Our regular analysis selects one or more news stories from fashion technology, and presents The Interline‘s take on why they matter to our global brand and retail audience – as well as what they might mean for the longer-term future of fashion. As always, this analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email and signing up continues to be the best way to get a fresh look at the fashion technology news, completely free, in your inbox.

Supply chain changes: concrete plans or ambition alone?

Sustainable fashion: two words that have become ubiquitous in the modern fashion lexicon. The last decade has seen everyone in the fashion value chain become hyper aware of the monumental impact producing and buying clothing has on the planet. But despite this growth in awareness, the market for sustainable fashion seems not to be growing quickly enough given the scale and severity of the continuing environmental issues caused by the fashion industry.

According to new statistics, the Global Sustainable Fashion market size was valued at around $7.7 billion in 2022 and is expected to increase to $13.2 billion by 2028. This translates to approximately a 10% growth in consumer demand for the specific “sustainable fashion” market category in the next 6 years, which is a problematic category to define, but one that still captures both the industry’s ambitions and shoppers’ thought processes when it comes to creating and buying with a conscience.

While this information on its own seems reasonable enough – growth is a good thing! – it’s important not to forget that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) has a deadline of 2025 for emissions to begin to reverse for a “livable future.” Given this, there seems to be an incongruity between what the planet needs and the speed with which shoppers are evolving their purchasing practices to align with sustainability goals. And in that case, fashion is going to need more radical pre-consumer interventions to meet its targets: it will not be enough to leave it up to consumers to make the best choices for the environment and, equally, the free market does not seem as though it’s going to naturally drive brands to become more sustainable. At least not quickly enough.

What do we mean by pre-consumer? The literal definition is obvious: anything that takes place before a product is transferred into a shopper’s hands at the point of sale. In a broader sense, though, the implication is that the burden of making fashion more sustainable is going to be borne by processes the industry itself controls, not by its consumers – at least not until the former progresses enough to influence the latter.

In practice, this simple statement leads to an uncomfortable conclusion for any commercial enterprise in fashion: the industry will need to bring more sustainable products to market, whether people are ready to buy them or not. 

And because no brand can survive for long by introducing things people don’t want to buy, those products, and the pre-consumer interventions that make them “sustainable”, will need to be accompanied by industry and regulatory efforts around consumer education that will border on the extreme.

The nature of that education is something The Interline intends to help unpick throughout this year and beyond, but for the purposes of this week’s analysis we want to focus on those pre-consumer interventions. Because the news this week suggests that these are happening within the supply chain, at the raw material level, and in the complicated ecosystem of how products are used – but some of these steps are more meaningful than others.

First up, the supply chain. This week China announced the ‘launch’ of a digital platform or standard to assist in the identification of sustainable textile products, which is part of the country’s ‘dual-carbon goal’ to peak emissions by 2030 and achieve neutrality before 2060. 

The precise nature of the platform is unclear, and while The Interline deduces that the ambition is to provide verification for products, providing traceability along the lifecycle for sustainably-made products, the mechanics are cloudy at best. The mission of the platform is to “strengthen the promotion of green fibre products” and to “guarantee consumers’ confidence in buying green products.” Both noble goals, obviously, but for a state-level announcement the absence of detail is striking. As it stands, this all sounds more of a statement of intention rather than the announcement of a finished platform, although 26 businesses have apparently  already signed up.

This is not to discourage the effort and ambition on display, since traceability at the regional level will be important, and as state supply chain actors go, China is perhaps the largest, accounting for its production of both raw fibres and finished products for export. It seems dubious, though, that a platform without an accurate definition is going to provide the requisite level of visibility soon enough for it to have the desired impact on the industry’s footprint – or on consumers’ ability to buy with confidence.

So while a codified standard for sustainability at the root, in the supply chain, is certainly a strong example of the kind of pre-consumer intervention that will be needed, the vagueness of this particular suggestion doesn’t inspire immediate confidence.

Same buying practices, new materials 

In light of the non-specificity of the proposed supply chain platform, its ability to accelerate behavioural change in the buying public seems slim, which brings us to another pre-consumer intervention stage: the raw materials themselves. 

In terms of reshaping consumer behaviour with the speed required, a more straightforward route might be to focus on existing materials that shoppers are familiar with, and to offer a way to keep buying products made from that material, but without the usual negative environmental and ethical impact. And leather is a good example. Many know the look, feel, performance, and durability of products made of leather, but most also buy them with a heavy conscience. This is where the power of upcycling could come in. This week, UK-based Gen Phoenix, announced that it had secured funding of $18 million to create premium and eco-conscious next-gen materials from leather waste. Behind that influx of cash is the company’s indication that it has already diverted more than 8,000 tons of leather waste from landfills to date. To complicate matters slightly, their products feature up to 86% recycled content including recycled leather and recycled plastic, but the primary catalyst for this investment round appears to be the opportunity to build a pathway to swapping leather, almost like-for-like, for a circular, sustainable alternative.

The sizable investment comes from a range of sources, but notable contributors include Hermes and Dr. Martens.  Both companies, it goes without saying, sell a lot of leather goods, and both are likely banking on the idea that, in the medium term, consumers may not actually need to change their buying practices – they can simply buy the boots or bags they already know and love, made from a material that has similar characteristics to leather, but without its drawbacks. 

This is effectively a route around behavioural change, as brands come to recognise that people may not be ready to buy certain products made from mango leather or an equivalent instead of traditional leather, for a host of different aesthetic reasons, performance reasons, or simple habit and inertia. So, instead, the strategy behind brands investing in companies like Gen Phoenix would be to transform what it means to buy leather in the first place. And while this is a more roundabout example of pre-consumer intervention, it is a good indicator of how the otherwise slow market expansion for sustainable fashion might be hot-wired to move more quickly – offering simple upgrades that don’t require the market to act a different way to accommodate them.

Changing the tides on microfibers: cleaning up for consumers

Another example of sidestepping the need for behaviour change came this week with California introducing a bill that would reduce microfibre pollution all the way downstream (with some limited recognition of its roots upstream). The proposed legislation is aiming to make microfibre filters in washing machines sold in the state of California mandatory before the end of the decade. This would help to reduce microfibre output from washing – something that consumers would otherwise need to be disincentivised to do as often as they currently do. 

There is an added complication here, though: to make a real impact on the environment, brands will almost inevitably need to make fewer products and consumers will need to buy less often.  But having fewer clothes potentially means washing the ones you own more often – something that consumer education is only going to be able to control to a very limited degree. 

There’s also a deeper climate change variable to consider in a state that’s suffered significant droughts and should likely be discouraging washing clothes for completely different reasons. 

Ultimately, however, the problem still lies upstream with textiles that produce microfibres. And while this is definitely progress, it should not be seen as a distraction from the underlying issues.

Alex Bamford and Louise McCurdy for PlanetCare

Across all of these interventions, we’re seeing a recognition that no single party is going to be responsible for picking up the sustainability baton and running with it. The assumption has been, for a while, that the growth of sustainable fashion will be driven by consumers demanding more and gravitating towards sustainable categories. But from the limited data released this week, it seems as though this might not be happening as quickly as necessary. 

This means that a new strategy needs to be put in place: one where the onus is on producers, brands, and other stakeholders in the fashion value chain to either advance the speed of consumer adoption for sustainable categories, or find ways of getting around it. In doing so, shoppers will be able to steadily adopt a sustainable mindset without having to fundamentally alter the way they interact with fashion. It remains to be seen whether brands making this shift will be easier than altering the way in which shoppers have been consuming, but with the environmental clock ticking, there really is no other alternative.

The best from The Interline:

This week, we published a feature from Joneien Leah Johnson, a virtual clothing designer, as well as the latest in the series from Mark Harrop and Chris Jones.

Jayli Maxi dress, original design print. Clothing simulated and rendered in Style3D

Originally published in our groundbreaking Digital Product Creation Report, Joneien Leah Johnson shares how digital tools opened up new creative horizons and laid down a career path for her.

In the second in an exclusive series for The Interline, Mark Harrop and Chris Jones define the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of SROI.