Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the fashion technology landscape. We provide our take on what matters, and why. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
Sustainability gets a stark reminder of what’s at stake.
As The Interline turns its attention to sustainability for the whole of September, the apparel industry received a timely, sobering reminder this week of just how much is at stake. McKinsey, in collaboration with Global Fashion Agenda have published a new report setting out just how far fashion has fallen short of scientific targets, and encouraging “bold action”.
The top-line results are damning. According to the report, only 50 fashion companies have committed to reducing their carbon footprints in line with the Paris Climate Change agreement (which also governs nations, or at least those that are signatories to it) and as an industry fashion is on track – even taking account of current decarbonisation and sustainability initiatives – to double the emissions it would need to stick to in order to abide by the agreement’s target of just a 1.5 degree rise in tempertures.
At present, the fashion industry contributes about 4% of all global greenhouse gas emissions – the majority of which occurs upstream, in material production and wet processes – i.e. dyeing and fabric treatment – with transportation, retail, and disposal accounting for less than 10% combined. Product use is then the second major source of emissions.
To abide by the most commonly-agreed framework for reducing carbon-led climate change, the fashion retail industry will need to cut its emissions in half within the next decade. And the bulk of that effort will need to be concentrated on what products are made from, the processes used to create those materials, and how they are subsequently cared for.
Earlier this week, The Interline published a primer for this month’s topic, where we argued that the key to sustainability is looking at the big picture. From a blended environmental and ethical point of view this remains the case – McKinsey’s research is focused on emissions – but from a pure carbon perspective, it seems as though a narrower view can be taken. The clear culprits behind fashion’s contribution to climate change are upstream and in product use.
This does not mean, though, that the industry can lay the blame at the feet of consumers. “Product use” as defined in the report covers the full scope of post-sale activity, including washing, drying, and recycling. And while no doubt people could probably stand to tumble-dry their clothes less often, sustainability is not a burden that the user should have to carry – or at least not alone – when so much of their contribution falls within the bracket of fair use.
It’s also important to note that the secondary market is already booming – fuelled by shoppers seeking to become more sustainable in their own habits, and by the rise of limited-run “drop” oriented brands, whose cycles of hype, cop, and resell have driven an already-growing resale market to a level where it’s expected to be worth in excess of $65 billion in the next five years according to recent research from ThredUp. This explosion runs counter to the overall decline in retail sales, with close to 70% growth cast against a contraction of 15% according to the same research.
This is an area where retailers are also intervening in a positive way, with H&M launching an official platform for reselling items from its Cos brand.
But in light of this breakdown of fashion’s environmental impact, it’s hard to see this as much more than a corporation wresting control of a very small piece of the overall puzzle from its usual peer-to-peer ownership as a way of safeguarding its retail sales. And while H&M is, of course, a leader in sustainability in many other respects, this is a drop in the ocean compared to the work to be done upstream – although McKinsey’s research does note that by 2030, 1 in every 5 garments needs to be traded on the resale market if the fashion industry is to meet its self-imposed targets.
There the major opportunities identified in the report are efficiency improvements in the production of polyester, and changes to the planting and harvesting of cotton, where fertilisers and pesticides are both having significant adverse effects.
Again, though, this report is confined to stemming the emission of greenhouse gases, and when we look at the broader picture – including pollution, regulatory compliance, ethical standards, and so on – the role of technology in helping fashion to become more sustainable crystallises.
And technology also has a clear role to play in two other key contributors identified in the McKinsey report: overproduction and minimising returns. The Interline has already looked extensively at the role of 3D and body data in reducing fit-related returns, and in the near future we will be turning our attention to the future of planning and on-demand production as tools for better assessing how much product needs to actually be made, and better planning its manufacture.
For the rest of this month, though, we have much more lined up for sustainability. Look for an exclusive interview with the CEO of a sustainable brand, op-eds from ethical organisation, producers of entirely new fibres, and sourcing platform owners, as well as more of our own editorials.