With less than a decade left for us to mitigate the effects of climate change, a transformational approach to sustainability is needed by large fashion houses.

It takes 3,781 litres of water to make a pair of jeans—from cotton production, material sourcing, distribution network to product delivery at the store*. If those are the numbers for a pair of jeans, imagine the ecological cost of everything in our closets!

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change states that the fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of emissions globally, much higher than every single global flight and oceanic transport combined. This percentage is expected to increase by more than 60 per cent by 2030 if we do not transition to sustainable fashion soon. As more than 60 per cent of textiles used and a large proportion of manufacturing happen in China and India, nations that depend on coal-fueled power plants increase the footprint further. To add to that, the fashion industry utilises 93 billion cubic metres of water every year—enough to meet the needs of 5 million!

The textile and apparel supply chain is complex as it includes an assorted arrangement of crude materials, ginning offices, turning and expulsion measures, preparing, weaving and sewing processing plants. It also includes cloth production that adds to a broad distribution channel. This supply chain is perhaps one of the most complex as far as raw materials utilised, the technology used, and final items made are considered.

The fashion industry has recently been facing increasing global scrutiny for its supply chain operations that have high ecological costs, and are degrading the environment significantly. Yet, despite the widely publicised environmental impact, the industry continues its unmitigated growth. Millions of people shop for trendy clothes every year, without understanding the consequences of what is described as fast fashion. As a result, apparel supply chains are progressively scattered globally, and the degree of operational outsourcing in developing countries is on the rise. The increase in appetite for this fast, disposable fashion among developing countries, including India, is what leads to a greater unsustainable production and consumption. 

The apparel industry prioritises its survival in the highly competitive fast fashion space, and pays little to no attention to sustainability practices. Low-quality garments are mass-produced by workers at incredibly low wages for retailers to sell them at unbeatable prices. To have a competitive advantage, organisations also partner with low-cost suppliers in developing nations with less stringent social and environmental regulations.

Emissions and resource consumption are only the tip of the problematic iceberg within the fashion industry. The utilisation of water, energy and synthetic compounds in the operating cycle, as well as the generation of waste and pollution in manufacturing and transportation, cause great environmental damage. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, materials like polyester and other synthetic fibres that are often used in clothing are responsible for 35 per cent of microplastics that enter the ocean. Overall, microplastics from fashion could be even more damaging than plastics from the food and beverage and packaging industry.

If we look at the paper titled ‘The supply chain ripple effect: How COVID-19 is affecting garment workers and factories in Asia Pacific’ recently published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), we see that imports from garment exporting regions have dropped by up to 70 per cent in the first half of 2020. The collapse was the result of decreased consumer demand, global lockdown and disruptions in raw material imports. Garment workers from the Asia-Pacific region accounted for 75 per cent of workers in the sector globally in 2019. With thousands of supplier factories closed, either temporarily or permanently, worker lay-offs and dismissals were widespread. Women make up the majority of the region’s garment workers and were disproportionately affected by the crisis, further aggravating existing inequalities.

Although numerous manufacturing plants made strides towards limiting the risk of COVID-19, in some instances, occupational health and safety measures were actualised inconsistently. In times like these, enterprises in the fashion industry must come together to reactivate their supply chains in the safest way conceivable. Plans of action need modification to empower supply chains to adjust to the new economic environment now more than ever.

So, where do we start? We are now seeing the rise of new plans of action and innovation across the supply chain, for example, selling preorders and 3D examining. At the supply chain level, brands are working with various partners spread across the globe to guarantee they can remain in sync with the agile ways of working. A complete mapping of supply chain activities empowers organisations to comprehend basic issues and the trouble spots, which help better decision making.

Increased transparency in the manufacturing process is the first step towards raising universal standards across the industry and holding companies accountable for impact. A transparent production process becomes an inevitable practice in implementing sustainability in the supply chain, especially when considering issues like fair wage and worker health  and safety, and to address the negative publicity and lasting damage to the brand. Ultimately, the future of supply chains will be built on more collaborative relationships, built on trust and transparency, and empowered by technology.

Brands will also have to put more emphasis on strengthening their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance to minimise risks. Affordable technology platforms will be pivotal in streamlining this process by providing data and performance related indicators for energy, emissions, waste, incidents, training, diversity, human rights and child labour. 

There lies a tremendous opportunity for brands to use digital-first approaches that can accelerate cost-effective production and take care of waste and pollution levels. Back-office costs, which are often missed, also need to be factored in. With less than a decade left for us to mitigate the effects of climate change, large fashion houses need to have a transformational approach to sustainability and address the ESG risks in their value chain. Increasingly, consumers too are becoming a part of the solution, and they need to be further educated on the importance of shifting towards using sustainable products and perhaps paying more to minimise their footprint on the planet.

* United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)