Supply Chain

Young Consumers Are Essential in the Fight Against Fast Fashion

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Millennial consumers have started to question how their clothes are made but consumers of all ages need to do more to tackle fashion labor abuses, according to a British lawmaker and sustainable fashion campaigner. Baroness Lola Young said young people are increasingly engaged with political and economic issues and willing to fight on social causes – and labor abuses in the garment industry were no exception.

Young said harnessing this energy was vital to revolutionize the fashion industry which has come under pressure since more than 1,100 workers died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. “A lot of young people are very concerned about a whole range of social justice issues and therefore are quite willing to go into the fray when they know what is going on,” said Young, who founded an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion.

She further states that transforming consumer behavior in the West and changing the model of the “throwaway disposable society” is an important way to tackle labor abuses, particularly in the fast fashion sector.

Many big fashion brands have been criticized for failing to improve the conditions for workers in their global supply chains – from poor health and safety standards and long working hours to low pay and bans on forming trade unions.

The Way Forward

According to Young, while young people could often not afford more expensive clothing, she hoped exchange ventures at retailers such as Sweden’s H&M – where customers return old clothes for recycling in return for vouchers – could show a new way forward. She said they are also getting more engaged even as many have concerns over a period of global instability.

“Paradoxically, what feels like current political volatility has made some people sit up and think: ‘What are we doing here? We’ve got to take more control over what’s happening in this world and fight some of these injustices much more openly,'” Young said in an interview. She said different sectors of the fashion industry – from fast fashion to haute couture – had different challenges and will have to take different approaches to the problems.

Yet Young added that fully addressing the issues surrounding the supply chain was a “big ask” for the industry as “we need to look again fundamentally at how the garment industry works.” She further noted, “You really need to look at your business models because they’re not delivering this ethical industry that many of us would like to see.”

Young said that while Western awareness of the issues has grown recently, many people still do not think about where their clothes come from until their attention is drawn by a large-scale event such as the Rana Plaza disaster. Young said one of most effective ways to tackle the problems would be to support organizations working on the ground to implement an effective monitoring system that would empower workers and enable them to fight for better conditions.

She emphasized the urgency of tackling these issues. “Time is running out in relation to the environment, time is running in terms of the dreadful impact that it’s having on various communities and individuals around the world. So you’ve got to get on and do something really really quickly,” she said.

*This story first appeared on The Fashion Law

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Image: Zara

 

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We Don’t Know Enough About The Impact Our Clothing Has On People And Planet, Fashion Revolution Warns

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Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index reveals that the top 100 global fashion brands still have a long way to go towards transparency

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Image credit: Fashion Revolution

Many of the biggest global brands that make our clothes still don’t disclose enough information about their impact on the lives of workers in their supply chain and on the environment, new research reveals.

The way fashion is made, sourced and consumed continues to cause suffering and pollution. Fashion Revolution believes that this urgently needs to change and that the first step is greater transparency.

Transparent disclosure makes it easier for brands, suppliers and workers, trade unions and NGOs to understand what went wrong when human rights and environmental abuses occur, who is responsible and how to fix it.

The Fashion Transparency Index 2017, released today, reviews and ranks how much information 100 of the biggest global fashion companies publish about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts.

The research found that even the highest scoring brands on the list still have a long way to go towards being transparent. The average score brands achieved was 49 out of 250, less than 20% of the total possible points, and none of the companies on the list scored above 50%.

Adidas and Reebok achieved the highest score of 121.5 out of 250 (49% of the total possible points), followed by Marks & Spencer with 120 points and H&M with 119.5 points. However, only 8 brands scored higher than 40%, while a further 9 brands scored 4% or less out of 250 possible points, of which Dior, Heilan Home and s.Oliver scored 0 because they disclose nothing at all.

Out of the premium and luxury brands reviewed, 9 scored between 21-30% of the total possible points, which was higher than the average. The other 10 scored 15% or less.

The good news is that 31 brands are publishing supplier lists (tier 1) including ASOS, Benetton, C&A, Esprit, Gap, Marks & Spencer, Uniqlo, and VF Corporation brands since April 2016. This is an increase from last year when Fashion Revolution surveyed 40 big fashion companies and only five were publishing supplier lists.  This year 14 brands are publishing their processing facilities where their clothes are dyed, laundered, printed or treated. However, no brand is publishing its raw material suppliers. Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy scored highest on traceability (44%) because their supplier list includes detailed information such as types of products or services and approximate number of workers in each supplier facility.

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Image credit: Fashion Revolution

Meanwhile few brands disclose efforts on living wages, collective bargaining, and reducing consumption of resources (on average 9% of the information required in these categories was disclosed), sending a strong signal to brands to urgently look at their own business models and purchasing practices.

 

There is a long way to go in order for the industry to pay a living wage, as only 34 brands have made public commitments to paying living wages to workers in the supply chain, and only four brands — H&M, Marks & Spencer, New Look and Puma — are reporting on progress towards achieving this aim.  This shows that much more needs to be done and faster by brands to ensure that workers, from farm to retail, are paid fairly.

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Fashion Revolution Co-founder Carry Somers said:  “People have the right to know that their money is not supporting exploitation, human rights abuses and environmental destruction. There is no way to hold companies and governments to account if we can’t see what is truly happening behind the scenes. This is why transparency is so essential.”

“Through publishing this research, we hope brands will be pushed in a more positive direction towards a fundamental shift in the way the system works, beginning with being more transparent.”

Dr. Mark Anner, Director, Centre for Global Workers’ Rights Penn State University said: “The time has come for brands and retailers to make their entire supply chains transparent. The time has also come to establish sourcing practices that are conducive to the human development and empowerment of the workers who work so hard every day to make the clothes we wear.”

Brands were awarded points based on their level of transparency across 5 categories, including: policy & commitments, governance, traceability, supplier assessment and remediation and spotlight issues which looks at living wages, collective bargaining and business model innovation. Brands were selected to represent a cross section of market segments including high street, luxury, sportswear, accessories, footwear and denim sectors.

The data revealed that:

  1. Policy & Commitments – overall score = 49%

The highest concentration of brands scored in the 71-80% range with 11 brands scoring between 81-90% and 16 brands scoring 20% or less. By and large, brands are disclosing the most about their policies and commitments on social and environmental issues.

  1. Governance – overall score = 34%

The largest number of brands (37) score 10% or less. 13 brands fall in the 41-50% range. Marks & Spencer is the only brand to score 100% meaning that they’re disclosing who in the team is responsible for social and environmental issues, along with their contact details, board level accountability, and how other staff and suppliers are incentivised to improve performance.

  1. Traceability – overall score = 7%

Overall brands are disclosing few details about their suppliers. 31 brands are publishing supplier lists (tier 1). 14 brands are publishing their processing facilities. No brand is publishing its raw material suppliers. 23 brands disclose having updated their supplier list at least in the past 12 months, while Target says it uploads its supplier list quarterly and ASOS promises to do so every two months.

  1. Know, Show & Fix – overall score = 16%

The highest concentration of brands (36) fall in the 11-20% range whilst another 31 score less than 10%. Adidas and Reebok score highest at 39%, with 7 other brands joining them in the 31-40% range. Brands often disclose their supplier assessment processes and procedures. However brands share little information about the results of their supplier assessments, and brands don’t publish much about the results of the efforts made to fix problems in factories.

  1. Spotlight Issues – overall score = 9%

Overall, brands are disclosing little about their efforts to pay living wages or to support collective bargaining and unionisation. Few brands are disclosing their efforts to address overconsumption of resources. Marks & Spencer, New Look and H&M scored in the 41-50% range, and no brand scored above 50%. The majority of brands scored less than 10%.

The report provides recommendations for how consumers, brands and retailers, governments and policy makers, NGOs, unions and workers can use the information contained in the Fashion Transparency Index to make a positive difference.

You can find more information at FashionRevolution.org

Is Ethical Clothing Expensive?

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Grinvalds via Getty Images

Something I hear a lot from people is that they would love to shop more ethically, but ethical clothing is just too expensive. And I do get that. When money is tight it’s only natural to want that budget to spread as far as possible.

Is ethical clothing expensive though? When you look at it on the surface, yes, ethical clothing is expensive. This $120 dress (approximately £96 at time of writing), by Everlane, whose business model is based on ‘radical transparency’, is pretty similar to this £35 dress from a company with no ethical statement. Why would you spend £60 more on a dress that’s pretty similar? It’s hard to make the maths add up.

When you sit and think about that £35 dress though, you begin to think how manufacturers can possibly make a dress for £35, and still make a profit. If you’ve ever tried to make your own clothing you’ll know it’s pretty tricky to make a dress for that amount of money. By the time you’ve bought the fabric and the pattern, and the thread and any zips or buttons, and the electricity to power your sewing machine, you may well have reached or exceeded that amount, before even accounting for the cost of your own time.

So could the rise of fast fashion retailers have caused us to lose our sense of perspective, and our benchmarks and baselines on what is expensive?

You would expect to pay more for something now than in say, 1980, wouldn’t you?

Since the 1980’s the cost of housing, rent, food, fuel and other consumables has risen, in some cases dramatically. In 1980 the average cost of a home was £23,000 (around £89,000 in today’s money), whilst by the end of 2016 the average price of home was £205,000 according to the same report. The Telegraph reports that lager has increased in price by 336%, whilst a loaf of sliced white bread has increased in price by 235% and eggs by 286%.

It goes without saying then that you would expect to go into a shop and buy an item of clothing that was considerably more expensive now than it was in 1980.

What has actually happened with clothing is that since the 1980s, instead of rising in price in line with inflation, clothes prices have fallen and fallen to the point we’re at now where you can buy a top for less than £5 in 2017.

Prior to the 1980’s the majority of clothing was made domestically. I’ve struggled to find UK based data, but The New York Times reported in 2009 that in the 1960s, the United States made 98% of its shoes. They stated that in 2009 it was a completely different picture, with the US importing more than 90% of its footwear. This is more than likely mirrored in clothing manufacture too.

The reason for this outsourcing is that in the 1980s clothing manufacturers realised they could manufacture abroad, in places where they could pay workers considerably less, and where workers could work longer hours in poorer conditions. This ultimately meant greater profits for manufacturers, and lower prices for consumers.

We’re now so used to cheap clothes that have flooded the market since the 1980’s, that this has artificially driven down the value of clothing. If you’re in your forties or younger you’ll have grown up in an age where clothing has gotten cheaper and cheaper. You won’t, or will barely remember a time when clothing wasn’t cheap. Yet going back to the £96 Everlane dress, I suspect that this is more like what the average dress should cost in 2017, if not more.

It’s also also quite clear the impact that the mass production of clothing overseas has had on household spending. I’ve again struggled to find UK statistics, but census data from the US shows that in the 1950’s households spent 12% of their annual income on clothing. Fast forward to 2015, and it’s reported that households spent just 3.5% of their annual income on clothing, even though Americans are buying more clothes than ever before. The same article reports that in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits, whilst in 2015 that figure was 30 outfits – one for every day of the month.

More worryingly, another report suggests the average item of clothing is worn just seven times before being discarded. Cheaper prices clearly mean consumers value their clothes less.

So what’s the answer? By suddenly removing manufacture from the countries that depend on clothing manufacture for the overseas market wouldn’t be good for those countries’ economies. In 2014 the ready made garment industry represented 81.13% of Bangladesh’s total export, and of the 4 million workers employed by this industry, 85% are illiterate women from rural villages. It’s a tricky situation.

I think part of the answer lies in our relationship with clothing. Buying less; not buying into trends; and investing in quality timeless pieces are more than likely the way forward. I’ve previously written in length about these aspects of consumerism – but in a nutshell ethical fashion isn’t expensive when you factor in the cost per wear of a quality made item, versus a poorly made fast fashion item of clothing that falls to bits after just a few wears.

As consumers we also have to act more responsibly. YouTube haul videos, like this one where the vlogger boasts to impressionable young viewers about how many cheap items of clothing they’ve bought only perpetuate the cheap disposable clothing myth.

Another part of it voting with your wallet. If more and more people start shopping with more responsible retailers then this sends a clear message to retailers that they have to up their game and make their clothes more ethically.

Perhaps we have to therefore have to work on regaining our sense of perspective when it comes to the cost of clothes. Spending more on each individual item of clothing we buy and spending better, but buying much much less is the only way to re-establish sensible baselines on what constitutes as expensive and what constitutes as good quality.

*This story first appeared on Huffington Post

Levi’s Dreams Big to Lead Change in the Fashion Industry

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By 2025, the world’s oldest jeans brand will make all of its products from 100 per cent sustainable cotton as part of an ambitious plan to “close the loop” on its supply chain.

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Levi’s plans for 100,000 factory workers to be enrolled in its Worker Well-being programme in 11 countries, representing 60 per cent of its production volume. Image: Levis Strauss

Levi Strauss is dreaming big to close the loop on its manufacturing supply chain, and is looking to revolutionise the apparel sector with ideas that could shakeup the conventional notion of a fashion brand.

By 2025, the world’s oldest jeans brand plans to manufacture all of its products from sustainable cotton.

So in just eight years, the family-run US$4.5 billion firm will use less cotton sourced from cotton fields to make its famous 501s, relying instead on old clothes from people’s closets.

There is just one minor obstacle, though. The technology to turn worn cotton into a quality material that looks like denim hasn’t been invented yet.

But Michael Kobori, the vice president of sustainability at Levi’s, is the optimistic sort. “Anything is possible,” he tells Eco-Business.

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Michael Kobori, vice president, global sustainability, Levi Strauss

Currently, just a fraction of all the cotton Levi’s uses comes from recycled sources, with the rest coming from virgin cotton. To raise the ratio of recycled material will depend on innovations in science.

Recycling cotton involves first chopping up the unwanted clothes. This degrades the quality of the material, so only a limited amount can be used again to make new garments.

Levi’s is working with the technology sector to find a solution, and in May last year announced a venture with Seattle-based tech firm Evrnu to produce the first jeans made from regenerated post-consumer cotton waste.

A prototype was made from five discarded cotton t-shirts, and with 98 per cent less water than virgin cotton products.

Though some virgin cotton was used, Levi’s is claiming it is a breakthrough for a sector that, in the US alone, creates 13.1 million tonnes of textile waste a year, 11 million tonnes of which ends up in landfill.

Recycling old clothes may not be a perfect model for avoiding waste, but Levi’s nevertheless wants to get consumers into the habit.

Levis runs a programme in five major markets – Japan, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany – that gives customers a 15 per cent discount on a new Levi’s item if they donate any old clothes (they don’t have to be Levi’s) to be recycled.

The company is refining the initiative before rolling it out in other markets. “We’re trying to learn what works best for the consumer, and what our competitors are doing,” says Kobori.

Other apparel companies, such as H&M, the Swedish brand that pioneered the throwaway clothing culture known as “fast fashion”, run similar recycling schemes.

“We want to encourage consumers to recycle, but we also want to bring in a programme that is unique and differentiates us,” Kobori notes, adding that Levi’s sustainability initiatives are “open source,” so others can copy them.

The ROI of Healthy Factory Workers

Though it is not something the company shouts about in its advertising campaigns, sustainability has long been a point of difference for the 163 year-old brand.

Levi’s was not only the first apparel company, but the first multinational to introduce a labour code of conduct in 1991, to ensure that the workplace standards and business practices of its suppliers lived up to its own.

“When we developed the programme 25 years ago, it was a breakthrough,” says Kobori. “Before then, companies didn’t really think about the sustainability of their supply chains. It was thought to be the government’s job. Now protecting people’s rights is the bare minimum that companies should be doing.”

A quarter of a century on, as the global cotton industry supply chain has come under greater scrutiny, Levi’s is working to improve the lot of factory workers through its Worker Well-being programme.

The programme began in 2011 with a survey of factory workers in five key production bases, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt and Haiti, to find out how their lives could be improved beyond the basic protection of their rights.

So what do factory workers, most of whom are women who have moved from the countryside to the city to work, want? Access to healthcare and financial services, according to the survey. These services are delivered through Levi’s vendors, with the help of NGOs.

The scheme started out as a pilot with five vendors and is now being expanded to 25 suppliers in 11 countries. This will mean better healthcare and financial support for 100,000 workers behind 60 per cent of the company’s production volume.

“By 2020, 80 per cent of our volume will be made through Worker Wellbeing vendors, and 100 percent by 2025,” says Kobori.

Benefits for workers makes good business sense, but factories often need convincing that the upfront cost is worth it, Kobori says.

“The business case has to be there if we’re asking vendors across the industry to do this,” he explains.

“Skilled workers are an increasingly precious commodity. Workers will move factories depending on who gives the best benefits. So vendors are looking for programmes that will help them reduce turnover and increase productivity,” he says.

Levi’s has been working with Harvard University to evaluate the Worker Well-being programme. Early findings show that for every dollar a vendor invests, they get three dollars backs in reduced turnover and increased productivity.

Beyond the Supply Chain

The supply chain has been the focus of Levi’s sustainability efforts, and the company also aims to expand its Water<Less programme, so that 40 per cent of its products are made using less water by 2020.

Now, it plans to move sustainability beyond the supply chain. “Brand, retail, marketing and operations – all are looking at ways to introduce a more sustainable approach,” says Kobori.

Levi’s is also looking to find business opportunities in sustainability. The company is planning to roll out its Levi’s Tailor Shops concept, where customers can get their old clothing repaired, altered or customised, beyond the United States and Japan.

“It’s not just about making garments last longer, but about opening up a potential new revenue stream for us,” Kobori explains.

Showing the business case for sustainability is key for a company that hasn’t had an easy ride in recent years, as increased competition from rival apparel brands now making denim, and currency fluctuation issues have hurt the bottom line.

But the sustainability function has remained intact despite a business overhaul, and return to revenue growth, led by president and chief executive officer Chip Bergh.

After five years of diligent work to turn around Levi’s economic issues, Levi’s finally saw an increase in revenue and profit. The company boasts three consecutive years of growth, many believe due to Bergh’s leadership.

“Our commitment to sustainability doesn’t change because the currency is fluctuating,” says Kobori, who adds that Levi’s sustainability budget has stayed “relatively constant” in recent years, and new initiatives continue to be added and existing programmes expanded.

Sustainability is key for a brand whose core target group and employee base are millennials – 50 per cent of Levi’s workforce belong to this young demographic, people who reached adulthood early this century. Millennials tends to care more about issues such as sustainably produced cotton, and less about Levi’s long heritage.

“For millennials, heritage may be less important, so brands need to stand for something,” says Kobori.

Sustainability is particularly important for Levi’s now, he says, given the change in government in the American brand’s home country and largest market, and also in key emerging markets such as China where millennials are increasingly discerning of how brands behave.

“Society is looking to the private sector to take the lead on the changes that people want to see in the world,” he says, pointing to an announcement from Bergh in support of the right of workers to migrate to the United States.

“He [Bergh] is not in favour of the travel ban that the [Trump] administration has issued, and employees responded with tremendous positivity to the stance he has taken. They’re looking for us to stand up for what’s right.”

“Sustainability is becoming more important for us,” adds Kobori. “Heritage is our bedrock, it’s who we are. But if we are able to articulate to the consumer that we also stand for the right causes and issues, we become much more contemporary and relevant.”

*This story first appeared on Eco-Business

ASBCI to Organize ‘Sustainability Conference’ in April

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Image Courtesy: twitter.com

ASBCI (Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry) has announced to hold a Spring Conference 2017, which will take place on 5th April 2017 at the Marriott Hotel in Peterborough, Canada. Agenda of the conference will be ‘DOING THE RIGHT THING? – Best practices for sustaining our people, planet and profits’ and the event will be chaired by Simon Allitt, ASBCI Event Committee Vice Chairman and Head of Retail, TUV Rheinland.

It may be mentioned here that sustainability is placed on top of the global fashion industry’s agenda and according to ASBCI, ten years ago Marks & Spencer launched its game-changing Plan A. Since then most big brands and retailers have implemented their own robust ethical and environmental sustainability programmes with the collective objective of protecting people and the planet.

The ASBCI sustainability conference has assembled speakers with unparalleled experience of the most effective and commercial, sustainable initiatives and innovations. The speakers will share their experience, insight and vision in a bid to give attendees a sustainable and profitable future.

The conference will have following sessions: Are You Doing the Right Thing (Rakesh Vazirani – Director of Product Traceability & Environmental Information Management TUV Hong Kong), Plan A 10 Years On (Mike Barry, Director Plan A, Marks & Spencer), Striving for sustainability in the clothing industry – an Overview of working with WRAP (Prof. Tim Cooper, Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption, Nottingham Trent University), Fashioning Fibres for the Future (Robin Anson, Editorial Director, Textiles Intelligence), Cottoning On (Graham Burden, Director, Sustainable Textile).

Post-lunch session will cover topics such as, Water Use in the Textile Supply Chain (Elaine Gardiner, Sustainability Manager, Berghaus), Sustainability Together (Guido Rimini, Head of Marketing, Apparel Europe, Freudenberg Performance Materials Apparel SE & Co. KG Solutions), Closing the Loop (Ross Barry, Lawrence M Barry & Co) and Supply Chain Transparency – What have you got to lose (Tara Luckman, Fabric & Sustainability Manager, ASOS.COM)

*This story first appeared on Apparel Resources

Blue Jeans Go ‘Green’: Is Ethical Production a Good Fit for the Denim Industry?

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As ‘new consumerism’ sees shoppers’ demand shift increasingly towards sustainability and ethically produced fashion, jeans, one of the worst offenders in terms of human and environmental production costs, will present some of the best opportunities to make a sound business out of ethically produced apparel. The peculiarities of the UK’s relationship with jeans will make it easier for brands to convince shoppers to trade up to higher quality and higher prices, mitigating the costs of ensuring more ethical production.

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Source: Unsplash

While jeans have been cemented as a staple garment for fashion and function, mounting evidence has spoken to the huge impact on people and the environment of supplying the UK’s appetite for cheap denim bottoms. Their mass production, which often requires highly toxic chemicals in order to produce pre-faded on-trend garments, has come under particular scrutiny from regulators and organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign.

As a result, apparel brands, retailers and manufacturers have rushed to quantify the commercial potential of ethical and sustainable apparel. The greatest challenge has been to meet growing demand for ethical fashion while dealing with the increased material and labour costs of monitoring supply chains and ensuring ethical production.

Value Placed on Quality and Fit Makes Jeans a Stand Out 

The characteristics of the UK’s relationship with jeans make this one of the best products to absorb increased production costs. Studies on ethical spending have shown that consumers are willing to spend more on products that provide improved quality along with the ethical guarantee. Because jeans are so ubiquitous and versatile, UK consumers place a higher value on product quality than they do in other apparel categories. While ‘fast fashion’ has reduced consumers’ desire for hard-wearing bottoms, many have still been willing to accept higher prices and remain loyal to brands that guarantee them comfortable materials and a flattering fit.

Compare this to the tops category, where trends change more rapidly and consumers spend less time wearing any single garment. This makes fit, comfort and durability less pressing and premium pricing more closely linked to branding. As a result, it’s more difficult to convince consumers that spending more will bring an added benefit. This happens to be where volume-driven, fast-fashion brands have led and consumers are decidedly disloyal.

As the UK becomes more mindful of its consumption, sustainably produced jeans present an opportunity for players to target a high-profile ethical issue, while supporting revenue with a product that can drive higher value sales. In many cases, the costs of ensuring ethical production will overlap with the costs of improving quality. For example, near-sourcing production may allow closer monitoring of suppliers labour practices in addition to more control over quality assurance.

Jeans to Lead in Fast Fashion Fatigue

Getting consumers to accept higher prices for a product that a decade of ‘fast fashion’ has taught them to buy cheap and replace often will be a challenge. However, led by urbanised millennials, UK consumers are gradually buying into the ‘circular economy ‘and seeking to gain maximum value from less consumption.

As evidence of this, Euromonitor International’s apparel and footwear data shows that after consecutive years of decline, unit price growth has begun to stabilise across most jeans price segments. Notably, premium and super premium jeans have only just seen a marginal decline in price growth after maintaining markedly above-average historical growth.

UK Jeans : Price Growth by Segment 2011-2016

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Brands such as Hiut Denim in the UK and Tuff’s in France have been gaining strength as a result. These players source all production internally and locally, keeping their supply chains short and guaranteeing the standards of production. Both brands have developed a fiercely loyal following of buyers who value the ethics and sustainability of their production as well as their high quality. Both brands pitch their jeans as high value investment, justifying higher retail prices to account for the increased cost of nearer sourced production.

While it is always going to be a struggle to talk the average shopper into ‘breaking-in’ a stiff, heavy 19oz pair of raw selvedge jeans (waiting the better part of a year before washing them to get an authentic fade), high-quality denim can clearly sell big. The success of selvedge lines by Topshop and Uniqlo and H&M’s ‘conscious’ jeans has demonstrated that shoppers can be convinced to trade up on ethics and quality, fueling value-led growth.

Getting Ahead of the Curve 

Sustainable jeans have thus far been limited to niche premium brands and high-profile, but small-scale, ‘green-washing’ efforts of major fast-fashion players. Those that prioritize ethics early will appear more authentic than those which seem to conform as a begrudging necessity; gaining favour with the increasingly influential millennial consumer. The challenge will be for winning brands and manufacturers to take bolder steps to make higher value ethical and sustainable jeans a more prominent feature in their product mix, before growing regulatory pressure and consumer outrage takes the initiative away from them.

*This story first appeared on Euro Monitor

Is E-Commerce Really Better For the Environment Than Traditional Retail?

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While online heavyweights are quick to boast about the environmental impact of e-commerce, this holiday shopping season millions of eco-conscious consumers face a largely unanswered question.

 

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Illustration: Costanza Milano for BoF

 

 

As the gift-giving season ramps up, so too does the battle between brick-and-mortar and digital retailers for holiday dollars. But given that consumers play an increasingly crucial role in the effort to combat global warning, is e-commerce or traditional retail greener?

Online heavyweights are quick to boast about the environmental benefits of e-commerce. On its site, Amazon declares: “Online shopping is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional retailing.” While conventional knowledge might suggest so, several studies published in recent years indicate that the reality might not be as black-and-white as Amazon claims.

The carbon footprint (greenhouse gases emitted as a consequence of an individual’s activities) generated while shopping is dependent upon a range of factors, from IT infrastructure and packaging to vehicle emissions. For instance, brick-and-mortar shoppers in the cycling-friendly Netherlands may yield lower carbon emissions per person than in the American Midwest, where people are more dependent on their cars.

Unable to account for every particular hypothetical scenario, researchers have studied consumer patterns through the use of the following archetypes:

The Traditional Shopper

The Traditional Shopper is one whose shopping journey is conducted entirely in-person, from search to purchase to return. With no use of e-commerce, the Traditional Shopper represents a shrinking demographic. According to research from MIT’s Center for Logistics and Transportation, customer travel accounts for more than 75 percent of greenhouse emissions in this wholly-offline process, yielding approximately 3.1kg carbon dioxide per journey by the average Traditional Shopper in an urban centre.

More minor emissions come from packaging and the overheads of displaying goods in-store, as well as returns. According to Accenture, apparel will account for 78 percent of gifts in the US during the upcoming holiday, making returns a significant factor. While an optimised parcel pick-up for an online return yields a minimal contribution in greenhouse emissions, an individual physically driving back to the store is much worse for the environment.

The Cybernaut

The Cybernaut’s shopping journey is conducted entirely online: from researching products to payment, to arranging a return.

Despite the proliferation of e-commerce across the retail landscape, Deloitte’s research shows that only 12 percent of US consumers are not planning to visit any traditional retailers during the holiday season.

According to Dr. Alexis Bateman, director of the Responsible Supply Chain Lab at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, “Major emission factors [for the Cybernaut] include greater IT infrastructure to support computing, [which supports] e-commerce, [and] increased packaging in some cases.”

Nevertheless, by completing all steps online, the Cybernaut bypasses travel to and from stores, greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and yielding a carbon footprint approximately 50 percent lower than that of the traditional shopper.

The Modern Shopper

While the above two models represent pure paths for the consumer, they are archetypes that fail to accurately reflect the majority of shoppers.

Engaged in an omnichannel experience, the Modern Shopper represents a hybrid between the Traditional Shopper and the Cybernaut. For this archetype, the research process might involve both brick-and-mortar and digital stores, before ultimately making a purchase online.

In a bid to counter the rise of e-commerce, many physical retailers are making efforts to increase foot traffic. But unfortunately for both them and the environment, more people in-store does not translate into a higher transaction rate. Deloitte’s research predicts that 48 percent of US consumers will check out products in a physical store before actually buying online.

The route to purchase is rarely a direct one, however. In the past, there was only one touch-point — the point of transaction — but today, consumers interact with retailers in multiple ways both offline and online, blurring the lines between entertainment and intent to purchase.

“Unfortunately, there is no straight answer to the question whether online or in-store shopping is better to the environment,” says Dr. Patricia Van Loon, a research fellow at INSEAD’s Social Innovation Centre and senior researcher at Viktoria Swedish ICT, a non-profit research institute that is part of RISE Research Institutes of Sweden.

Dr. Bateman echoes this remark. “E-commerce has lower total emissions because customer trips are greatly reduced. But there are caveats to this,” she warns. “Each situation is unique, so you can never really say e-commerce is always better for the environment.”

By participating in the process of “showrooming,” for instance — trying a product in-person before buying online — the Modern Shopper increases their carbon footprint in transportation, offsetting any deductions related to the ultimate e-commerce purchase.

“Associated physical trips by consumers can add significant amounts of carbon to the online purchase,” says Dr. Van Loon. “Picking up items after a failed delivery or a click-and-collect point, returning unwanted items, or other complementary shopping trips all increase the carbon footprint.”

According to MIT, transport-related greenhouse gas emissions for the Modern Shopper account for over 1kg of carbon dioxide emissions (over a third of the shopper’s total carbon footprint).

Modern delivery methods pose a significant toll on the environment too. In 2005, when Amazon introduced its ‘Prime’ membership, offering free two-day shipping on all eligible purchases for an annual flat rate, such rapid delivery was still novel. Since then, Amazon has amassed about 63 million Prime members globally, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, and in major cities, free two-day shipping has become nearly as commonplace as online shopping itself.

The proliferation of high-speed delivery is not without environmental impact. This season, three-to-four-day shipping is not sufficiently “fast” for US shoppers, according to Deloitte, and they expect lower fees for expedited delivery — shifting consumer expectations and giving rise to the Impatient Modern Shopper.

“Obviously, same-day delivery and tight delivery slots make it more challenging for the delivery company to combine shipments in the same neighbourhood,” explains Dr. Van Loon. “It therefore increases the distance driven per item and consequently the carbon footprint.”

Indeed, the extra emissions of expedited freight transportations account for a nearly 0.75kg increase in carbon dioxide emissions per shopper, more than double that of non-expedited delivery methods and enough to offset the green benefits of not travelling to a physical store — rendering the Impatient Modern Shopper archetype the least environmentally friendly of the four.

The Bottom Line

For those who are serious about reducing their carbon footprint this holiday season, Amazon is right: the numbers show that e-commerce is better for the environment — as long as the entire process remains digital from start to finish. But this path might not be feasible for many consumers.

Consumers who find it necessary to purchase in-person can greatly reduce their carbon emissions by “webrooming,” or researching online. This shopping process emits only approximately 0.2kg more carbon dioxide than conducting the entire journey digitally, so even those who purchase at a brick-and-mortar retailer can cut their environmental impact by up to 50 percent.

The most green holiday shopper is digitally-savvy, researching and purchasing online well in advance — avoiding next-day or same-day delivery. They opt for eco-friendly packaging wherever possible, and if they do need to visit a brick-and-mortar store, they will coordinate shopping trips with other errands, reducing the total distance travelled by vehicle. Perhaps most fundamentally for the green holiday shopper, they also understand that what and where they buy is as important as how they buy it.

“Some of the biggest sources of environmental impact actually lie upstream in a supply chain (materials and producer level),” says Dr. Bateman. “So purchasing products from responsible companies can actually lead to some of the biggest savings, over online versus brick-and-mortar purchasing decision.”

*This story first appeared on Business of Fashion