. I came to the conclusion that there are some big environmental challenges within the industry, so I
wanted to be part of finding solutions. Since then I have been with the company for 14 years working with sustainablity concerning chemicals, product safety, regulatory and the supply chain. Last year, I changed roles within the company so now I have an even broader focus on the environment.
EOD: How has H&M’s sustainability focus changed over the 14 years that you have been with the company?
MB: H&M was very early to begin working with sustainable materials, but during the last 14 years it has become a very important topic on everyone’s agenda. Consumers are more informed today the industry’s efforts have increased drastically and our knowledge has improved. I believe we are in a position to be an important change-maker to really contribute and make a difference to the sustainable industry.
EOD: What do you enjoy most about your role?
MB: For me, I think H&M’s resources and their strong commitment to sustainability is very important. It not only helps our production process, but it also has the potential to make an impact in the industry as a whole. Additionally, the company’s management team have a long-term view when it comes to improving our environmental efforts. This means we are more successful when it comes to implementing longstanding solutions.
EOD: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in the industry?
MB: I think at the moment it is a combination of two things – investment and commitment. Our biggest challenge has been sourcing and testing new materials. When they need to be produced on a large scale it means that more investment is needed to develop a new material or process. As a result, this can be a barrier for the textile industry.
EOD: What advice would you give for someone starting work in the sustainable/bio-based industry?
MB: I would say that it is very difficult to do it yourself. You need to look for opportunities to work with other like-minded individuals, companies or organisations. At H&M, we even like to work with our competitors to help each other’s confidence and improve all of our positions when we are working with the supply chain.
EOD: When you say that you are collaborating with your competitors, what sort of competitors are they?
MB: In my case it would be other retailers, because we are all sharing the same challenges. Therefore, it is better if we come to new solutions together.
EOD: What single change would help develop sustainable industry further?
MB: I think that consumer understanding is key. If we can get concrete examples to show the number of possibilities of how unwanted clothes can be turned into new garments, I think this would really help consumers engage and contribute to the sustainable economy. If materials were better bench-marked to help both the consumer and the producer make informed decisions we would see even bigger changes in the industry. Recycling technologies also need to develop to enable a circular economy.
EOD: Where do you hope to see H&M in 5 years’ time?
MB: We are already in a position to be change-makers in this industry, so I would like us to continue leading this change. Additionally, I would like to see us using more recycled and sustainably sourced materials in our manufacturing processes. Bio-synthetics are also developing, so I hope that these will become a natural component for all retailers to use in the textile industry.
EOD: How successful has the garment clothing collection been?
MB: Since launching this initiative a couple of years ago, many fabrics have become new products that we now sell in store. We are however still in the process of improving our technology because there is a lot of potential here. It would be a real success if we could upcycle as much of the fabric as possible. We appear to be only one of the retail companies actively pushing this so we hope this will eventually work in our favour. After all, it has the potential to benefit the consumer, the sustainable supply chain and ultimately the environment.
EOD: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to Bio-Based World News today Mattias; we wish you success with the new launch of H&M’s Conscious range!
*This story first appeared on Bio-based World News
We’ve seen a rash of textile-recycling schemes emerge of late — in which the textiles in question may become new garments, but for the most part they remain, well, fabrics. But in what may be the first fabric-to-fuel program we’ve heard of, Japan Airlines — which is already working to roll out sustainable aviation biofuel for flights during the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo — is now working to turn used clothing into jet fuel, in partnership with Japan Environmental Planning (Jeplan) and Tokyo’s Green Earth Institute. The organizations have teamed up to create a collaborative council that could pilot the alternative energy source by as early as 2020.
In October 2015, Jeplan founder Michihiko Iwamota introduced a technology to create bioethanol from cast-off T-shirts and denim jeans, using fermentation to break down the sugars contained in cotton into alcohols. If all goes well with test flights planned to start in 2020, the company aims to establish the first commercial fuel plant by 2030.
“I totally believed that in the future, there would be a car that runs on garbage,” said Iwamoto, referring to the trash-powered time machine from Back to the Future II. “But years went by, and that didn’t happen. So I thought I’d develop it.”
Although addressing a large energy source, 100 tons of cotton yields only around 10 kiloliters of fuel, or roughly 2,641 gallons (a commercial airliner uses about 1 gallon of fuel every second). As Nikkei Asian Review points out, even if all the cotton consumed in Japan were used in fuel production, this would give only 70,000 kl or so annually — less than 1 percent of Japan’s jet fuel usage. But since the technology can also be applied to other types of waste, including paper, clothing may only be the beginning.
Meanwhile, Mistra Future Fashion, a Swedish research program for sustainable fashion, has launched an investigation into the relationship between fabric properties and the shedding of microplastics from polyester fabrics. The company aims to deliver a framework for the construction and care of polyester fabrics in order to minimize microplastic shedding to improve environmental performance and strengthen global competitiveness.
Eunomia Research & Consulting has estimated that 190 thousand tons of microplastics from textiles enter the world’s marine ecosystem each year. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) – which earlier this year teamed up with G-Star to call on the textile and washing machine industries to design solutions to eliminate ocean microfiber pollution – the machine-washing of clothes is a big source of plastic pollution in oceans, with small plastic fibers shed by synthetic garments being washed through water treatment plants into waterways, which can also enter the food chain, as fish and other marine organisms can mistake these fibers for food.
Research carried out by the campaign ‘Mermaids Ocean Clean Wash’ for G-Star suggests that polyester, acrylic and nylon items are the biggest culprits, with an acrylic scarf shedding 300,000 fibers per wash and a polyester fleece jacket losing almost a million fibers every time it is washed.
The investigation will be conducted in spring 2017 in partnership with Boob Design,Filippa K and H&M, and the findings could be used for designing a subsequent, larger research project surrounding the microplastics problem.
“Only a strong alliance of dedicated stakeholders around the world can turn the tide,” said Frouke Bruinsma, Corporate Responsibility Director at G-Star. “Everyone is welcome to join us.”
*This story first appeared on Sustainable Brands
Through the next two months, GreenStitched sits down with the finalists of EcoChic Design Award 2015/16. EcoChic Design Award is a sustainable fashion design competition organised by Redress, inspiring emerging fashion designers and students to create mainstream clothing with minimal textile waste.
The interviews with these young designers will be posted every Wednesday on GreenStitched.
Today we meet Fan Yu, a Fashion Design student at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
What brought you into the world of fashion? That ‘aha’ moment which opened doors to sustainable fashion?
Fan Yu: I believe in Zen philosophy, and so I respect the balance between nature and human lives. When Zen philosophy is then combined with sustainable fashion, both concept and design style should enhance the overall quality of the product. This helps to maintain sustainable fashion in simple and high-end styles – much like the concept of “wabi-sabi” which is an aesthetic that accepts and celebrates imperfection. As a fashion designer, I believe less is more.
What was your inspiration for the EcoChic Design Award collection?
Fan Yu: “SAN(さん)” in Japanese is a title of a person, much like “Mr/Ms” in English. In this collection, the “SAN” is representing a Zen master Shunryu Suzuki (鈴木俊隆). The collection is inspired from his book called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”.
The soul of book is about an attitude called “Beginner’s Mind”. It emphasised that stay initial as beginner when you face every challenge, then you can feel real and enjoy lives in details. As a modern, energetic Chinese lady, contemporary sustainable fashion serves as good accessories to help them to stay true and stay initial; and displaying their beauty towards others.
3 things you learnt from of the challenge?
– Sustainable fashion design techniques
– Sustainable materials/textile
– Sustainable technology application
How do you think sustainable fashion can move from a niche to the mainstream?
Fan Yu: Sustainable fashion is a trend around the world.
Education and promotion is the most important factor, such as carrying out workshops, talks, competitions, flea markets and second-hand pop-up stores etc. It will be easier to spread the message of sustainable fashion to the public through these activities.
It is also important to encourage popular fashion brands to become leaders of sustainable fashion in the industry. For example, brands such as H&M, Stella McCartney play a huge role.
What is the biggest misconception about sustainable fashion?
Fan Yu: People think that sustainable fashion is rubbish, for example, they would think the clothes are old, dirty, damage, second-hand, uncomfortable, disgraceful or have poor finishing (patching everywhere).
What is your advice for the next breed of fashion designers?
Fan Yu: Be yourself. Do not be the kind of person you hated when you were young.
What is next in store for you?
Fan Yu: Preparing for my fashion label. Keep explore sustain fashion techniques and promote to my friend of designer.
Watch Frontline Fashion, a documentary following these talented Asian and European emerging fashion designers determined to change the future of fashion. As they descend into Hong Kong for the design battle of their lives, all eyes are on the first prize; to design an up-cycled collection for China’s leading luxury brand, Shanghai Tang. This documentary is available on iTunes here.
The next cycle of the EcoChic Design Awards is open for application from 3 January to 3 April 2017. Interested students can find more details here.
Fast fashion is now the global norm. Producers make more and cheaper clothes and people buy more clothes more often.
It’s a pattern we’ve all become familiar with — department stores with endless variety, clothes that seem to wear out more quickly — but the sheer scale of the situation has reached unsustainable levels. The only way many brands are able to turn a profit is through enormous, ever-increasing volume.
To get a sense of the industry’s size, here are a few startling facts:
- Eighty billion pieces of new clothing are consumed each year around the world, a 400% increase from two decades ago.
- In the US, 14 million tons of textile waste, mostly clothes, are thrown out annually. That’s approximately 80 pounds per person.
- Eighty-four percent of this clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators, where it breaks down, emits greenhouse gases, and releases chemicals into the ground and atmosphere.
Recycling has often been pitched as a solution to the industry’s problems, specifically the problem of ever-increasing demand for natural resources such as cotton, rubber, oil, and leather.
But it turns out that recycling has a long way to go before it can make a meaningful difference in retail, which has been called the second dirtiest industry in the world after big oil for its agricultural impact, the pollution it causes, and the energy it consumes.
The goal, ultimately, is for the fashion industry to become “circular” through improved recycling methods, minimizing its environmental impact in the process.
“Circular for apparel means that when clothing reaches the end of its useful life we will return it and make new clothing out of our used garments,” Jason Kibbey, CEO of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, told Global Citizen in an interview.
“Getting to circular will require many steps including technological innovation and retraining consumers to take back their clothing instead of sending it to the landfill,” he said.
True circularity is still a far ways off. As Alden Wicker of Newsweek recently wrote, “Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager.”
H&M is one of the pioneers of fast fashion and has invested heavily in a recycling program as a way to boost sustainability.
“We have set the vision of becoming 100% circular. In close dialogue with experts and stakeholders we will set time-bound milestones that take us closer to our goal,” said Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability at H&M in a press release. “To lead the change towards fully circular and sustainable fashion.”
Kibbey thinks that, while the model is currently insufficient, the investments are paving the way toward a good model.
“H&M’s current practices around recycling are a step toward retraining the consumers which, when combined with emerging recycling technologies, could create this circular model everyone strives for,” he said.
Why Isn’t Recycling Effective?
Currently, the vast majority of recycled clothes cannot be repurposed into quality fabric; a recycled shirt is more likely to become a windshield rag or floor mat then another shirt.
This happens for a few reasons. Modern clothing generally consists of hybrid fibers — polyester and cotton blends, for example — that are hard to separate and process. Fast fashion brands, in particular, use cheaper and often synthetic blends of materials that are hard to disentangle.
Recycling is further complicated by the chemical processes that were used to shape clothing and the chemical dyes that remain in garments. These chemicals can be difficult to remove and can degrade the quality of materials. Then there’s the erosion that occurs when wearing a piece of clothing over time.
So most clothes that are recycled don’t exist in a “closed loop.” Instead, they follow a downward trajectory, eventually ending up in landfills.
“When it ends up in the landfill, it’s a wasted material,” said Annie Gullingsrud of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “There’s been an expense to the planet. There’s been an expense to the company [and] sometimes to the people creating the materials. And it creates a need to use virgin materials.”
How Can This Be Changed?
As Kibbey noted, a lot of technological advances have to be made before existing clothing materials can be effectively recycled.
Machines have to be developed that can reliably sort through and separate different fabrics and then restore integrity to the fibers so that they can be reused for new clothes — something that Wicker notes is at least five to 10 years out.
There are stories of successful recycling systems being implemented and scaled by large corporations that suggest circular systems are attainable.
For example, Levi is working on jeans made from 100 percent post-consumer cotton.
And then there are big companies like Patagonia that break the pattern by controlling more aspects of production and ensuring that materials can be readily reused, while also promoting the long-term value of the products they sell.
There also seems to be a gradual awakening throughout the industry that future profits hinge on the ability to effectively recycle and for resources to remain viable.
The ideal solution would be for manufacturers to standardize materials production methods. If this happened, then recycling would become exponentially easier.
“Fashion and clothing are indeed a very high impact industry, but the industry is making considerable progress,” Kibbey said. “Nearly 40% of the industry is supporting the Higg Index to measure and improve the impacts of apparel and footwear products.
“Some companies have just released ambitious goals such as Nike’s goal to double its growth and halve its impact,” he said. In Kibbey’s view, Inditex (Zara) and H&M have made bold statements toward circularity.
“There is still a long way to go but I’m optimistic the industry that brought us into the industrial revolution will lead us into the sustainability revolution.”
What can you do in the meantime?
The best thing you can do is buy less and higher quality clothes. This approach has a few benefits. First, it allows you to hold onto clothes for longer, generating less waste and reducing your environmental impact. Second, it signals to companies that they should be developing more sustainable models. If all consumers adopted this approach, then fast fashion would rapidly change.
If you’re interested in taking a more active role, here’s some advice from Kibbey:
“Ask questions of all of the companies you buy from about their efforts to improve the social and environmental impacts of their products,” he said.
“If you aren’t satisfied with the answer you get from a sales associate or a person answering questions on their website, they probably aren’t part of the solution.
“Tell them you won’t shop with them any longer until they do better. Buy products with certifications such as Fair Trade, Blue Sign, or GOTS. They are a great start towards finding and supporting sustainable products. “
When it comes to deciding whether or not to recycle your clothing?
“At the end of the useful life of a garment people should recycle because it will mean the clothing will have the best chance of an afterlife and will likely avoid the landfill even if it doesn’t end up on another person,” Kibbey said.
“They should not recycle solely to free up their closet to buy more items–today that is totally unsustainable,” he said. “When we get to a circular future, that will be normal and sustainable.”
*This story first appeared on Global Citizen
Apparel chains such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 conquered the retail world by promising fast fashion: cheap, trendy and disposable.
Yet there’s a growing number of consumers this holiday season who want just the opposite. Data shows that shoppers — especially millennials, the target market for fast-fashion companies — are increasingly looking for clothes made of higher-quality materials or they’re keeping their existing clothes longer. Some are even seeking apparel that’s been reused or recycled.
More than 14 percent of U.S. consumers looked for apparel and accessories made from natural materials in 2016, up from 12.9 percent last year, according to a Euromonitor International survey. Shoppers looking for clothes that were reused or recycled rose 2 percent this year. And more millennials looked for “sustainably produced” apparel and accessories than any other age group.
This shift to so-called sustainable clothing is threatening the underpinnings of a fashion industry that wants consumers to rapidly change styles and move on to the next hot trends.
“Certainly fast-fashion companies are doing a booming business, but there’s also an increased interest in vintage, learning how to sew and weave, and in repair and mending,” said Susan Brown, a fashion expert who serves as associate curator of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. “There’s the Brooklynization of the world — interest in higher-quality, handmade things that have a narrative story.”
The challenge may come earlier than big retail chains expect. Consumers are more willing to shop at niche, smaller companies this season, according to Deloitte LLP. Some of these retailers tout sustainable premiums for longer-lasting, higher-quality products — think, Zady or Everlane.
“People want to buy trends less and less,” said Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of “You Are What You Wear: What your Clothes Reveal About You.” “It seems they’d rather buy items that are classic and will last a long time. The movement is happening, and it’s been gaining ground in the public eye.”
She said it’s going to be difficult for the fast-fashion concept to use high-quality, eco-friendly fabric and not create “mass waste.”
But fast-fashion companies are trying to respond. In 2013, H&M launched a worldwide garment-collecting initiative encouraging consumers to reuse and recycle their clothes. The chain also sells a “conscious collection,” a clothing line created entirely from sustainable materials. Zara launched its first sustainable line, Join Life, in September. The collection consists of simpler designs and clothing made from recycled wool, organic cotton and Tencel — a fabric that includes regenerated wood.
But these pieces make up just 1.5 percent of Zara’s assortment and 3.5 percent of H&M’s, said Emily Bezzant, head analyst at the fashion-tracking firm Edited. And the very nature of high-turnover fast-fashion companies strikes many as unsustainable, she said.
“Generally, fast fashion and sustainability are not a match made in heaven,” Bezzant said. She said the biggest challenge for retailers will be to make sustainable products affordable and accessible to millennials.
There’s been some progress toward that end. H&M’s Conscious Collection has an affordable median price of $17.99. At Zara’s Join Life line, a basic strappy top cost $9.90 — the same as their main line, Bezzant said. Lowering prices for sustainable collections would help these businesses stay relevant, as most consumers shop at H&M and Zara because of the cheap price tags.
Still, some in the industry are pushing the notion that millennials will save money by spending a bit more on longer-lasting items. Consumers are starting to realize when they are “too poor to buy cheap ,” said Maxine Bedat, chief executive officer of Zady, a clothing site known as the “Whole Foods of Fashion.”
“The issue that we’re facing as a society is that 150 billion new articles of clothing are produced globally every single year,” Bedat said. “The challenge is to produce clothing at the design side of things that people want to wear more than seven times.”
Christina Kim, a designer who displayed her work at a Cooper Hewitt exhibit on sustainable fashion, said it’s actually been more economical for her to use recycled scraps to make her clothing. Kim founded Los Angeles-based Dosa after moving from Seoul. Her idea started in West Bengal, where she began collecting old saris to incorporate into new designs.
Kim tracked her expenses in both regular and recycled production. She found that when using recycled fabric, she was able to spend less on materials — but had to shell out significantly more for labor. With traditional clothing production, 40 percent of her expenses went to materials, 53 percent to labor, and 7 percent to shipping and other duties. With a recycled production, Kim spent 14 percent on materials, 81 percent on labor, and 5 percent on shipping and duties.
The big companies are taking steps in a similar direction. H&M, for instance, has started minimizing waste during textile production.
“Any leftover material or post-manufacturing waste is recycled into new materials such as recycled wool or recycled cotton,” said H&M spokeswoman Anna Eriksson.
“The customer interest in sustainability is growing,” she said. “We believe sustainability is the only way forward if we want to continue to exist as a fashion company.”
*This story first appeared on Bloomberg
Investors should account for raw materials sourcing and resource constraints in their investment decision-making.
Black Friday has become almost as popular as Thanksgiving Day itself. Each year, retailers open their doors earlier. This year, Macy’s announced it would push up its opening hours to 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day — perhaps before some have even sat down to eat their turkey dinners.
Investors in apparel and retail companies are surely excited about this day and the approaching holiday season. However, there is one consideration they may not be bearing in mind, but which could have financial ramifications for the companies they are investing in.
Is fast fashion always profitable?
The problem with fast fashion, and the hype for huge savings on days such as Black Friday, is that sustainability issues around raw materials sourcing — oftentimes overlooked — could create supply disruptions and result in higher raw material costs over time.
Concerns related to climate change, water scarcity, land use, resource scarcity and conflict in the supply chain increasingly are shaping the industry’s ability to source materials, including cotton, leather, wool, rubber and precious metals. The ability of companies to manage potential materials shortages, supply disruptions, price volatility and reputational risks is made more difficult by the fact that they source materials from geographically diverse regions, usually through complex supply chains that often lack transparency. Further, the type of risk faced for different materials can require different solutions.
Take cotton. According to the World Resources Institute, 57 percent of cotton is grown in areas with high to extremely high levels of water stress. Moreover, given that it takes roughly 20,000 liters of water to produce a kilogram of cotton, the crop is susceptible to shifting weather patterns and droughts, while also contributing to increased water scarcity.
Further, innovation to find sustainable alternatives for these materials is lacking. There is currently no commercially viable textile recycling techniques for the major fibers used in apparel, which presents a major challenge to a closed-loop system.
Apparel companies understand this risk, and some are taking steps to ameliorate it. In its FY2013 Form 10-K, Hanesbrands discussed its exposure to shifting cotton prices through a sensitivity analysis. The company concluded that an increase of $0.01 per pound in cotton prices would influence the cost of sales by $3 million at 2013 production levels.
In September, the H&M Foundation invested $6.5 million in a four-year partnership fund to research and develop new textile recycling technologies, with the aim of recycling blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns. Patagonia will be the first to use Tencel fiber in its products beginning in early 2017. Tencel is made from post-industrial cotton waste, and producing it uses 95 percent less water than traditional cotton production.
We know there are risks in each apparel company’s supply chain based on what raw materials they use to make their products. What we don’t know is how much of each raw material the major apparel companies use, and what the risks associated with each material are.
Protect your profits
It’s up to investors to engage with companies and ask them questions such as: What risks are associated with the materials the company is most reliant on, and how is the company innovating to mitigate these risks? To make better investment decisions, investors should consider environmental, social and governance factors (such as resource constraints and where companies are sourcing their materials from) in addition to traditional sales numbers and valuation metrics.
This Black Friday, I encourage you to consider these questions and engage with the companies you invest in by asking how they are ensuring the environmental and financial sustainability of their business.
Source: SASB analysis performed between May and August 2016 using the latest annual SEC Filings (i.e. Form 10-Ks and 20-Fs) for the top companies, by revenue, per SICS industry (maximum of 10 companies).
*This story first appeared on SASB.