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The Myth of Sustainable Fashion

Few industries tout their sustainability credentials more forcefully than the fashion industry. But the sad truth is that despite high-profile attempts at innovation, it’s failed to reduce its planetary impact in the past 25 years.  Most items are still produced using non-biodegradable petroleum-based synthetics and end up in a landfill. So what can be done? New…

Few industries are more proud of their sustainability credentials than the fashion industry. But the sad truth is that despite high-profile attempts at innovation, it’s failed to reduce its planetary impact in the past 25 years. Many items still use non-biodegradable petroleum based synthetics, and end up in a landfill. What can we do? The use of bio-based materials and recycling as ESG strategies has failed. Instead, sustainability must be seen as a continuum. It is not sustainable to be less sustainable. Governments must step in and force companies to compensate for the negative effects they have on the environment. Even in the most progressive industries, even market-based solutions and “win-win” have failed.

Fashion is one of the most vocal industries in promoting sustainability. Products ranging from swimsuits to wedding dresses are marketed as carbon positive, organic, or vegan while yoga mats made from mushrooms and sneakers from sugar cane dot retail shelves. As environmental lifesavers, new business models are being developed, including rental, reuse, recycling, repair, and resale.

The sad truth however is that all this experimentation and supposed “innovation” in the fashion industry over the past 25 years have failed to lessen its planetary impact — a loud wake up call for those who hope that voluntary efforts can successfully address climate change and other major challenges facing society.

Take the production of shoes and shirts, which has more that doubled in the last quarter century — three quarters end in burning or being buried in landfills . This is a feeling of a personal failure. Timberland was a footwear and apparel company that I worked for many years as the COO. We aimed to make the industry more sustainable. There are many reasons why the industry is experiencing a sustainability crisis. The industry’s sustainability woes are complicated. They were influenced by consumer demand for fast, cheap fashion. So too are the related facts that real prices for footwear and apparel have halved since 1990 with most new items made from non-biodegradable petroleum-based synthetics.

To fully grasp how badly the market has failed the world in fashion, let’s take a closer look at why sustainable fashion can be anything but sustainable.

Environmental Impact

The precise negative environmental impact of the fashion industry remains unknown, but it is sizeable. The industry’s borders are spread across the globe and its multitiered supply chains remain opaque and complex. Trade liberalization, globalization and cost pressures have made it difficult for brands to own assets in their upstream factories. Most companies outsource final production. “There are still very, very few brands who know where their stuff comes from in the supply chain, and even fewer of them have entered into active relationships with those suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint,” says environmental scientist Linda Greer. This complexity and lack of transparency means estimates of the industry’s carbon impact range from 4% (McKinsey and the Global Fashion Agenda) to 10% (U.N.) of overall global carbon emissions.

Fashion is like all other industries. It is part of a larger system. It is a system that is focused on growth. As an industry executive, I was never asked by a CFO if the company could contract to produce a larger customer base. A Wall Street analyst never made a pitch to Timberland about putting resilience above revenue growth. The fashion industry is driven by this unyielding pursuit for growth and “more.” The fashion industry is driven to change because it is difficult to create a more efficient or better performing blouse, handbag or pair of socks to encourage consumption. It’s not better, it’s just different, faster, and cheaper.

Combine the imperative for growth with rapid product drops, long lead time, global supply chains, and you will get inevitable overproduction. It is easier to predict demand for tens of thousands of styles each season, despite technological and communication advances. Therefore, fashion inventories inevitably accumulate, and 40% of fashion goods are sold at a markdown. “The urge to sell more and get consumers to buy more is still in the DNA of the industry,” says Michael Stanley-Jones, co-secretary for the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. “Clothes are very fragile and often end up in the dump .”

The speed of this hedonic treadmill continues to ramp up exponentially. Five years ago, McKinsey reported that shorter production lead times enabled by technology and revised business systems enabled brands to “introduce new lines more frequently. Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year; H&M offers 12 to 16 and refreshes them weekly.” This acceleration and proliferation of “newness” served as a constant draw to bring consumers back to sites and stores.

This level of speed is already outdated and quaint. Shein (pronounced She-in) is now “the fastest growing ecommerce company in the world.” According to SimilarWeb, its web site ranks number one in the world for web traffic in the fashion and apparel category. Selling tops for $7, dresses for $12 and jeans for $17, Shein makes Zara and H&M look expensive and slow. These “real-time” brands use fossil fuel-based synthetic materials to deliver low prices for quickly changing styles. Polyester has been the most popular synthetic fiber, accounting for more than half of global fiber production. It is derived from nonrenewable resources, requires a great deal of energy for extraction and processing and releases significant byproducts.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Most troublingly, the increase in environmental damage has occurred at a time when there is more transparency, greater NGO persistence, and increased environmental concerns. Fashion companies are not ignoring sustainability. Statements from fast fashion brands such as Primark (a retailer of $3. 50 T shirts) that promise to “make more sustainable fashion affordable for all” are representative of the shift in zeitgeist. However, many common actions that companies take are not having the intended effect.

Transparency: When Timberland issued its first corporate social responsibility report (CSR) in 2002, it was an outlier. Twenty years later, all public fashion firms present their environmental, governance, and social performance in thicker, glossier forms. Volume is not a good indicator of progress in this case. As a recent Business of Fashion report noted, “with no standardized language or regulated frameworks, deciphering what companies are actually doing is extremely challenging.” Most CSR reports do not accurately quantify the full carbon emissions profile of fashion brands and remain unaudited by external parties.

Recycling: Recycling is oversold. There are many reasons for this, including inability to plan at scale due the variability of supply, limitations to recycling technology (e.g. it is nearly impossible to recycle goods made of multiple inputs), limited infrastructure, and shorter, less-quality fibers that result from recycled inputs. As a result of these obstacles, less than 1% of all clothing is recycled into new garments.

Worse, recycling doesn’t do enough to reduce environmental damage and can even increase inequality. Recycling bins in H&M and Zara stores are a guilt-free placebo that encourages ever more consumption. Most donated items end up in landfills in poor countries. At the same time, a recent life cycle analysis (LCA) on cotton jeans revealed that the climate change impact of buying and disposing of a pair of jeans is almost the same as upcycling the jeans into a new pair.

Bio-Based Materials: Another response to address the growing environmental footprint of fashion is the “next-gen materials industry.” Innovators are now fermenting and growing bio-based substitutes for conventional livestock derived materials (e.g., leather) and fossil fuel-based synthetics (e.g., polyester). These new bio-based textiles are capable of delivering performance features and properties like biodegradability. These innovations have high initial costs, relative to established alternatives, large capital requirements (to finance new production sites), resistance and lack of pricing for externalities. This allows fossil fuel-derived alternatives not to be priced to exclude their true social cost.

New Business Models: Recognition that infinite growth on a planet of finite resources is a powerful impetus to develop new business models for fashion. These models, like shared transport, claim they can reduce consumption of virgin resources and prolong product lifecycles. But do they work?

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