Fashion and sustainability aren't two words you often see in the same sentence. An adjective that evokes images of industry and ecology, "sustainable" is actually coming into fashion when describing, well, fashion. And as Director of Denim at WGSN, I can tell you this is very good news for our industry.
Sustainability as a concept has been buzzing for years, but its precise application to the world of fashion has been a bit murky. Still, there have been milestones:
● This past June, H&M, Nike, and Asos were amongst the 13 fashion and textile brands who signed the Prince of Wales International Sustainability Unit, vowing to source 100% of all their cotton from sustainable sources by 2025
● In April, the industry came together at leading denim trade show, Kingpins, part of Amsterdam Denim Days, and stirred up the sustainable denim debate
● In March, global fashion retailer C&A and its corporate foundation, the C&A foundation launched the Fashion for Good initiative, promoting a circular fashion economy.
One-off sustainable collections, pledges for environmentally-sound production, and eco-friendly initiatives will only be effective, however, if they are part of a greater movement -- a movement that inspires and encourages all of us to think about our impact on our planet.
As trend forecasters, WGSN works hand-in-hand with the fashion industry, guiding our clients through the ever-shifting landscape -- but we can't tell them to fasten their seat belts and not fasten our own. So, we decided to experience first-hand what brands go through when trying to make a shift towards a circular fashion economy and the challenges that come with producing sustainable fashion lines.
In April, we launched our first ever sustainable denim sample collection in partnership with Avery Dennison, M&J Group, Absolute Denim and Amsterdam Denim Days. When making the collection, we came to realise that most suppliers, despite having innovative products focused on sustainability, had low stock of our chosen materials. We attribute this to a general lack of demand, largely driven by the fact that the industry has no legal responsibility to be sustainable; there are no regulatory departments for the textile industry like there are in the food industry, for example. Without the parameters and proper governance, manufacturers simply aren't obligated to create fabrics and materials that one would consider 'green'. With that being said, we found that it doesn't start with a brand saying they want to make a "sustainable collection" -- it must start with the industry demanding sustainability.
Given the lack of formal regulation for sustainable textile production, the necessary parameters don't exist. For example, how do we know that reducing water usage by 1% during garment production equals sustainability? The process of creating such necessary criteria is underway, but it comes as no surprise that when politicians and consumers deny climate change, the conversation can only go so far.
Another issue is that many brands struggle to establish social responsibility as a core corporate mission. Why is that? Well, shifting values is hard work and requires persuasion and patience -- all while running the risk of appearing pretentious and contrived. So why should brands make the effort to embrace environmentally friendly practices when it means having to walk an extra mile? Not to mention that in reality, they don't necessarily have to.
NGOs such as Greenpeace are raising awareness for circular fashion economies and urging a shift towards environmentally conscious behaviour. And their message isn't falling on deaf ears -- consumers aren't just listening, they're taking action, too. Previously driven by price point and choice, today's fashion consumers progressively expect sustainable products, processes, and behaviour. This forces the industry to rethink business models in order to stay profitable. The question remains whether consumer preferences will also ensure that brands truly adopt sustainability across the board, given the lack of formal monitoring.
The fashion industry is now at a crossroads: it cannot ignore the environmental trend any longer. One-off sustainable campaigns and collections won't be effective unless they're part of a broader strategy: brands have to think of the full lifecycle of their products; more consumers need to change their habits; non-fashion corporations need to shift their conventions; politicians need to address climate change head-on; and a socially-conscious mindset needs to be applied across the board to create a truly sustainable industry. Let's look to Patagonia as a role model. They consider every step of their supply chain: every stitch, every fabric, and every manufacturer before they create, design, or produce anything. That is what I believe every fashion and textile company should be doing. There's too much at stake for all of us.