A few fashion clothing retailers have taken deliberate steps towards creating environment -friendly, sustainable fashion. And here’s how it can make business sense
The multibillion-dollar global fashion industry is not known for its humane side as much as it is known for polluting the environment and exploiting resources. From boycotting fur coats to leather jackets to snake-skin boots, the debate on making fashion eco-friendly has been going on for years. Having said that, the industry has played an important role in the global economy for years by providing employment to millions of people. As per an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, the $1.3 trillion clothing industry employs more than 300 million people along the value chain globally.
But there are drawbacks. For instance, the textile system operates in a linear manner — clothes are made out of non-renewable resources and are often used for only a short time. As per reports, under-utilisation and lack of recycling every year result in a loss of more than $500 billion. It also leaves a negative impact on the environment — plastic microfibres from some textiles contribute to water pollution at a global scale. Therefore, many fashion labels are taking measures to balance their growth trajectory with their social footprint.
Sustainability in fashion retail means causing no unnecessary environmental harm during the entire operation as well as leaving a positive impact on workers involved in the supply chain. “Sustainability in fashion retail extends right from the raw materials used in manufacturing to how products are used and disposed,” explains Abhishek Bansal, head of sustainability, Arvind.
It was in 2013 that Levi Strauss & Co proudly proclaimed, ‘These jeans are made of garbage’. With changing times, the company also adapted to create sustainable products. Its Waste<Less collection is made of 20% post-consumer waste; specifically, recycled plastic bottles. The then VP of global men’s design for Levi’s, Jonathan Kirby had attributed this to beginning “a conversation about reducing waste”. In March this year, the denim maker announced Project F.L.X. (future-led execution). This new model replaces manual techniques and automates the jeans finishing process, allowing the company to reduce the number of chemical formulations used in finishing from thousands to a few dozen.
Similarly, Arvind Denims has taken a lead in using Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), organic cotton, natural indigo and post-consumer waste products, to name a few. Consider H&M, which has launched its Conscious Exclusive 2018 collection and for the first time, has introduced two sustainable materials — recycled silver and Econyl, a 100% regenerated nylon fibre from fishnets and other nylon waste. “We don’t have to just look at ‘now’, but also think of what we are leaving behind for future generations,” says Elin Astrom, head of H&M’s sustainability programme in India. While this range is priced at a premium (around Rs10,000 and above), the company is aware of the investment that goes behind the scenes. “Since sustainability has been part of our business strategy for long now, we have to look beyond these investments,” she adds. The company takes a 100% circular approach across its stores, that is, one can donate their old H&M clothes at company stores for recycling.
Investment in sustainability has happened over decades. Incremental investment in buying better machines which save energy and water would be very hard to define. “For instance, to set up an extensive water treatment system in one of our large units would cost $15 million,” adds Bansal. A compliant and sustainable factory incurs more cost in doing business and making products. However, investments in sustainability pay off in the long term and also have significant intangible benefits. Business programmes can only be effective with a strategy that makes the best use of company resources. For instance, adidas’ head office in Gurgaon doesn’t use plastic bottles. A green team has been formed in its headquarters to drive such initiatives.
Taking a stand
The Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2017 projects that by 2030, fashion brands would see a decline in EBIT margins of more than 3% points, if they were to continue business as usual. With resources becoming scarce, the industry is set to face rising costs from labour to materials and energy. The report goes on to state that as of today, the sustainability ‘pulse’ of the industry is weak. Obviously, very big players as well as some mid-sized family-owned companies are the best performers on sustainability while over half of the market (mainly small- to medium-sized players) has hardly made any efforts.
Not only are fashion brands becoming eco-conscious but others like sports brands are also making sustainable development a priority. “Our association with Parley in 2015 has given us a new platform for product innovation,” says Sean van Wyk, senior marketing director, adidas India. The company launched Ultra Boost Parley in 2016 followed by the EQT Parley — its first Originals shoe with Parley yarn in 2017. It will also be launching an apparel range using Parley yarn in the second half of this year.
Fashion brands have to stay ahead of their competitors with innovative ways of doing business and efficient production techniques that minimise the use of water, energy as well as hazardous chemicals. “A major change is in the chemicals used for surface coating, garment finishes and washing. The other major change is in the base fabric selection,” says Alok Dubey, CEO, lifestyle brands division, Arvind Lifestyle Brands. It has also recently launched a line of Responsible Jeans under U.S. Polo Assn.
But making a sustainable switch isn’t as easy as brands want it to be. There are challenges that are related to availability of technology and negative policies. “We wanted to convert all our power requirements to solar power, but the policy does not allow us to go beyond 50% of the connected power load,” points out Bansal. One cannot ignore the fact that several large measures require significant upfront investments which may be hard to justify given the longer term and intangible nature of returns. Some even go on to say that the complete ecosystem is far from ready.
Customers too are a critical driver for greater sustainability in clothing. While price remains the key differentiator, many customers today pay attention to how their clothes are made. It is interesting to note that Indian consumers are fast catching up to their European counterparts on the awareness and need for sustainable fashion. “However, the absolute number of such consumers who understand this need and are willing to make lifestyle changes is very small. Driving this lifestyle change and bringing about a change in the mindset is very important,” sums up Wyk.