Sustainability as a Value System
“Sustainability” in the fashion industry is often blurred with greenwashing which refers to actions that appear to be more sustainable than they actually are. The brands have been launching their “green, eco, conscious, sustainable, organic” collections and the consumers (believe as well as the industry insiders) have mostly confused these individual efforts to be either forward thinking or dismiss them in disbelief.
The supply chain complies with the greenwashing and mostly acts upon certain products or processes as well as on an off product development where the innovation gets dismissed when all boils down to price versus value. We have walked around many fashion shows where manufacturers have presented their selected collections of sustainable products – presented proudly along the “everyday essentials”, “core-basics” which focus more on volume sales. Has the pandemic related pause in business “helped” the industry to make a re-assessment and engage on scaled strategic plans to tackle the inherent challenges and the problems of environmental, social and economic issues? A complex one to answer with clarity but one thing is for sure that the recent surveys are revealing that the consumers are shifting their expectations and behavior and looking for accessible sustainable options. More and more seeing the actual link of purchasing decision power and the global climate, social justice issues and assigning personal values to what they wear (#wearyourvalues).
The lack of common standards, the disconnect of global supply chain with where the clothes are sold, the speed of fashion, lack of understanding of the environmental and social impact of how we consume our clothes, fogs the picture. The disconnection stems from multiple challenges and the bad news is that there is no panacea and we will have to work more diligently for the collaborative solutions across the supply chain.
Digital solutions are coming in to help both on the manufacturing processes as well as retail and disrupting fashion to redirect behavior. The hardware intense manufacturing part of the industry has been designed with machines that barely talk to one another missing out on the internet of things. Cost calculations have been reliant on mostly energy use, labor time, efficiency based without taking the waste or the natural resource consumption such as water into the formulas. The current state of the business demands a deeper dive into what needs to be considered as cost as well as value. This also needs a more precise product and process design for purpose and an evaluation of the total system rather than parts.
I cannot wait to learn more about the software called Metro which Tonello has launched as this software will achieve a more connected data production within the garment wash units of a manufacturer. Tonello says that with Metro we will be able to measure, with complete transparency, all the real data relating to the consumption used for each individual garment and process as the machine itself will supply the data, guaranteeing the accuracy and truthfulness. This presents a connected system that generates information which can be used for the B2B as well as for the B2C decision making as it is related to a crucial part of the supply chain and will enable designers, merchandisers, managers to even design and make the purchasing decision based on actual, real-time evaluation.
The complex and global supply chain traceability is not easily covered. The brands have multiple vendors worldwide and the way they have been working over the clock to deliver more collections has not helped to elaborate on the essentials of alternative raw materials, manufacturing best practices, measuring social and environmental impacts, the resilience of the system as well as all the communication which is inherent to the product. We need to change systems of production and consumption and to embed positive and negative social and environmental costs into goods and services to ensure that sustainable options are attainable.
Fashion is an industry where consumer expectancy gets us to innovate and move towards more sustainable products. It has become ever more important to listen to the fringe, make relevant analysis, build systems that can develop an inherent communication between the consumers and the manufacturers and again not only think on a transaction base but to develop an extended partnership relationship. Levi’s is the first denim brand of its size to create a buyback program like this and effectively take responsibility for the full “life cycle” of its garments. Nearly 60% of Gen Z consumers already buy secondhand clothes and they love finding a really unique piece which comes with a story. According to Levi's, “Buying a used pair of Levi’s saves approximately 80% of the CO2 emissions, and 1.5 pounds of waste, compared to buying a new pair.”
Another systems approach example came from Adidas in 2019. Adidas had launched ‘Infinite Play’ and operated through a partnership with Stuffstr, the service lets UK-based consumers return any Adidas branded products purchased within the past five years to the brand in exchange for a gift card and loyalty club points. In order to make a return, Infinite Play users should upload details regarding their items to the Adidas website or app. They will then be given the option to have the clothes, shoes and accessories collected from their home; to use Freepost to send them from their local post office. Once Adidas receives the items, the user will receive a digital gift card to spend with the brand, equivalent to the estimated value of their goods. A great example of shared responsibility and an extended brand engagement. The traditional model of consumption is replaced by “ownership to access” through digital solutions and customer service.
According to the ING 2020 Circular Survey waste – 62% of people globally now say it’s very important companies they buy from adopt circular sustainability practices. The growth in the fashion industry will no longer be dependent on gluttonous sales growth but so innovating the system keeping circular production and consumption necessities in mind and translating the challenges into being businesses and dreams. Imagine that you could know the resale value of a pair of jeans you are buying instantly (benchmarked on circularity) and now imagine how this would change your buying decision? (As well as your business strategies as a brand and as a manufacturer?)