The UK is at a sustainability crossroads. Drapers looks to other countries for the most effective ways to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impact.
The fashion industry in the UK is having an existential crisis – the current system is unsustainable, often unethical, and doing a huge amount of damage to the environment, but opinions are divided on how to bring about change.
In June, the UK government said it had no intention of creating new policies designed to encourage a more transparent, fair and sustainable fashion industry, as recommended by the environmental audit committee in its Fixing Fashion report. Many business leaders reacted angrily to the government’s decision – commenters on drapersonline.com called it an “outrage” and “incredibly short-sighted”.
But there are other ways the industry can join forces to become more sustainable.
Developed countries across the world are having similar debates. Each country has its own government and industry-level initiatives, and each is at a different stage of the journey to creating a fairer, less polluting fashion industry. Drapers picks out some key examples.
The French are taking a lead in the global effort to make fashion more sustainable. In May, president Emmanuel Macron asked François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Paris-based luxury conglomerate Kering, to form a “coalition” of CEOs and top fashion brands, and set ambitious sustainability targets together.
Meanwhile, France is tackling its own sustainability challenges head on through legislation. The country introduced an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme for clothing in 2007, which makes fashion and footwear companies responsible for providing or managing the recycling of their products at the end of their usage. Companies can either organise their own recycling programme, which must be approved by the French public authorities, or pay a contribution to Eco TLC – the company accredited by the French authorities to manage the sector’s waste – to provide this service for them.
In 2018, Eco TLC had 68 sorting centres and collected 38% of used textiles and footwear, up from 18% in 2009. It has a target that at least 95% of the clothing and footwear it collects in 2019 must be re-used or recycled, and a maximum of 2% can be sent to landfill.
In June 2019, French prime minister Edouard Philippe announced an imminent crackdown on the destruction of unsold or returned consumer goods, including clothing. It came after a journalist secretly filmed the destruction of goods at an Amazon warehouse in France for a documentary that aired on TV station M6 in January. The ban is due to come into force by 2023.
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Sweden has long been a strong force in sustainable fashion, particularly in terms of product innovation – for example, in 2014, a group of Swedish companies presented a dress that was the world’s first garment made entirely from recycled cotton. It used pioneering technology from sustainable textile company Re:newcell, which enabled the recycling of materials that contain cellulose.
More recently, the country has committed to cutting its net carbon emissions to zero by 2045. To help achieve this, in December 2018, Swedish fashion retailers – including sustainability pioneer H&M – joined forces with The Sustainable Fashion Academy to launch the Swedish Textile Initiative for Climate Action. The initiative supports apparel and textile companies operating in both Swedish and international markets to set science-based targets and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
In July, the Swedish Fashion Council made the bold decision to cancel Stockholm Fashion Week, which was due to take place on 27-29 August, in favour of exploring alternatives that will help to support the development of sustainable brands, and set new standards in the industry.
In the US, the move to make fashion more sustainable is much more fragmented than in countries such as France. President Trump’s decision in 2017 to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change underlined a lack of national support for tackling environmental issues.
However, although there may not be a national move towards making industries more sustainable, progress is being made at state and city level. For example, San Francisco is the home of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which develops sustainable new uses for discarded products.
In 2012, the SAC partnered with the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency and other not-for-profits to develop the Higg Index – a suite of self-assessment tools that help brands, retailers and manufacturers assess their environmental and social performance. In May 2019, SAC launched a new company, Higg Co, which will develop the technology that delivers Higg Index. It will work with fashion brands and retailers to find custom solutions that will enable them to integrate the sustainability data collected directly into their internal systems.
On the east coast, the New York-based Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) is also driving forward sustainability. In January, it launched a new sustainability resource hub for its members, which includes guidance on developing sustainability strategies, and a directory of key stakeholders and materials.
CFDA’s director of education and professional development, Sara Kozlowski, tells Drapers that next year it will consider how it can connect more people within the industry together – including its members, educators, retailers and logistics companies – behind the common goal to become more sustainable.
In 2014, in response to tragic accidents in textile factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan – including the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka, which killed 1,134 garment workers – Germany’s development minister Gerd Müller launched the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles. Today, the partnership has 130 members, including representatives from the textiles industry, government bodies, not-for-profits and trade unions.
All members are committed to achieving their own individual goals, as well as collectively working towards a more sustainable fashion industry. With the help of working groups, they have each devised implementation plans – called roadmaps – against which they will measure their progress. As well as overarching targets, such as contributing to raising public awareness of sustainable textile production, the roadmaps cover three broad areas: chemicals and environmental management; social standards and living wages; and natural fibres.
At industry level, German trade show organiser Messe Frankfurt last year merged its two sustainable fashion fairs, Ethical Fashion Show Berlin and Greenshowroom, under the name Neonyt (below).
Meanwhile, Fashion Council Germany has launched a new mentoring programme called German Sustain Concept to promote up-and-coming talent and fashion labels that focus on sustainability. In January 2019, 10 German designers and brands presented their concepts to a judging panel. The winners – Lara Krude, Often, Phylyda and Working Title – will be given coaching and support on sourcing, distribution, marketing and business from Fashion Council Germany until January 2021.
Australia is not pushing legislative change to encourage sustainable fashion practices, but there has been a groundswell of initiatives at industry level.
At the second Australian Circular Fashion Conference in March 2019, the event’s founder, former textile designer Camille Reed, announced the creation of the Australian Circular Textile Association to support industry efforts to become more sustainable. The association is gearing up to pilot a national clothing take-back scheme in September. Consumers will be able to drop off old garments at participating stores or charity collection points, and the clothing will be sorted for re-use or recycling.
Across the board, Australian retailers are waking up to the demand for sustainability. In April, multi-brand etailer The Iconic, owned by Global Fashion Group, introduced a new filter to allow customers to search for sustainable products. Soon after, during Fashion Revolution week on 22-28 April, Australian department store chain David Jones published an interactive map of its tier-one factories as part of its ongoing efforts to become more transparent.
In 2017, researchers from Melbourne’s Deakin University won the H&M Global Change Award with their “circular denim” concept, which pulverises old jeans and uses the particles to colour new ones.