Every week, The Interline analyses up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

Beyond brand-level initiatives, the future of sustainable fashion – and technology’s place in it – could be driven by institutions.

Sustainability is perhaps one of fashion’s most overworn words. Useful as a catch-all umbrella for a whole lot of ethical and environmental priorities, considerations, trends, and opportunities, sustainability is trotted out so often by brands and media (ourselves included) that it sometimes seems as though brands and consumers are getting ready to treat it as read and move on.

But from an industry-wide perspective, sustainability is far from a solved problem. While noteworthy brands have taken the initiative and carved out definitions of sustainability that work for them – predominantly at the materials level – fashion as a whole remains stubbornly in the unpleasant camps of excessive carbon footprint from shipping, significant environmental harm from material production, dyeing, and disposal, and endemic ethical imbalances between consumption markets and sourcing destinations.

Sustainability is, to put it another way, a patchwork that’s being propped up primarily by consumer demand and brands’ desire to bank goodwill. And at least part of that is due to regulatory environments and government incentives that have not kept pace with the evolution of consumer demand or the complex nature of global supply chains. As a young designer put it in an Earth Day interview from last month:

“There needs to be more legislation for sustainability and there need to be financial incentives for companies to create more eco-conscious products and fight climate change.”

Which is an oblique way of saying something that The Interline has said before: fashion brands and retailers will only take the sustainability conversation so far by themselves, since truly radical change (such as overhauling the way labour is quantified) will lead to an unequal playing field unless it’s incentivised or mandated universally.

In this context, it was interesting to see the UN Economic Commission unveil a new blockchain framework aimed at creating a universal standard for supply chain traceability and transparency this week. While these standards are still being positioned as “guidelines” and “toolkits,” they have been piloted by Vivienne Westwood, and they are engineered as a ready-made pledge that brands, retailers, and their suppliers can commit to as a way of taking a common stance on sustainability.

Encouragingly, the standards appear to be comprehensive: in addition to raw material traceability of the kind enabled by embeddable pigments and other methods of tracking, the framework includes provision for smart contracts executed by the Ethereum virtual machine, which would ideally be applied to the supplier relationships where value is only unlocked once both parties have met their ethical and environmental commitments. This would be a significant step forward for an industry that has traditionally seen sustainability as a one-way flow – proceeding from supplier downstream. But as COVID demonstrated, some brands were quick to shift the burden of unsold and potentially unsellable stock on to their suppliers – something that would not have been possible if mutually-agreed and smart contracts had governed those relationships.

While this new framework stops short of regulation (which is the purview of individual states rather than multi-nation bodies) it accompanies the UN’s previously published Sustainable Development Goals, which, taken together, provides a strong indication of how the institutional landscape is evolving towards codified, potentially universal, sustainability standards.

Not coincidentally, this week also saw the news that one of the world’s largest apparel producers had begun to adopt a blockchain traceability platform to enabling tracking of cotton – something that we covered in partnership with Cotton Incorporated just a few weeks ago.

And in related news, brands and retailers that would once have settled for vague definitions of sustainability are now pegging key public indicators to their commitment to reducing their environmental and ethical impacts. Boohoo announced yesterday that it would tie a portion of its executive bonuses to measurable sustainability impacts, and this joined an analysis (also published yesterday) of the rise of sustainable bonds being issued by fashion businesses over the last 6-9 month period, with names like Burberry and Chanel linking corporate debt to targets in carbon reduction.

So while the conversation around sustainability may be getting tired, it appears as though the real machinery of government and institution capital are just waking up. And when those gears begin to turn, sustainability in fashion could quickly go from being a patchwork of brand-level initiatives to a being something that the industry wrestles with in a consistent way.

(For more on the applications of blockchain technologies and principles in fashion, consider reading our 2020 blockchain primer.)

And the best from The Interline this week:

This week saw the publication of the newest exclusive from Aasia D’Vaz-Sterling, which examines how brands that have pursued digital engagement strategies throughout COVID are now being faced with the challenge of combining those with in-store experiences.

Finally, today is also The Interline founder Mark Harrop’s birthday, marking another year of advancing the cause of technology for fashion!