Sustainability: Essential strategy for the fashion industry

Angelo Camillo

Sustainability is a concept that will engage almost everyone for decades, says Angelo Camillo.


The topic of sustainability has assumed global dimensions and now carries political implications. From institutions of higher education to the United Nations, the consensus is that the earth is at risk. Perhaps, grave risk. The scientific consensus on climate change, previously dubbed global warming, has had significant impact on many industries. The textile manufacturing and fashion industries do not operate in a vacuum. They are just as vulnerable as other sectors like food and beverage and play an important role in daily existence and social and economic interactions.


What is sustainability? It depends upon whom you ask. Among the myriad definitions within the framework of textiles and fashion, I define it as a system that includes the natural and human environment that recreates itself, stays balanced hence, sustainable - in order to survive. It includes other systems such as economic, environmental, societal, and personal, on a global scale. Consequently, we must answer this simple question: How can we live in a world in which the earth's resources that support life can be available to humans, as well as to the flora and fauna that are vital components of the ecosystem? The answer is simple: it has to be a collective and inclusive effort, on a global basis, which creates synergy among all players to benefit the continuation of the earth's ecosystem.


Understandably, the textile manufacturing and fashion industries cannot be sustainable alone. They can have a significant impact on the entire ecosystem. It is true that change will not happen unless a trigger causes it. Pressure from consumers, competitors, legislative mandates and the personal initiative of activists will compel stakeholders to change.


Textile manufacturing and fashion industries are becoming sustainably proactive


A 2014 survey published by the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (National Chamber of Italian Fashion) revealed that only 13 per cent of luxury goods consumers said that sustainability was a fundamental value in purchasing decisions. According to Sourcing Journal, while 38 per cent of consumers go out of their way to find environmentally friendly apparel, 69 per cent would be concerned if they purchased items that were not eco-friendly. In addition, about 39 per cent would hold the manufacturer responsible for eco-unfriendly products. The stakeholders in the fashion industry take this data seriously and have been engaged in implementing sustainability as a critical value of the global fashion system, given the various correlated environmental and social factors including protection of the environment, people's needs and wants and corporate profits.


The critical challenge is to remain attentive to both the future of the planet and to fashion's role in that future, given the amount of premium materials used by the world's top luxury brands. Manufacturers of textiles that use chemicals in less expensive fabric lines - for shoppers at the bottom of the pyramid - need to be concerned as well. In response, many fashion designers, especially the Italians, are now engaged in the standardisation of reference on hazardous chemical substances in textile, leather and footwear products. Increasingly, many textile manufacturers are now ISO certified in various standards categories.

The results of the 2016 Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations Index and Forbes magazine show that German company Adidas - a giant manufacturer of textiles, apparel and luxury goods - ranks 5thamong all industries, with a score of 73.10 per cent. Even so, Adidas did not make it to the top 10 global leaders in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 2015. Although these rankings prove that something is being done to keep the ecosystem sustainable, the fact is that only a few companies are striving to truly contribute to the planet's health. This suggests that much work remains to be done in order for the fabric and fashion industry to make a significant contribution to global sustainability efforts.


How can the fabric, fashion and related industries contribute to the sustainability effort?

Many companies in these industries have been proactive not only with moral and discretionary activities but also with sustained initiatives that have been catalysts for change to related industries. Two instructive examples come to mind, both indicating that a strategic or long-term trend has now reached the point of no return. By standing firm with their initiatives, these two organisations compelled stakeholders within the fabric, fashion and related industries to follow suit, not only in reaction but as catalysts.


In 2012, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana published a Sustainability Manifesto for Italian fashion, a ten-point guide for the development of responsible management models along the entire value chain of the fashion industry.


In 2009, Walmart, the world's largest retailer, and Patagonia, one of the world's most progressive brands, joined forces with a radical mission: Collect peers and competitors from across the apparel, footwear and textile sectors and develop a universal approach to measuring sustainability performance. Together, they formed the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). The first initiative was to create the Higg Index, useful tools to measure the aggregates' impact on the planet. The Higg Index was created as the core driver of the SAC. These self-assessment tools empower all stakeholders at any stage of the supply chain/value chain to measure their environmental, social and labour impacts and thereby identify anomalies and/or areas that need improvement. Today, their members consist of major global brands as well as retailers, manufacturers, academics, affiliates, government entities and NGOs.


In sum, sustainability trends are here to stay. Moving forward, these trends will involve not only the fabric, fashion and related industries, but quite literally all industries.


About the author

Angelo Camillo, PhD, is Associate Professor of Strategic Management in the School of Business at Woodbury University in Burbank California, USA.