Transparency within the fashion industry has become incredibly important as consumers adopt more moral habits and an increasing number of brands sign up to the fight the climate crisis. But in the midst of creating ethical supply chains for the production of clothing, brands often overlook the role of packaging in achieving their sustainability objectives.

Increasingly, brands are being held accountable for the sourcing and production of their products, which has prompted the need for greater transparency. Those that do not share supply chain information openly are distrusted and those found to have unethical processes, are often on the receiving end of slander and criticism from both the media and consumers.

Of course, this can cause significant reputational damage and with a greater choice of brands, there is little motivation for customers to remain loyal to the ones whose unethical practices have been uncovered. This only demonstrates how important sustainability is for consumers and brands today.

Whilst this is now widely understood, it’s time for focus to turn elsewhere. Brands should not view tackling climate change as simply a reputation building activity, but rather, reversing the effects of global warming should be a core business function. And this can only be done if a brand’s packaging production is subject to the same level of transparency as its product manufacturing line.

Sustainable supply chains

A supply chain begins with the sourcing of raw materials. As with fabric sourcing for clothing and accessories, packaging materials must also be sourced ethically for a brand’s products to truly be sustainable. Wherever possible, use of recycled supplies should be encouraged; so, fewer raw materials are required, and a circular economy is created.

In cases where this is not possible, greater transparency within the fashion industry could see the formation of brand partnership deals whereby raw materials are sourced collaboratively and then shared, creating lower costs for each company, less waste and a smaller carbon footprint.

The exploitation of workers is another issue brands face, with many luxury fashion houses now taking greater care in choosing and developing relationships with factories who promote better working conditions and fair wages. Although, considerations are usually exclusive to products and little thought is given to the production of packaging when in fact, the same conditions brands condemn, are the very ones in which their boxes, bags and other exterior elements are manufactured.

Therefore, greater transparency of fashion’s packaging processes will help uncover aspects of a supply chain that are often overlooked. In turn, consumers will be able to make better informed decisions, which will work in the favour of brands that already source and manufacture products and packaging ethically. And, for brands that are yet to delve deeper into their packaging processes, being held accountable by consumers can help the industry as a whole to reach its sustainability goals much sooner.

Similarly, the transportation of goods and materials, from one point in the supply chain to another should be a key consideration for both the product and packaging production lines if brands are to create a truly sustainable business model. Travel is one of the most significant factors of global warming and in fashion, air miles are a particular cause for concern. Therefore, efforts to reduce the distance that any aspect of a brand’s product travels, is a welcome remedy.

For example, if materials are sourced and products manufactured in one country, but the packaging in which it will be shipped in is imported from the other side of the world, ultimately the item is not as sustainable as it may claim to be. Again, this calls for more open and honest information from brands if the issue is to be tackled effectively.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

Transparency at the end of a product or packaging item’s life is just as important as it is in its production. One of the most important and perhaps the easiest to get right for this stage of the product lifecycle is creating recyclable packaging. Paper bags and cardboard boxes should always be the preferred medium, and innovations have even allowed them to become weather-proof and long lasting, which have typically been their pitfalls.

But transparency is required to make customers aware of how widely recyclable a package is. For example, many luxury brands use cardboard boxes that often have magnetic closure systems for secure fastening and increased sturdiness. But what often goes unknown, is that although the box itself can be recycled, the magnet cannot.

Reducing the amount of packaging can also have a positive environmental impact, as less material will be produced and thrown away. But what’s better than reducing what ends up in landfill, is eradicating the need for it to be put there in the first place. And luxury fashion is the perfect industry for this.

Designer packaging is no longer seen as simply a protective shell for an expensive purchase. Instead, the mere presence of a designer name printed across a modest black box is enough to warrant it as a decorative item that can be proudly displayed in the homes of consumers. This attitude has only been reinforced by the prominence of image sharing social media platforms, such as Instagram, as packaging has become just as shareable as the products themselves.

In this sense, consumers have found a second life for packaging themselves but there are certain things brands can do to take this further. For instance, investment into the quality of boxes or bags will make them more durable and feel more luxurious, allowing them to be displayed for longer. Or, brands can offer creative ideas on how a package can be reused as a charity hamper or a planter for example, which will encourage upcycling.

Similarly, as the second-hand market grows in popularity and an increasing number of consumers buy luxury goods with plans to resell them in the future, brands need to educate customers on how items with original packaging typically sell for more. This transparency will encourage more people to hold on to boxes and bags rather than throw them away once they receive their purchase.

Ultimately, whilst it is evident that luxury fashion understands the urgency to increase efforts to become more sustainable, the industry is falling short where packaging is concerned. No matter what claims they make about being ethical, it is only when a brand’s packaging processes become more transparent that these can be upheld and accepted.

This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of the print magazine.