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Drapers research: how sustainable is the fashion industry?

sustainable index

Drapers’ survey shows fashion brands, retailers and suppliers are investing more in sustainability, but it will take the industry, consumers and government working together to make lasting change

Sustainability has rocketed up the fashion agenda over recent months, as brands and retailers come under pressure from all sides – from consumers to MPs – to reduce their impact on the environment.

There is now a clear commercial imperative to become more sustainable. To support the industry in meeting this goal, we launched a survey to find out how you are approaching sustainability today, what barriers you are up against, and what you think is needed to achieve real change.

Following on from the environmental audit committee’s (EAC) report, Fixing Fashion, published in February, we wanted to explore how companies across this complex, interconnected industry are tackling the issue of sustainability. The survey was open to companies of all sizes – from smaller brands, retailers, manufacturers and suppliers, to those with a £500m-plus annual turnover – and attracted more than 370 responses.

If companies will not change voluntarily, the government must act to help fix fashion

Mary Creagh, chair of the environmental audit committee

Most – 91.6% – agreed that their customers are showing a growing interest in environmental issues. However, many complained that shoppers are not willing to pay more for sustainable product. Several respondents are producing sustainable collections and using recycled fabrics and packaging, but by no means the majority. Less than half (42.6%) of the fashion brands and retailers that responded said they have a sustainable range, while 53.7% said they use recycled materials in their product.

Asked what the main barriers are to becoming more sustainable, the most common reason – cited by 60.3% of respondents – was that it is drives up costs. This was followed by lack of consumer demand – including an unwillingness to pay for sustainable fashion – at 36.2%, and a lack of the required knowledge and skills in the business (34%).

Encouragingly, however, four out of five (80.5%) agreed that sustainability was important to their senior leadership team, and more than half (59.6%) said their firm is investing more in sustainability this year, compared with 2018.

Many respondents did not know how their company measured sustainability, while others pointed out that it was difficult to measure as there are so many different elements to factor in. This is something Drapers will look at in more detail over the coming months.

The fashion industry agrees that the government must do more to support and enforce change

We also put some of the EAC’s key recommendations to you through our survey. The EAC called on the government to change the fashion system to end the culture of throwaway fashion through a series of legislative changes and new taxes. The government has yet to publish a response.

Our survey shows overwhelming support for many of these recommendations. The fashion industry agrees that the government must do more to support and enforce change.

Responding to Drapers’ findings, Mary Creagh, Labour MP and chair of the EAC, said: “We were clear in our report that fashion retailers must take responsibility for the clothes they produce. Brands, manufacturers, retailers and suppliers recognise that customers want fashion to be sustainable, yet the evidence that they are delivering on targets is much lower – [Drapers’ survey shows] only 40% of companies re-use or recycle unsold stock and 12% offer in-store take-back schemes.

“This has to change. If companies will not change voluntarily, the government must act to help fix fashion and set the industry on a net-zero path to 2050 [achieving carbon neutrality by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal or offsetting, or eliminating emissions altogether].”

Dsf2020 logo cmyk small use

Join the world’s leaders in the field at Drapers Sustainable Fashion 2020 in London on 11 March.

The event is for fashion brands and retailers, clothes manufacturers, supply chain experts, innovators and anybody for whom sustainability matters. We are creating a programme of hard-hitting talks, projects showcasing sustainability in action, and start-up innovation that is pushing the boundaries of the possible.




Sustainability in fashion today

Of the brands, retailers, suppliers and manufacturers that responded:

  • 55.6% use recycled materials in their packaging
  • 53.7% use recycled materials in their product
  • 51.9% use organic or sustainable cotton
  • 42.6% have a sustainable range
  • 40.7% re-use or recycle unsold stock
  • 35.2% source in the UK (thus lowering their carbon footprint)
  • 12% offer an in-store take back scheme or textile banks

Shoppers want sustainable fashion         

Supportive leadership


Measuring sustainability

Many respondents do not know how their company measures sustainability, while others point out that the complexity of the subject makes it difficult to assess. However, we can pull out some examples of how fashion companies are monitoring their environmental impact:

  • Measuring the proportion of styles made with sustainable or recycled fibres/fabrics
  • Working out the difference in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions between the use of different fabrics, and choosing the lowest
  • Assessing the company’s carbon footprint, including collecting information linked to air shipping of products from various sourcing countries
  • Measuring energy and water usage across different parts of the business
  • Looking at the proportion of packaging that is recycled

It is very difficult to measure sustainability. It is a huge and diverse subject. Every day, we try to do better than yesterday. However, we are able to measure the amount of styles being made in more sustainable fibres. 

[Survey respondent]

We don’t measure it, we just do what we can.

[Survey respondent]

We make sure we can say we have switched to a commonly accepted sustainable alternative at every touch point of the business, from packaging to product, to electricity supply, to logistics.

[Survey respondent]

Ayesha fat face

Ayesha Fitzwilliam Hall, responsible sourcing manager, Fat Face

Case study: Fat Face

“We have had a responsible sourcing team in place since 2015, which consists of two full-time employees. It is effective because of the engagement of all the other teams, such as buying, design and sourcing.

“We worked to achieve an agreed, business-wide strategy that improves our performance and customers’ perception of our sustainability, making a meaningful impact on the issues that we care about. To do this we focused on making the most sustainable choices for our business; communicating our goals and achievements with crew and customers; always considering the customer and how they perceive our brand; owning our goals and the actions we take to achieve them; and measuring the impact of our actions.

“A focus of the strategy creation was ensuring we set SMART [specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound] goals. We weren’t comfortable with setting goals that couldn’t be measured.

“When it comes to measurement, we make the most of existing data and systems rather than reinvent the wheel, and make sure that any work we do in collaboration with either suppliers or external partners has data and measurement built in from the start.

Barriers to becoming sustainable

Asked what the main barriers are to becoming more sustainable are, the most common reason (cited by 60.3% of respondents) is that it is too expensive/drives up costs. This is followed by lack of consumer demand – including an unwillingness to pay for sustainable fashion – at 36.2%, and a lack of the required knowledge/skills in the business (34%).

BarrierResponse rate
It is expensive/drives up costs 62.5%
Lack of consumer demand/customers not willing to pay 36.6%
Not enough knowledge and skills in the business 33.9%
Leadership not willing to invest/take hit to margins 33%
Leadership not engaged 25%
It is too complicated 17.9%
Other 16.1%

Investment in sustainability is rising

Top priorities

Respondents were asked to name their top three priorities when it comes to sustainability in 2019. By far the most popular response or was some form of recycling – whether to use more recycled fabrics, recycle more unsold stock or encourage recycling of used clothing. This was followed by the use of more sustainable fabrics and fibres (including cotton), improving packaging, eradicating unnecessary/single use plastic, and reducing textile waste.

The top 10:

Priority% of respondents

Re-use, recycling and repair initiatives, including using more recycled materials, and introducing take-back schemes


Use more sustainable fabrics and fibres


Use more sustainable/less packaging


Reduce plastic use


Reduce waste


Educate consumers


Reduce water consumption


Reduce carbon footprint


Review dyeing process


Reduce energy consumption



Respondents are using a range of technologies to support their sustainable objectives, including: 3D design to cut down sampling waste and the need to travel; electric delivery vans; blockchain to improve traceability; fabric and fibre innovations; returns management software to reduce carbon footprint; new packaging materials; robots and artificial intelligence; microfibre filtration.

Government intervention is needed

85% said the government is not doing enough to the help the fashion industry to become more sustainable.

However, our respondents broadly supported the recent recommendations from the environmental audit committee. The only recommendation that did not receive strong support was the 1p charge per garment on producers of fashion (68.7% somewhat or strongly agreed with this recommendation, and 31.8% disagreed – whereas the others had around 90% agreement).

RecommendationStrongly agreeSomewhat agreeSomewhat disagreeStrongly disagree

Mandatory environmental targets for retailers with a turnover above £36m





1p charge per garment on producers





Government to use the tax system to incentivise re-use, repair and recycling





Reduce VAT on repair services





Lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes to be added to school curriculum





Fines for companies that fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act





Fashion industry to set target for zero emissions and cut carbon usage to 1990 levels





Respondents called on the government to do more, including:

  • Investing in recycling infrastructure
  • Proving grants to help businesses become more sustainable
  • Making certain unsustainable practices illegal
  • Working on ways to educate the consumer about sustainability

About the survey

  • Carried out online between 19 March and 26 April 2019
  • 372 respondents
  • 52.7% run or work for a fashion or footwear brand/retailer, 19.9% work for an academic organisation, and the rest were a mix of suppliers, manufacturers and agents.
  • The size of business varied: 45.8% said their organisation had an annual turnover of up to £36m, but 21.9% said it was £500m-plus.
  • 48.4% of respondents classed themselves as managers, including 41 CEOs, 17 owner/proprietors, and 11 managing directors.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Do check out start-up brands too. create sustainable outerwear using alpaca wool (you can find some benefits of alpaca wool on their IG page - @Safi_thebrand) and they are made-for-order, meaning that you request and they make specifically for you and even adjusted to your requirements.

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