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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
Chief sustainability officer Hannah Jones talks to BoF about Nike‘s journey from sweatshop scandals to embracing sustainability as a tool for business innovation.
“The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse,” Phil Knight, then chairman and chief executive officer of Nike, told journalists at the National Press Club in Washington DC in 1998.
The sportswear giant was sinking under a rising tide of scandals, fuelled by a new type of activism targeting consumer-facing brands as a way of curbing environmental and labour abuse further down the supply chain. In 1996, Life magazine had published pictures of a 12-year-old boy in Pakistan stitching ‘Swoosh’-emblazoned soccer balls. The following year, a leaked inspection report, prepared for Nike by Ernst & Young, revealed that 77 percent of workers at a supplier factory had respiratory problems and were being exposed to carcinogens 177 times above the legal level. Television channels like CBS and ESPN broadcast footage from inside the sweatshops where Nike products were made.
As the scandals mounted, Nike insisted it had no control over the third-party suppliers that made its products, an approach current chief executive officer Mark Parker has since described as “reputation management.” Clearly, it wasn’t working.
“The company took a very defensive approach to it for about four or five years. Really all that did was to fuel the campaign,” explains Hannah Jones, chief sustainability officer and vice president of Nike’s innovation accelerator.
A former consultant on philanthropy and community programmes to Microsoft and Kimberly Clark, Jones joined Nike as director of government and community affairs EMEA in 1998. From fiscal year 1984 to 1998, Nike revenue had rocketed from $919 million to $9.6 billion. But the scandals were taking a toll. Store openings were picketed by workers’ rights campaigners and, in fiscal year 1999, revenue fell to $8.8 billion. “The company asserted that criticism of Nike’s labour practices had nothing to do with the downturn. But it was clear that Nike was suffering from a serious image problem,” wrote professor Deborah Spar in a 2002 Harvard Business School case on Nike’s labour practices. “It was no coincidence that I was recruited at that time,” adds Jones. “There was going to be a very clear change in strategy.”
In nearly two decades, Jones has helped to transform Nike from a company that was synonymous with sweatshops to a recognised sustainability leader. Last year, Morgan Stanley ranked Nike the most sustainable apparel and footwear company in North America for environmental and social performance, including its labour record.
It moved from being a risk and reputation function to being a business lever function to being an innovation function.
Back in May 1998, Phil Knight unveiled a plan to train 100 of Nike’s over 22,600 employees on sustainability issues and require suppliers to implement minimum wages. It didn’t work. “A group of 100 people alone cannot lead the transition to sustainability at a large organisation like Nike,” reflected Nike’s CSR report for fiscal year 2001. Also in 1998, Marc Kasky filed a lawsuit against Nike in California, alleging the company’s public statements on the working conditions in its supplier factories contained false information.
For the duration of the lawsuit, which was settled in 2003 for $1.5 million, Nikestopped reporting on CSR. “We really started to look into what were the things within our business that we could change or do better, such as our purchasing practises, such as teaching designers how to design with sustainability in mind,” says Jones. Following this analysis, sustainability “moved from being a risk and reputation function to being a business lever function to being an innovation function.”
The result was three major shifts in strategy — all of which the company has maintained to this day. First, Nike committed to transparency. With its fiscal year 2004 CSR report, Nike went public with its list of suppliers — data that many companies view as among their “highest competitive advantages,” says Jones, who wrote the report. “Now NGOs on the ground know which factories we’re in, if they see any issues they know how to alert us.”
Nike also reached out to industry stakeholders, co-founding the Fair Labor Association with other businesses, universities and NGOs. Many clothing factories manufacture for multiple brands — even a company as large as Nikemight only make up 5 percent of a particular supplier’s business. If asked by only one brand to improve working conditions, “the factory manager would say, ‘Well, to be frank, you’re just 5 percent, I’d rather lose my business with you than have to invest in X, Y or Z,’” says Jones.
Finally, Nike linked sustainability to innovation, defined by Jones as “invention that creates value, whether that’s value in terms of sustainability, new offerings to the athlete or in terms of our shareholders.” From 1992, Nike spent about $50 million in R&D to swap the gas in the sole of the Nike Air shoe from FS6 — a potent greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming — to nitrogen. This change yielded performance innovations that led to the Airmax 360. “This unlocked in the company a huge insight, which was [that] solving a sustainability problem can actually unlock new performance, new price or new aesthetic benefits,” says Jones.
“Nike’s sustainability reports are noteworthy for their strategic significance,” says Lynn Paine, John G. McLean professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “Nike is one of relatively few large, public companies making investments in potentially game-changing innovations for the sake of sustainability.”
Nike’s strategy also stands out for its organisational scope — spanning board level, design, sourcing and production teams and third-party factories. In 2009, teams at Nike became accountable for corporate responsibility as part of their business KPIs. Today, 57,000 materials in Nike’s production chain have an environmental rating; a programme tracks the company’s water footprint across over 811 vendors; and Nike product designs are rated for sustainability.
Currently, 86 percent of Nike contract factories are rated bronze or above inNike’s Sustainable Manufacturing and Sourcing Index (SMSI), an internal tool that rates factories on health, safety and the environment and indicates that legal wages are being paid. Nike is targeting 100 percent bronze-or-above-rated factories by 2020. A factory’s SMSI result “can lead to greater volume and growth, it can also lead to less volume and ultimately exit,” says Jones.
Since 2013, Nike has cut the number of factories it works with by 12 percent — from 785 to 692 — to embrace larger, longer-term partnerships. “That’s when the factories really start to invest in their workers,” says Jones. Nike declined to reveal how many factories it has cut ties with over non-compliance issues, or how many non-compliance issues were found at its factories. In fiscal year 2015, excessive overtime violations occurred at 4 percent of Nike’s contract factories, 8 percent less than in fiscal year 2014.
While Nike’s sustainability initiatives were launched as a response to past scandals, they are now a tool for future-proofing the company in a world where businesses are under pressure to cut their emissions and climate change threatens supplies of raw materials like cotton and leather.
“This is about leapfrogging into the future before regulation or price volatility hits you,” says Jones. “Post the Paris agreement [a legally binding agreement between countries to limit global warming to 2 degrees], we expect the business down the road will need to become a 2-degree business. And that equates to being able to grow whilst radically reducing your impact.” In May, Nike set an open-ended “moonshot challenge” to double its growth and halve its impact — defined as the company’s carbon emissions.
But not all agree with Jones’ assessment of progress. Nike did not rank in the Corporate Knights 100 most sustainable corporations for 2016 (Adidas, Keringand H&M all did) and has come under fire from Greenpeace for not eliminating toxic chemicals from its supply chain.
“This is a company that is investing in technology, sustainability, innovation and energy,” counters Edward Hertzman, founder of Sourcing Journal, a trade journal covering apparel supply chains and a former executive in global sourcing companies. “They’re investing in auditing the factories, mandating that certain wages are paid and forcing these wages to be paid — instead of just turning a blind eye and placing the order. And don’t forget, they have much more to lose. They can’t afford a PR crisis, so they need to be on top of it.”
Fast-growing, fast-fashion retailer H&M, which has more than 4,000 stores in 62 countries, sold $24.5 billion worth of T-shirts, pants, jackets and dresses last year. It also took 12,000 tons of clothes back. In a glossy, celebrity-studded video, H&M says: “There are no rules in fashion but one: Recycle your clothes.”
Recycling has become a rallying cry in the apparel industry, with H&M as its most vocal evangelist. The Swedish firm launched a €1 million contest to seek out ideas for turning old clothes into new, invested in Worn Again, a company developing textile recycling technology, and enlisted hip-hop artist M.I.A. to produce a music video called Rewear It that aims to “highlight the importance of garment collecting and recycling.”
With Nike, H&M is a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to drive a transition to a circular economy — an industrial system in which everything at the end of its life is made into something new, in contrast to today’s economy, where most consumer goods are produced, used and then thrown away.
“We have to change how fashion is made,” Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive officer of H&M, has said. “We have to go from a linear model to a circular model and we have to do it at scale.”
It’s not just H&M. American Eagle Outfitters, Eileen Fisher, Levi-Strauss & Co., Nike, the North Face, Patagonia and Zara all collect old garments (or shoes, in the case of Nike) in their stores, in some cases taking clothes from any manufacturer. Startups Ambercycle, Dutch Awareness and Evrnu are developing chemical processes to take cotton, polyester or blended apparel and transform them into new fibers. “Our ultimate goal is to harvest our raw materials from our consumers’ closets,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss.
That H&M is leading the charge for the circular economy is no small irony. The company’s low-cost clothes — it sells women’s T-shirts for $5.99 and boys’ jeans for $9.99 — are one reason why the apparel industry is growing so fast and drawing fire from environmental activists.
It’s been estimated that the global apparel industry generates as much as $2.5 trillion in annual revenue and that it will double in the next decade. What’s more, despite efforts to collect old clothes by retailers and nonprofits such as Goodwill Industries, the overwhelming majority of items eventually wind up in landfills, at least in the U.S. Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually, which amounts to about 80 pounds for each man, woman and child, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated.
Eileen Fisher, the founder of the apparel company that bears her name, has called the clothing industry “the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil,” a claim that can’t be verified because reliable data on fashion’s global footprint is scarce. But there’s no doubt that vast amounts of water, energy and chemicals are required to manufacture clothes — up to 200 tons of water, for example, to make a ton of fabric, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In places where environmental regulation is lax, chemicals are routinely discharged into rivers and streams without treatment. The textile industry long has been one of China’s biggest polluters, and it has fouled rivers and ruined farmland in India, Cambodia and Bangladesh, as well.
Growing cotton, the most-used fabric in fashion, requires water and agricultural chemicals. (Organic cotton is an exception.) While cotton is grown on just 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of global sales of insecticides and pesticides, respectively, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition — an alliance of retailers, brands and nonprofits — has been working for about five years to measure and reform the industry’s environmental footprint.
In the long run, the industry will need to take more radical action, particularly if it wants to sustain current growth rates, sustainability executives say.
For Nike to achieve its “moonshot ambition” of cutting its environmental impact by half while doubling its business, the company “will need to forget the linear and move to a circular model,” said Hannah Jones, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “Incrementalism and efficiency measures will not get us there.” Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, said the company wants to “decouple growth from resource use, so that economic and social development can happen, but within planetary boundaries.”
This will be a daunting task. Consumer behavior is one obstacle. Most people don’t bring their old clothes back to stores, despite incentives. In the U.S., H&M, Levi-Strauss and the North Face have offered a variety of discounts, sometimes for as much as 20 percent on future purchases, but they are collecting far fewer clothes than they sell, executives admit. (H&M won’t say how many tons of clothes it sells, but the 12,000 tons it took back in 2015 is clearly a fraction of what the chain sold.) San Francisco is one of very few cities to offer curbside recycling of textiles.
Some insiders say the hype about closing the loop in fashion is outpacing actual progress. John Mowbray, founder of MCL Global, a media company focused on textiles that last year published a 100-page report called Closing the Loop, said: “There’s a hell of a long way to go for the industry to get to meaningful scale, despite what the marketing people are saying.”
To see why the job ahead is so hard, it’s essential to distinguish between recycling and closing the loop. Conventional recycling of clothes doesn’t create feedstock for new clothes. Instead, garments that can be worn again are sold in thrift stores or bundled for overseas bulk sales at just a few pennies a pound. (Even at those rock-bottom prices, the U.S. exported $705 million of worn clothing last year, sometimes to the detriment of local economies.) Clothes that can’t be worn again are resold as rags; downcycled for use in products such as insulation, carpet padding and stuffing for toys; incinerated for energy, or sent to landfills.
By contrast, a closed loop or circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design,” stated the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. For the apparel industry, this means designing a system that will keep textile resources in use for a long as possible, and then recovering the materials at the end of life to make new high-value products. No company today is doing this on a commercial scale, but several are trying.
London-based Worn Again began “upcycling” a decade ago by turning textile waste — including discarded McDonald’s uniforms, Virgin Atlantic airplane seats and prison blankets — into clothes, shoes and bags. But founder Cyndi Rhoades soon realized that making consistent products out of a variety of materials was “a very difficult business.” She turned her attention to recycling cotton and polyester, which poses a different set of obstacles. Mechanical recycling of cotton lowers its quality as chopped-up fibers get shorter and less soft, while recycled polyester costs more than new. Harder still is recycling clothes made from a blend of fabrics, which must be separated.
After several years of research, Worn Again joined forces (PDF) with H&M and the PUMA division of Kering to develop chemical processes that will capture polyester and cotton from old textiles that have been broken down to the molecular level. Said Rhoades: “The holy grail is a process that can separate blended fibers, recapture the raw materials and reintroduce them into the supply chain at a price competitive with their virgin counterparts.” The technology has been proven in a lab, but Rhoades declined to predict when it will be deployed more widely.
A partnership between Levi Strauss and Seattle-based startup Evrnu recently brought forth the world’s first pair of jeans made of post-consumer cotton waste. A preliminary lifecycle assessment of the product generated encouraging results, according to Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss.
“Cotton cultivation versus Evrnu, we’re looking at a 98 percent reduction in water use,” said Dillinger, noting that cotton is cultivated in places such as China, India and Pakistan that are — or soon could be — water-stressed.
Stacy Flynn, a former Target executive who is the co-founder of Evrnu, said its patented process purifies cotton garment waste, converts it to a pulp and extrudes it as a clean new fiber that is softer than silk and stronger than cotton. Evrnu expects to announce partnerships with two more retailers soon, one of which wants to make knit shirts out of textile waste. The other will focus on footwear.
Flynn said: “Our goal — and we’re not there yet — is to use no virgin product in the creation of our fiber, and create no waste.”
Visitors who stepped into fashion retailer H&M’s showroom in New York City on April 4, 2016, were confronted by a pile of cast-off clothing reaching to the ceiling. A T.S. Eliot quote stenciled on the wall (“In my end is my beginning”) gave the showroom the air of an art gallery or museum. In the next room, reporters and fashion bloggers sipped wine while studying the half-dozen mannequins wearing bespoke creations pieced together from old jeans, patches of jackets and cut-up blouses.
This cocktail party was to celebrate the launch of H&M’s most recent Conscious Collection. The actress Olivia Wilde, spokeswoman and model for H&M’s forays into sustainable fashion, was there wearing a new dress from the line. But the fast-fashion giant, which has almost 4,000 stores worldwide and earned over $25 billion in sales in 2015, wanted participants to also take notice of its latest initiative: getting customers to recycle their clothes. Or, rather, convincing them to bring in their old clothes (from any brand) and put them in bins in H&M’s stores worldwide. “H&M will recycle them and create new textile fibre, and in return you get vouchers to use at H&M. Everybody wins!” H&M said on its blog.
It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s a gross oversimplification. 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, Henrik Lampa, who was at the cocktail party answering questions from the press. And despite the impressive amount of marketing dollars the company pumped into World Recycle Week to promote the idea of recycling clothes—including the funding of a music video by M.I.A.—what H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.
Picture yourself with a trash bag of old clothes you’ve just cleaned out of your closet. You think you could get some money out of them, so you take them to a consignment or thrift store, or sell them via one of the new online equivalents, like ThredUp. But they’ll probably reject most of your old clothes, even the ones you paid dearly for, because of small flaws or no longer being in season. With fast fashion speeding up trends and shortening seasons, your clothing is quite likely dated if it’s more than a year old. Many secondhand stores will reject items from fast-fashion chains like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Topshop. The inexpensive clothing is poor quality, with low resale value, and there’s just too much of it.
If you’re an American, your next step is likely to throw those old clothes in the trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.
When natural fibers, like cotton, linen and silk, or semi-synthetic fibers created from plant-based cellulose, like rayon, Tencel and modal, are buried in a landfill, in one sense they act like food waste, producing the potent greenhouse gas methane as they degrade. But unlike banana peels, you can’t compost old clothes, even if they’re made of natural materials. “Natural fibers go through a lot of unnatural processes on their way to becoming clothing,” says Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “They’ve been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths.” Those chemicals can leach from the textiles and—in improperly sealed landfills—into groundwater. Burning the items in incinerators can release those toxins into the air.
Meanwhile, synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, have the same environmental drawbacks, and because they are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum, they will take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.
Despite these ugly statistics, Americans are blithely trashing more clothes than ever. In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. The EPA estimates that diverting all of those often-toxic trashed textiles into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road.
Trashing the clothes is also a huge waste of money. Nationwide, a municipality pays $45 per ton of waste sent to a landfill. It costs New York City $20.6 million annually to ship textiles to landfills and incinerators—a major reason it has become especially interested in diverting unwanted clothing out of the waste stream. The Department of Sanitation’s Re-FashioNYC program, for example, provides large collection bins to buildings with 10 or more units. Housing Works (a New York–based nonprofit that operates used-clothing stores to fund AIDS and homelessness programs) receives the goods, paying Re-FashioNYC for each ton collected, which in turn puts the money toward more bins. Since it launched in 2011, the program has diverted 6.4 million pounds of textiles from landfills, and Housing Works has opened up several new secondhand clothing sales locations.
But that’s only 0.3 percent of the 200,000 tons of textiles going to the dump every year from the city. Just 690 out of the estimated 35,000 or so qualified buildings in the city participate.
Smaller municipalities have tried curbside collection programs, but most go underpublicized and unused. The best bet in most places is to take your old clothing to a charity. Haul your bag to the back door of Goodwill, the Salvation Army or a smaller local shop, get a tax receipt and congratulate yourself on your largess. The clothes are out of your life and off your mind. But their long, international journey may be just beginning.
Made to Not Last
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, charities overall sell only 20 percent of the clothing donated to them at their retail outlets. All the big charities I contacted asserted that they sell more than that—30 percent at Goodwill, 45 to 75 percent at the Salvation Army and 40 percent at Housing Works, to give a few examples. This disparity is probably because, unlike small charity shops, these larger organizations have well-developed systems for processing clothing. If items don’t sell in the main retail store, they can send them to their outlets, where customers can walk out with a bag full of clothing for just a few dollars. But even at that laughably cheap price, they can’t sell everything.
“When it doesn’t sell in the store, or online, or outlets, we have to do something with it,” says Michael Meyer, vice president of donated goods retail and marketing for Goodwill Industries International. So Goodwill—and others—“bale up” the remaining unwanted clothing into shrink-wrapped cubes taller than a person and sell them to textile recyclers.
“What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?” “Let’s just say they’re not all going towards a good cause.”
This outrages people who believe the role of thrift shop charities is to transfer clothes to the needy. “What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?” read a Fashionista headline earlier this year. The story hinted, “Let’s just say they’re not all going towards a good cause.”
“People like to feel like they are doing something good, and the problem they run into in a country such as the U.S. is that we don’t have people who need [clothes] on the scale at which we are producing,“ says Pietra Rivoli, a professor of economics at Georgetown University. The nonprofit N Street Village in Washington, D.C., which provides services to homeless and low-income women,says in its wish list that “due to overwhelming support,” it can’t accept any clothing, with the exception of a few particularly useful and hard-to-come-by items like bras and rain ponchos.
Fast fashion is forcing charities to process larger amounts of garments in less time to get the same amount of revenue—like an even more down-market fast-fashion retailer. “We need to go through more and more donations to find those great pieces, which can make it more costly to find those pieces and get them to customers,” says David Raper, senior vice president of business enterprises at Housing Works. Goodwill’s strategy is much the same, says Meyer: “If I can get more fresh product more quickly on the floor, I can extract more value.”
This strategy—advertising new product on a weekly basis—is remarkably similar to that of Spanish fast-fashion retailer Zara, which upended the entire fashion game by restocking new designs twice a week instead of once or twice a season. And so clothing moves through the system faster and faster, seeking somebody, anybody, who will pay a few cents for it.
If you donate your clothing anywhere in the New York City area and the items aren’t sold at a secondhand store, they’re likely to end up at Trans-Americas Trading Co. Workers at this large warehouse in Clifton, New Jersey, receive and process about 80,000 pounds of clothing a day.
When Eric Stubin, owner of Trans-Americas, president of the Council for Textile Recycling and president of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, takes me on a tour of the warehouse, he pauses while a forklift scurries around the corner with a bale of garments and neatly stacks it in a tall, dense wall of clothing, before shooting back around the corner to grab another from a semi that’s backed up to the loading bay. Workers stand in front of conveyor belts making split-second assessments as they mine the castoffs for valuable pieces. Sometimes, they find a gem—a pair of vintage Levi’s, an ugly Christmas sweater, an army jacket—and toss it into a small bin full of other covetable items, which Trans-Americas can sell at a markup to vintage stores in Brooklyn. But that’s just about 2 percent of what they get. The rest is sorted into broad categories, like T-shirts, pants or cold-weather items, then divided again by quality and material.
Forty percent of the clothing will be baled and shipped all over the globe to be resold as is. Japan gets the second nicest vintage items after the U.S. stores, South American countries get the mid-grade stuff, Eastern European countries get the cold-weather clothes, and African countries get the low-grade stuff no one else will take. In the 1980s, secondhand clothing began flowing into African countries that had dropped their protectionist economic policies. And because it was cheaper and seen as higher quality than domestically produced clothing, it dominated the market. By 2004, 81 percent of clothing purchased in Uganda was secondhand. In 2005, according to an Oxfam report, secondhand clothing made up half of the volume of clothing imports in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, starting in the 1990s, textile industries in those African countries cratered.
Early last year, at a summit of East African heads of state, some of the regional leaders proposed a ban on the importation of secondhand clothing; English-speaking news sites such as Voices of Africa and CNN followed up by positing that old clothing from the U.K. and U.S. was creating a post-colonial economic mess. “Exporting low-quality clothing that has no value in our own society forges a relationship of dependency,” says Andrew Brooks at Kings College London. “You can call me idealistic, but I don’t really want to live in a world where people who are in the global south, the only clothes they can afford to buy are clothes you and I don’t want.”
Not everyone agrees. Georgetown University’s Rivoli, for example, says the secondhand clothing trade creates jobs in not only selling but also cleaning, repairing and tailoring. Karen Tranberg Hansen, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, has argued that secondhand clothing in countries like Kenya, Zambia, Lesotho and Uganda fills a different niche than the textile industry. “There are different segments of the population that have different desires,” she says. “It is not a direct competition.” Secondhand clothing, traditional clothing that is made locally, Asian imports—different people buy different things, she asserts.
But what everyone agrees on is that Africans buy cast-off clothing from the U.S. because they see it as high quality and good value. This might not be true much longer. The 2005 Oxfam report found that in Kenya up to a quarter of clothing in imported secondhand bales was unsalable due to poor quality. Since then, fast fashion’s market share has expanded, even as it has become synonymous with “falls apart after two wears” for Western consumers. It’s possible that Africans might eventually recognize that the secondhand fashion is just cheap, old imported clothing from Asia that made a quick pit stop in the U.K. and U.S. And like Americans, they might decide to just buy it new.
On the Brink of Collapse
Thirty percent of the clothing that comes into Trans-Americas is T-shirts and polos that will be cut into wiping rags for auto shops and other industrial uses. Another 20 percent of the clothing—the ripped and stained items—will be shipped out to processors that will chop it up into “shoddy,” to be used in building insulation or carpet padding or floor mats for the auto industry. These are the least profitable types of clothing recycling for Trans-Americas.
The surge of fast-fashion garments poses a problem for Trans-Americas too. “More garments are made with polyester [or] poly-cotton blend,” Stubin says. “If you have clothing that is lower quality, you’re going to end up with more wiping rags and more material for the fiber market. The market for fiber is pennies these days. Half of the clothing we sell for less than the acquisition value.”
Though it’s better to downcycle clothes—turn them into less valuable consumer goods like auto-shop rags—than to send them straight to the landfill, it’s not a complete solution. Those rags will still find their way to the landfill after a few uses; insulation will be thrown in the dumpster when it’s torn out of a wall or old car. Everything is broken down further and further until it eventually reaches the landfill.
The cost to the planet isn’t just what the stuff does when it’s put in the ground, though that’s bad enough. The wasted resources it took to create a textile are devastating for the planet. “When it ends up in the landfill, it’s a wasted material,” says 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.”
International companies like Adidas, Levi’s, Nike and H&M don’t want you to stop buying their products, but they also don’t want to give up on their fast-fashion business models. “The holy grail for sustainability in fashion is closed-loop sourcing,” Marie-Claire Daveu of the global luxury holding company Kering told Vogue. (Kering owns companies like Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, among many others.) “Reuse old materials. Make new materials out of old materials. Recapture the fibers.”
Closed-loop technology, where a product is recycled back into almost the same product, is a tantalizing prospect for sustainability advocates, because it essentially mimics the natural process of life. A plant grows out of dirt, dies, is incorporated back into dirt, and then another plant grows from that dirt. Rain falls, moves through the forest and into a river, flows to the sea, evaporates into the sky and falls again. There’s no waste. If closed-loop technology could be achieved for fashion, nothing would ever go the landfill—it would just be endlessly looped through textile factories, garment factories, stores, your closet, secondhand retailers, textile recyclers and back to textile factories again. Polyester thread would be created, woven into a textile, made into a garment, broken down into pure polyester and woven into a textile again. Same for natural fibers.
But commercially scalable, closed-loop textile recycling technology is still five to 10 years away, at best. According to a 2014 report commissioned by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, there is closed-loop technology for pure cotton that could take a garment, break it down and reweave—but once cotton is dyed, treated or blended with other materials, the process no longer works. Treated cotton, linen, silk and wool can be mechanically chopped up for recycling, but they yield a low-quality, short fiber that must be mixed with virgin fiber for clothing. At 20 percent reused cotton, H&M’s recycled denim line released last summer pushed the limits of what’s possible today—a higher percentage of recycled cotton results in a lower-quality textile that tears too easily to be wearable.
A hopeful note appeared in May when Levi’s debuted a prototype of jeans in partnership with the textile technology startup Evrnu, made with 52 percent chemically recycled cotton from old T-shirts. Evrnu says its technology isn’t sensitive to certain dyes, and it hopes to eventually make jeans from 100 percent post-consumer cotton waste. But there’s no timeline available yet for when these jeans will become available.
Closed-loop recycling of synthetic textiles like elastane-nylon blends is even further away from commercial feasibility. The technology exists to chemically process polyester into its core components and spin it back into polyester thread, and Patagonia is already using it to recycle its clothing. But Patagonia is doing it out of principle, not for profit; the process is prohibitively expensive and finicky, requiring high-quality polyester textile (Patagonia’s own fleeces) as an input, instead of the cheap polyester textiles typically used by fast-fashion retailers.
Then there are popular blended fabrics with both polyester and natural fibers that, currently, can’t be closed-loop recycled at all. Because the manufacture of polyester textiles is soaring—from 5.8 million tons in 1980 to 34 million in 1997 and an estimated 100 million in 2015— we won’t be able to handle our output of old clothing until that problem is solved.
H&M knows this, which is why in February it handed out $1.1 millionthrough its charity, Conscious Foundation, to five “innovation teams” working on textile recycling technologies. One team will be working on a process to dissolve old cotton clothing into a cotton-like material that can be spun into new fibers. Another is developing a microbe that can digest polyester, even if it’s blended with a natural fiber, and break it down into its basic components for resale back to polyester manufacturers.
These processes need to be developed in tandem with a sorting technology that can easily tell apart pure cotton, synthetic fabric and blended fiber, or recognize that a jacket has cotton on the outside and polyester on the inside. “If we’re going to try to get 24 billion pounds out of the landfill, we can’t be hand sorting,” says Jennifer Gilbert of the international secondhand clothing collection company I:CO.
There’s a special sense of urgency to these brands’ efforts to close the loop, which would create a new and—hopefully—profitable market for old textiles. In the past year, the market for secondhand textiles has tanked, pushing this entire system to the brink of collapse.
At the moment your old clothing is baled for sale to a textile recycler, it ceases to be discrete items whose value is determined by the label, quality or trendiness. Instead, it becomes a commodity with a per-pound price governed by global supply and demand. In the past 18 months, that price has dropped to a few cents per pound, shoved down by the strength of the dollar, weak demand due to unrest in the Middle East (where much of the secondhand clothing is processed), upward economic mobility in Eastern European countries and a fire in the largest secondhand market in East Africa.
Some percentage of that price drop could be attributed to a steady increase in the supply of lower-quality secondhand clothing, as charities race to process more clothes faster. “The used-clothing industry is going through an extremely difficult period both here in the U.K. and globally,” Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association in the U.K., told Sourcing Journal in April. “Yet consumption of new clothing is continuing to rise, with clothing prices still generally much lower than they used to be. Continuing downward pressure on prices for used clothing is inevitable for some time to come.” With little financial incentive for recyclers, collection rates have dropped by 4 percent in the past year, after rising steadily during the years after the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
If clothing quality continues to fall, demand from the international market drops even further and the closed-loop recycling technology doesn’t come through, we might have a secondhand clothing crisis. And then there wouldn’t be any place at all to take your cheap, old clothes.
NIKE, Inc. has announced a new strategic partnership with private equity firm Apollo Global Management, LLC, aimed at building a transparent and ethical apparel supply chain in the Americas. Through the partnership, Nike aims to increase regional manufacturing capabilities, enable quicker delivery of more customized product to consumers and drive investment in sustainability.
To establish the partnership, Apollo has established a new apparel supply chain company that is acquiring existing apparel suppliers in North and Central America, and plans to invest in advancing their manufacturing operations and expertise to produce innovative, technical and customized apparel. This new company also expects to acquire additional textile and apparel suppliers in the Americas in order to broaden and diversify its capabilities and product offerings. This will create a more vertically integrated apparel ecosystem – from materials suppliers and apparel manufacturers to final embellishment, warehousing and logistics.
“We are excited to be working with Apollo to rethink a new supply chain model to revolutionize apparel manufacturing in the Americas,” says Nike COO Eric Sprunk. “The new company, under Apollo’s leadership, is committed to embedding sustainability and transparency into the business, investing in new technology, vertically integrating critical elements of the supply chain and delivering the best Nike performance product to our retail and sports partners.”
“We see a tremendous opportunity to meet the rising demand for responsive apparel manufacturing to serve increasing consumer expectations for products delivered when and where they want them. We intend to work with management to develop a regional supplier capable of servicing the needs of a wide variety of customers, and we are particularly enthusiastic to be working with such an iconic brand as Nike,” says Josh Harris, co-founder and Senior Managing Director of Apollo. “While Nike has not made a capital investment in the company, this strategic partnership is a testament to Nike’s commitment to increasing regional manufacturing capabilities, driving investment in innovation and creating long-term growth.”
While terms of the agreements were not disclosed, Apollo says the new supply chain company has already acquired two businesses to form the cornerstone of this strategy: the apparel manufacturer, New Holland; and the embellishment, warehousing and logistics operator,ArtFX. The investment is made by the Apollo-managed Special Situations I fund.
This isn’t Nike’s first move to create “the supply chain of the future”: In May, the sportswear giant unveiled the latest expansion of its European Logistics Campus in Belgium. The expansion will make Nike’s European operations more efficient, more responsive and more sustainable, enabling growth by serving consumers across Nike.com, as well as its retail and wholesale partners in 38 countries, all from a single inventory location. Sustainable innovation informed all aspects of the facility – ex: it’s powered by 100 percent renewable energy, the structure was created to minimize its footprint from both an operational and a materials standpoint – emphasizing Nike’s vision for a low-carbon, closed-loop future as part of its growth strategy.
Fast-growing, fast-fashion retailer H&M, which has more than 4,000 stores in 62 countries, sold $24.5bn worth of T-shirts, pants, jackets, and dresses last year. It also took 12,000 tons of clothes back. In a glossy, celebrity-studded video, H&M says: “There are no rules in fashion but one: Recycle your clothes.”
“There are no rules in fashion but one: Recycle your clothes.”
Recycling has become a rallying cry in the apparel industry, with H&M as its most vocal evangelist. The Swedish firm launched a €1m contest to seek out ideas for turning old clothes into new, invested in Worn Again, a company that is developing textile recycling technology, and enlisted hip-hop artist MIA. to produce a music video called Rewear It, that aims to “highlight the importance of garment collecting and recycling”. With Nike, H&M is a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to drive a transition to a circular economy – that is, an industrial system in which everything at the end of its life is made into something new, in contrast to today’s economy, where most consumer goods are produced, used, and then thrown away.
“We have to change how fashion is made,” Karl-Johan Persson, the chief executive officer of H&M, has said. “We have to go from a linear model to a circular model, and we have to do it at scale.”
It’s not just H&M. American Eagle Outfitters, Eileen Fisher, Levi-Strauss & Co, Nike, The North Face, Patagonia, and Zara all collect old garments (or shoes, in the case of Nike) in their stores, in some cases taking clothes from any manufacturer. Startups Ambercycle, Dutch Awareness, and Evrnu are developing chemical processes to take cotton, polyester, or blended apparel and transform them into new fibers.
“Our ultimate goal is to harvest our raw materials from our consumers’ closets,” says Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss.
That H&M is leading the charge for the circular economy is no small irony. The company’s low-cost clothes – it sells women’s T-shirts for $5.99 and boys’ jeans for $9.99 – are one reason why the apparel industry is growing so fast and drawing fire from environmental activists. It’s been estimated that the global apparel industry generates as much as $2.5tn in annual revenue, and that it will double in the next decade. What’s more, despite efforts to collect old clothes by retailers and nonprofits like Goodwill Industries, the overwhelming majority of items eventually wind up in landfills, at least in the US Americans dispose of about 12.8m tons of textiles annually, which amounts to about 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
Eileen Fisher, the founder of the apparel company that bears her name, has called the clothing industry “the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil,” a claim that can’t be verified because reliable data on fashion’s global footprint is scarce. But there’s no doubt that vast amounts of water, energy, and chemicals are required to manufacture clothes – up to 200 tons of water, for example, to make a ton of fabric, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In places where environmental regulation is lax, chemicals are routinely discharged into rivers and streams without treatment. The textile industry has long been one of China’s biggest polluters, and it has fouled rivers and ruined farmland in India, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, as well.
Growing cotton, the most-used fabric in fashion, requires water and agricultural chemicals. (Organic cotton is an exception.) While cotton is grown on just 2.4% of the world’s cropland, it accounts for 24% and 11% of global sales of insecticides and pesticides, respectively, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition – an alliance of retailers, brands, and nonprofits – has been working for about five years to measure and reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.
In the long run, the industry will need to take more radical action, particularly if it wants to sustain current growth rates, sustainability executives say.
For Nike to achieve its “moonshot ambition” of cutting its environmental impact by half, while doubling its business, the company “will need to forget the linear and move to a circular model,” says Hannah Jones, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “Incrementalism and efficiency measures will not get us there.” Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, says the company wants to “decouple growth from resource use, so that economic and social development can happen, but within planetary boundaries.”
This will be a daunting task. Consumer behavior is one obstacle. Most people don’t bring their old clothes back to stores, despite incentives. In the US, H&M, Levi-Strauss, and The North Face have offered a variety of discounts, sometimes for as much as 20% on future purchases, but they are collecting far, far fewer clothes than they sell, executives admit. (H&M won’t say how many tons of clothes it sells, but the 12,000 tons it took back in 2015 is clearly a fraction of what the chain sold.) San Francisco is one of very few cities to offer curbside recycling of textiles.
Some insiders say the hype about closing the loop in fashion is outpacing actual progress. John Mowbray, who is the founder of MCL Global, a media company focused on textiles that last year published a 100-page report called Closing the Loop, says: “There’s a hell of a long way to go for the industry to get to meaningful scale, despite what the marketing people are saying.”
To see why the job ahead is so hard, it’s essential to distinguish between recycling and closing the loop. Conventional recycling of clothes doesn’t create feedstock for new clothes. Instead, garments that can be worn again are sold in thrift stores or bundled for overseas bulk sales at just a few pennies a pound. (Even at those rock-bottom prices, the US exported $705m of worn clothing last year, sometimes to the detriment of local economies.) Clothes that can’t be worn again are resold as rags; downcycled for use in products like insulation, carpet padding, and stuffing for toys; incinerated for energy, or sent to landfills.
By contrast, a closed loop or circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design,” says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. For the apparel industry, this means designing a system that will keep textile resources in use for a long as possible, and then recover the materials at the end of life to make new high-value products. No company today is doing this on a commercial scale, but several are trying.
London-based Worn Again began “upcycling” a decade ago by turning textile waste – including discarded McDonald’s uniforms, Virgin Atlantic airplane seats, and prison blankets – into clothes, shoes, and bags. But founder Cyndi Rhoades soon realized that making consistent products out of a variety of materials was “a very difficult business”. She turned her attention to recycling cotton and polyester, which poses a different set of obstacles. Mechanical recycling of cotton lowers its quality as chopped-up fibers get shorter and less soft, while recycled polyester costs more than new. Harder still is recycling clothes made from a blend of fabrics, which must be separated.
After several years of research, Worn Again joined forces with H&M and the Puma division of Kering to develop chemical processes that will capture polyester and cotton from old textiles that have been broken down to the molecular level. Says Rhoades: “The holy grail is a process that can separate blended fibers, recapture the raw materials, and reintroduce them into the supply chain at a price competitive with their virgin counterparts.” The technology has been proven in a lab, but Rhoades declined to predict when it will be deployed more widely.
A partnership between Levi Strauss and Seattle-based startup Evrnu recently brought forth the world’s first pair of jeans made of post-consumer cotton waste. A preliminary lifecycle assessment of the product generated encouraging results, according to Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss. “Cotton cultivation versus Evrnu, we’re looking at a 98% reduction in water use,” says Dillinger, noting that cotton is cultivated in places like China, India, and Pakistan that are — or could soon be — water-stressed.
Stacy Flynn, a former Target executive who is the co-founder of Evrnu, says its patented process purifies cotton garment waste, converts it to a pulp, and extrudes it as a clean new fiber that is softer than silk and stronger than cotton. Evrnu expects to announce partnerships with two more retailers soon, one of which wants to make knit shirts out of textile waste. The other will focus on footwear.
Flynn says: “Our goal – and we’re not there yet – is to use no virgin product in the creation of our fiber, and create no waste.”
New platform allows industry to contribute and gain information on thousands of new materials in the Higg Index
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) has launched the Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) Contributor, a new addition to the Higg Index suite of tools that allows material suppliers and experts to submit apparel, footwear, and home textile material data into the Higg MSI. The MSI Contributor will allow SAC to expand data around materials sustainability to inform design, development and sourcing decisions for its more than 180 members – including designers and developers at some of the world’s most influential brands.
The Higg MSI provides a common lens for assessing materials impact on climate change, land use, water scarcity, resource depletion, eutrophication, and chemistry. “Sustainability measurement can only be achieved when the industry is speaking a common language,” saidJason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “With the introduction of the MSI Contributor, we further the depth of that language, providing a baseline for thousands of materials that designers and the rest of the industry can use to make informed product decisions,” he said. “This is a key milestone in our roadmap to full industry transparency via the Higg Index in 2020.”
Once validated by the MSI Gatekeeper, the MSI Contributor submissions will be incorporated into the Higg MSI, a public tool relaunching in September that will allow users to see and compare scores for common materials in the apparel, footwear, and home textile industry. At launch, the Higg MSI will include 79 scored base materials (such as cotton, polyester, and EVA foam), and 225 additional production specifications (such as organic or bio-based fibers, weaving or knitting processes, or performance finishes) that can be used to get a more accurate score for a specific material. This results in more than 4000 scored materials, which SAC looks to rapidly expand with the MSI Contributor.
Through the MSI Contributor, the SAC expects that the entire industry will gain benefits in making more informed decisions around material use. Manufacturers will have a credible and comparable means to show how their responsible production processes reduce impact, allowing them to attract more brands committed to responsible sourcing.
“As a participating member of the SAC, INVISTA has been keen to ensure that the methodology used to assess material and product impacts is fair, unbiased and representative of actual environmental impacts associated with manufacture and consumer use of textile products,” said Francis Mason, Senior R&D Engineer of INVISTA. “This fundamental tool improvement will enhance the SAC reputation and Higg Tool adoption.”
According to Dr. Krishna Manda, Senior Advisor of Sustainability, Lenzing AG, “MSI Contributor will increase the functionality of the Higg Design & Development Module and supports brands in making meaningful decisions while designing products. This is a great platform to showcase the best sustainability practices of manufacturers which are duly verified by credible experts.”
The MSI Contributor marks another step in the evolution of Higg tools that promote data transparency, collaboration and systemic change across the industry. Soon, manufacturers and their brand and retailer customers will also be able to measure the overall environmental performance of their footwear, apparel and home textile products with the upcoming launch of the Design & Development Module (DDM) in the Fall.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition welcomes industry review and contributions to the MSI Contributor at msicontributor.higg.org
An ambitious effort by a global apparel industry group to measure the social and environmental impact of making clothes and shoes has yet to deliver on its promise
From the cotton farm to the clothing factory to the fashion show, the global apparel industry has more than its share of social and environmental problems.
Behind the images of beauty and style is an often dirty business that relies onwater-intensive methods and toxic chemicals in its factories, most of them in poor countries and hidden from view. While garment work has provided a pathway out of poverty – now in China, but earlier in the US and UK – no worker should be exposed to the unsafe conditions that led to calamities like in Bangladesh, where in 2013 the collapse of the structurally unsafe Rana Plaza building killed more than 1,100 workers.
No company can solve such problems on its own. Yet an ambitious effort to bring the industry together to deliver sweeping changes has yet to deliver. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global alliance of retailers, brands, suppliers, advocacy groups, labor unions and academics, aims to create “an apparel, footwear and home textiles industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on people and communities”.
Four years ago, I took a close look at the coalition’s promising beginning. Last month at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, an industry gathering focused on sustainability, I caught up with apparel industry executives and their critics to see how much progress the industry group has made – and opinions are mixed.
To its credit, the coalition, launched in 2009 by Walmart and Patagonia, has brought together 175 members whose companies account for more than 40% of the global apparel industry. They have been building what they expect to be the principal driver of change in the industry: a set of three online tools, known as theHigg Index, that measure the social and environmental impact of brands, manufacturing facilities and products. Companies are supposed to use the index to collect information from their own operations and their suppliers’, and all of it goes into a database that coalition members can use to evaluate suppliers. About 6,000 factories have provided information about their social and environmental impact.
But most coalition members have been slow to use the index, and there’s no evidence they are reducing – not merely reporting – their impact. A Higg tool designed to measure a product’s footprint – information such as the raw materials and energy used that might interest consumers – won’t be completed until next year. What’s more, none of the social and environmental data being collected is publicly available, at least for now. Companies aren’t even permitted to release their own Higg Index data.
Until the data becomes public, its value will be limited. Environmental and human rights groups that want to hold the industry accountable don’t have access to the information. Nor do investors, who worry about supply chain and reputation risks, have a reliable way to measure one company against another. Consumers who want to know how and where T-shirts or shoes are made will have to wait before they can use the data to learn whether those items are manufactured ethically. Right now, they get little information. Knowing, for example, that a shirt is composed of organic cotton or recycled polyester doesn’t say anything about the factory conditions where it was produced.
Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the coalition is moving too slowly to collect Higg data and isn’t doing enough to prod companies to remedy problems that turn up. “I am quite surprised at the lack of uptake,” she says. “There are too many companies, even with high profiles, that are not circulating the forms to their suppliers.”
Several big companies, led by H&M and Target, have embraced the Higg tools, as has Patagonia. Others have been slow to use them, but the coalition declined to identify the laggards. Several major industry players, including fast fashion retailer Forever 21, have declined to join the SAC at all.
Nike says it hasn’t used Higg widely, not because it doesn’t support SAC’s effort but because of what Hannah Jones, its chief sustainability officer, describes as “technical, boring IT reasons”. Nike monitors its supply chain using its own software, Jones says.
“The vast majority are using some of the tools,” says Jason Kibbey, the coalition’s chief executive. “The scale and depth with which they’re using them varies widely.”
Several reasons explain why the index hasn’t been widely used. For one thing, it’s still under development. Building the Higg Index is a complex undertaking, Kibbey says. The coalition has to balance competing demands – making tools accessible and relatively easy to use, yet powerful enough to capture an array of environmental and social impacts from farms, factories and stores.
Brands also are resistant to spending the time and energy to gathering data, especially from their suppliers. Making a piece of clothing involves multiple suppliers, including: farmers who grow the raw materials; dye-and-finishing mills where environmental impacts are greatest; and cut-and-sew factories where garments are produced. But brands don’t typically deal directly with all those suppliers, and many don’t bother to dig deep into their supply chains.
Several coalition members tell me they plan to make the index data public eventually. Kibbey says his members have not agreed when that information will become public.
In the meantime, individual brands have launched their own campaigns to address environmental and social challenges. Nike, for example, has invested in designing and making sneakers that use less material. H&M has improved the dirty process of dyeing textiles and nudged its customers to recycle their clothes. Patagonia discovered slave labor practices among its suppliers and took steps to root them out.
But those efforts, while worthwhile, aren’t enough to reduce the enormous resource requirements of the fashion business and the waste it generates. In the US alone, 10.5m tons of textiles go to landfills each year. There’s lots of talk in the industry about the circular economy, but real progress has been scant.
Will the coalition ever achieve its lofty goal? That seems to be a big uncertainty, even from its members. Rick Ridgeway, a longtime Patagonia executive who has guided the coalition from the start, says it best: “The hypothesis is that putting better data into the hands of decision makers in the apparel value chains is going to result in better decisions. But that’s a hypothesis.”
He goes on: “Now the rubber is going to meet the road. Are companies, year over year, going to improve? Are they going to lower their impact? Are they going to benefit the people in the supply chain? We don’t know. I’m optimistic, but until that happens, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an unproven experiment.”
On Saturday in Paris, the gavel came down on two weeks of fraught talks, resulting in a landmark agreement between representatives of 195 countries to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.
The deal, which comes into effect in 2020, aims to ensure that global warming does not exceed 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, with an additional aim to cap this at 1.5 degrees C. A temperature rise of 2 degrees C could could result in catastrophic environmental changes, such as extreme weather, accelerated melting of the polar ice caps and dangerous rises in sea levels.
As the first universal agreement on climate change, the Paris deal sends an important signal that all countries — including developing nations like China and India — are committed to a low-carbon future. The private sector, too, has a part to play — and supporters of the agreement are optimistic that it could encourage business leaders to turn away from fossil fuels and invest in renewables with confidence.
But what does the agreement mean for the fashion and luxury industries?
“This agreement marks a transformative moment on the journey towards a low-carbon economy, providing the certainty and confidence businesses need to continue to pursue positive climate action,” says Hannah Jones, chief sustainability officer at Nike.
Pierre Börjesson, sustainability business expert on climate at H&M concurs that the deal is a step towards a “safe environment with continued growth and increased quality of life for more people around the world.”
Before the agreement was announced, Eric Liedtke, who is responsible for global brands at Adidas, wrote to BoF: “World leaders forging an agreement is wonderful, but we shouldn’t need to be told to do the right thing. The industry can’t afford to wait for directions any longer.”
Ramping up policies
That said, the Paris accord was more ambitious than many predicted — in particular, the additional aim to cut global warming to 1.5 degrees C. Will this spur companies to ramp up their existing environmental policies?
“We plan to align the next phase of our targets and actions to ensure that we can contribute to a 1.5 degrees world,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering, which will report on its 2016 sustainability targets in the spring.
In 2012, Levi Strauss & Co. committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. By 2014, the company had already done so by 20 percent. “That, along with this agreement, are driving the need to set more ambitious targets,” says Anna Walker, senior director of government affairs and public policy at Levi’s, which will update its climate strategy and targets in 2016.
Where to begin?
Some sections of fashion companies’ supply chains present greater risks to the environment than others. “The impact of the raw materials stage is the most significant,” says Elisa Niemtzow, consumer sectors director at non-profit consultancy Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). “There are opportunities there to work with suppliers to improve practices and to ensure small producers are more protected and resilient in the face of climate change.”
Indeed, raw materials like cotton and cashmere require huge amounts of electricity and water to produce, and are sourced in parts of the developing world that are particularly vulnerable to the early effects of climate change, such as increased flooding and droughts. Traceability in supply chains can also give companies a clearer view of the knock-on effects of their operations — for example, the production of rayon and viscose has been linked to deforestation.
Another high-impact part of the industry is in transport and logistics, where businesses can partner with their transport providers on route optimisation and choose eco-friendly fuels to reduce the impact of moving product around the world.
“Approximately 25 percent of the energy footprint is coming from the customer, after we’ve sold them the product,” adds Pierre Börjesson of H&M, citing tumble dryers and dry cleaning as key culprits. “We need to help and inspire customers to minimise their energy usage when they are caring for our products,” he says.
Cost of the climate
But transitioning to a low-carbon future requires investment. Can fashion companies cut carbon and keep up business growth?
“They have to make investments no matter what, so making investments in a way that’s much more sustainable for them in the long-term is just a much smarter way of thinking,” argues Emily Farnworth, campaign director of RE100, a programme set up by non-profit The Climate Group, to sign up companies to commit to using 100 percent renewable power. RE100 participants include Google, H&M, Nike, and Yoox Group. With renewable technologies “dramatically” dropping in price, “it’s often good business sense anyway,” she says.
According to Anna Walker of Levi’s, governments can help companies follow a low-carbon path. “We’ve found that where governments have incentivised and focussed on growing the renewables in their own countries, we’re able to do more, faster, to reduce our own emissions and make those investments in renewable energy as well,” she says.
However, concerns remain around the real costs that these investments will mean for businesses — and the extent to which governments will make the private sector accountable for its impact on the planet. There are no legal mechanisms currently holding companies to their sustainability goals — though that could change, as countries that are bound by the Paris agreement (which is, overall, legally binding) draw up plans to radically reduce their nation’s emissions.
For the moment, civil society provides a “check and balance” for companies, says Elisa Niemtzow.“It’s consumers who we see are increasingly seeking out that information,” she says.
Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas, concurs that companies must back up their storytelling with substance — or risk losing consumer trust. “Social media is making the houses we live in increasingly transparent. Paying lip service to issues like the environment and workers rights will be more and more difficult to get away with,” he says.
Some businesses are also partnering with cross-industry organisations and NGOs, which hold them accountable to targets. Kering and Tiffany have both committed to net zero emissions by 2050 through The B Team, a not-for-profit comprised of business leaders across different industries.
Social media is making the houses we live in increasingly transparent. Paying lip service to issues like the environment and workers rights will be more and more difficult to get away with.
A global effort
As part of the Paris agreement, countries committed to raise $100 billion a year by 2020, to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to the consequences of climate change. Do fashion’s large, powerful firms also have a responsibility to share resources and help smaller businesses fight climate change?
“As one of the biggest fashion retailers, we have a huge responsibility to motivate parts of the value chain where other companies are influenced,” says Pierre Börjesson of H&M, who points out that this responsibility begins in its own supply chain, which is made up of smaller sourcing and production companies, many of which are based in the developing world.
“Just by virtue of companies being in these parts of the world and demanding renewables is giving confidence to investors,” says Emily Farnworth of RE100. By investing in clean technologies at scale, companies can also help make these technologies more affordable. “[Companies] have a really positive role to play in enabling this investment to flow through them.”
Pierre Börjesson adds that fashion brands can speed up tech advances that the whole industry can benefit from. H&M runs a textiles collection programme, which encourages customers to drop off old clothes in store, which the company then recycles. “The whole industry will gain from having more [textiles] returned, so we can get more leverage in the recycling industry, helping recyclists find ways of recycling more fibres,” he says.
However, industry-wide change requires companies to work together.
“The groundwork has been laid,” says Elisa of BSR, who points to groups like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Better Cotton Initiative, in which fashion brands work together towards shared goals. “I think companies are getting out of the more traditional mind-set of secrecy — especially for luxury brands, that’s been the standard. They understand that to tackle a lot of the challenges, particularly when it comes to procuring commodities, you need to partner.”
“You need to have collaboration across borders — politicians, civil society, regions,” says Börjesson of H&M. Of the Paris deal, he says, “Getting this global agreement and a handshake all over the world will help us drive this change through the whole value chain: everything from the cotton farmers, to the customers that are wearing our products.”
For the fashion and luxury industries — whose supply chains rely on parts of the world that are already suffering the effects of climate change — the time to act is now. “We will have to become disruptive and find new ways of doing business. It is an exciting time,” says Marie-Claire Daveu of Kering. “The world will be watching how we all react.”
68 new companies joined the Obama administration’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge and vowed to reduce its carbon footprint, the White House announced today. Apparel and beauty brands like Levi’s, Target, Nike, and L’Oréal are all part of the new crop of companies that made a variety of different pledges to reduce detrimental effects on the environment.
Each company submitted a fact sheet that promised a certain amount of reduction. Levi’s, for example, wants to get its greenhouse gas emissions down 25% by 2020. Nike plans to reduce its energy consumption by 20% over the next ten years and has also partnered with MIT Climate CoLab in order to find “new ideas for engaging industries, designers and consumers in valuing, demanding and adopting low-impact materials,” according to WWD.
Target also vowed to make sure 80% of its stores are Energy Star certified, use 2,000% more solar panels to power stores and distribution centers, and to prevent 70% of its waste from hitting landfills by utilizing reuse or recycled programs — which are already being used by brands like Levi’s, H&M, and Puma.
Other non-apparel companies like Procter & Gamble, Disney, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Microsoft, Kellogg’s, McDonald’s, and UPS also joined the program. Walmart was one of the original 13 companies to participate. There are now 81 companies involved total. When fully in place, the plan will reduce 6 billion tons of carbon pollution by 2030, which is “equivalent to taking all the cars in the United States off the road for more than four years,” according to the White House press release.