Is sustainable fashion really sustainable?

An assortment of used clothes left in a pile, provoking the question; Is sustainable fashion really sustainable?

As the global fast fashion market is expected to continue growing from a worth of $30.58 billion in 2021 to $39.84 billion by 2025, sustainability is a goal that’s on everyone’s mind.

Whilst organisations aim to minimise the negative impact that their brand has through corporate initiatives and sustainability goals, truly achieving social, environmental, and economic responsibility in the industry remains a challenge.

So, in this blog, we assess whether sustainable fashion is really sustainable and what is being done by organisations to make a change.

What is sustainable fashion?

American fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue define sustainable fashion as an umbrella term for clothes that are created and consumed in a way that protects both the environment and those producing garments.

More generally, corporate sustainability is split into three areas which also applies to the fashion industry:

  1. Environmental – Reducing carbon footprint, waste, water usage, or other environmental damage.
  2. Social – Benefitting people (e.g., employees and stakeholders), and the community it operates in.
  3. Economic – Ensuring profitability, compliance, proper governance, and risk management.

How ‘sustainable’ is the fashion industry now?

At this point in time, there are some initiatives that have been implemented with varying degrees of success, but the fashion industry still has many challenges to address.

The fashion industry is currently ranked as one of the worst in terms of its impact on our planet, accounting for up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output each year. Similarly, in 2019, the World Economic Forum reported that whilst the international fashion industry has doubled production in the prior 15 years, 73% of fashion items were either burned or buried in landfill when thrown away.

Whilst progression to improve sustainability in fashion is happening, this is a slow and long-term process to reverse the negative impact that the industry has had historically.

However, fashion brands are continuing to make a change and drive sustainability to the top of their agendas.

How is the fashion industry becoming more sustainable?

Global fashion retailers are always developing creative strategies that offer new and unique approaches to improve their sustainability impact. But they typically focus their efforts on design, production, and marketing initiatives.

In the industry, some brands are using late-stage customisation to tailor their products to customer needs. This tactic uses digital textile technologies to design and produce small volume, customised products while cutting lead times. Not only does this enable better customer data collection for the brand but it also generates fewer returns and less wasted stock going to landfill.

Another method increasingly being used is sustainable circular economies where new products are manufactured that can be reused, repaired, and remanufactured to reduce waste production and recycle textile waste into new high-value products.

One example of a company paving the way with an initiative that covers an array of sustainability areas is luxury fashion brand Gucci and their ‘Gucci Equilibrium’ commitment launched ‘to generate positive change for people and our planet.’ Their initiatives include:

  • A partnership with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) that promotes refugee inclusion. Gucci have both taken part in and promoted the scheme of refugee integration and employability in Italy leading them to win the ‘Welcome – Working for Refugee Integration’ award for the third year in a row.
  • A carbon neutral challenge with brands like Cartier, San Pellegrino, Lavazza Group, SAP and more to protect biodiversity and forests around the world. The climate strategy set by Gucci called upon themselves and their fellow CEOs (Chief Executive Officers) to avoid and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offset the total remaining emissions within their operations and supply chain.
  • A global gender equality summit; 22 For ‘22: Visions for a Feminist Future. The annual virtual summit features leaders, activists, and artists from around the globe. The event is used as a discussion on gender inequality issues through speeches, conversations, short documentaries, and performances to tackle societal challenges and drive change.

Further Reading: The Future Fashion Factory

The University of Leeds is also driving sustainable change with several partners through the ‘Future Fashion Factory.’ Conducted at the School of Design, the £5.4million initiative to transform the UK’s fashion and textiles sector has researchers working closely with industry leaders to seek innovations which will transform the sector. This includes delivering creative, cost-effective approaches for designing luxury customised goods with shorter lead times and circular economies that creatively harness innovative manufacturing technologies to reduce waste.

Find out more about the Future Fashion Factory initiative

What is the future of sustainable fashion?

The future of sustainable fashion is unknown. Whilst the opportunity for change is there, this is heavily reliant on changes in consumer demands and business investment.

One major challenge for fashion brands is shifting the demand for ‘fast-fashion’ whilst continuing to grow profits. International retailers, Zara offer 24 new clothing collections yearly whilst H&M offer 12 to 16 to entice returning customers. Operating more sustainably would be to reduce the number of new lines and products being manufactured to move away from ‘fast-fashion,’ but with consumer demand available and profits to be made, this would prove problematic. For fashion brands, it’s about finding the right balance and developing healthier ways to design, manufacture and market products. Both fashion brands, however, have alternative strategies that they are implementing to move towards more sustainable practices including Zara’s use of more recycled polyester fibres, and H&M’s launch of a ‘Conscious Exclusive Collection’ using 100% regenerated nylon fiber.

More promisingly, a recent report by Global Fashion Agenda, a sustainable fashion non-profit organisation revealed that the fashion industry could be 80% sustainable by 2030 if the level of investment in existing recycling technologies and infrastructures continue to grow and become fully scaled.

To continue on the right track of sustainable change, it’s up to a new wave of International Fashion Managers to shake up the industry and continue devising solutions that make a difference whilst identifying a good balance of offering sustainable products cost-effectively.

Study International Fashion Marketing and Design Management with the University of Leeds

Our online International Fashion Marketing and Design Management Masters is a great way to take the next step in your fashion management career. Our module in Case Studies in Global Fashion and Sustainability will introduce you to the theories that are used to critically analyse case studies from all areas of the international fashion value chain, from fibre development, cloth making, garment design and manufacture, and retail (bricks and mortar and digital platforms). You’ll assess the current role of sustainability in fashion and develop solutions that positively impact the industry socially, environmentally and economically. Whether you are looking to start a fashion brand or lead an existing one, upon completion of the course you’ll be well placed to enter a range of fashion management careers.

Lead Sustainable Change in Fashion with an online Masters in fashion from the University of Leeds.

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