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Where does the European fashion and apparel industry stand with respect to sustainability? Please explain giving figures and statistics.
In the UK, around two million garments are produced every year. One million is thrown in the landfill, which is a major issue for us. We have been working with WRAP for four years as well as the UK high street to reduce their impact on this issue by 2020. It’s also been recognized as an issue throughout Europe. We have recently, as part of a partnership with five others, developed a programme called the European Clothing Action Plan and have been awarded €3.6 million from the EU to expand this programme in the next three-and-half years across Europe. So, there are significant problems within Europe around landfill issues and environmental impact of clothing. Obviously, fashion consumption has significantly increased across Europe and the US. I think what’s interesting is that we are going to significantly expand our work in Asia. We are going to work a lot more in India and Japan in the coming months. I think there is a different mindset over there. The Asian retail landscape is very exciting and it’s growing. It is behind Europe in terms of sustainability engagement, but I don’t think it will remain so for long.
What are the industry's strengths with respect to sustainability and where does it lack?
Where the stakeholders generally agree is that the brand has full responsibility in the production process – from beginning to end. However, it is hard for brands to get visibility across the full breadth and depth of their supply chains. At the factory level, there is visibility, but because Europe in particular has a strong fast fashion model. Having new suppliers on a weekly basis has been the norm. So keeping track of new suppliers is a very difficult thing. In order to get a hold on this, brands need to consolidate their supply chains and ensure that their key strategic suppliers from all tiers remain stable and visible, so that their impacts can be managed and ultimately reduced.
There are many raw materials and processes that remain a sustainability challenge in fashion. For example, leather is highly polluting. It is really difficult for brands sourcing leather products to map their supply chain, to know the social and environmental impacts and in some cases even know the country of origin of their leather. Where they have done well in the last few years, is starting to work with their key suppliers. In the last five-six years, we have really seen brands starting to embed the use of Restricted Substances Lists, and thus starting to tackle chemical use in processes. Before this, most of the focus was on understanding the social compliance in factory level and environmental impact behind the production of fibres. It is nice to see that some of the brands are really leading and are five to ten years ahead. But there is still a long way to go, and still a significant proportion of the brands are heavily lagging behind.
What can be done to promote transparency and traceability in the industry?
The development of new technologies has really helped. We have been working on traceability for 11 years now, and have pioneered a system called Track and Trace. I think we were one of the first initiatives to track fashion products and develop our expertise around that time. Development of new technologies has allowed us to trace and map supply chains much more efficiently, and we continue to map and develop our expertise in this area, having worked with brands on large scale projects. Previously, it was done by contacting people over telephone and manually entering their details. With improved software, we don’t have to do that anymore. I still think, it’s a bit of trial and error. So you need checks and balances in your methodology. Laws like the Modern Slavery Act means that brands have to trace their supply chains. So this has been a key lever to promote transparency as well as initiatives like Fashion Revolution day, which has seen thousands of consumers asking ‘Who Made my Clothes?’. It is also promoting the need for transparency.
What certifications are necessary for brands to be classified as sustainable in Europe?
I don’t think it’s about that actually. Some certifications have merit in certain things, but overall we believe in base-lining the brand’s performance, really looking at the business strategy, identifying the impacts and working to reduce them. Long-term sustainability comes through good management systems, and having checks and balances in the system to make sure that the supply chains are managed properly and making sure that your key strategic suppliers have a good, long-term relationship with you. Of course, certifications have their role to play. But it’s really about long-term, trusted partnerships. They can help, but they are only part of the solution.
With sourcing activities on an increase, how can brands ensure that sustainability policies are followed throughout the supply chain?
We have seen is a shift in attitude. Historically, we have had agents who produced the products for brands, and still do. But there was little visibility beyond the agent, and this has changed a lot. Because of the sustainability landscape changing and the laws that are coming in, like the modern slavery act in UK and the California Transparency Act in the US, and other guidelines in Denmark and France, there is now the need for a lot more policies to not just be created but actually be embedded. Brands now know it is their responsibility to not just get a signed document from the agent, but also to actually check that these policies are actually been followed and embedded.
Can sustainable practices actually ensure a reduction in the overall expenses of the brand? If yes, then why are sustainably manufactured products costlier than the conventional ones?
I don’t think sustainable practices in the short-term do save money. I personally believe that you have to invest in order to get a return later on. A strong resilient supply chain will reap dividends in the future. It will mean that it has efficient processes, and uses a minimum amount of energy, chemical and water, all things that will cost more in the future. In order to create efficient supply chains, there is up-front capital investment required. So, I think it’s unrealistic to say that in the short-term, it is going to save a lot of money. But it will help in creating a more efficient supply chain in the future, and there will be more and more laws restricting the use of harmful supply chains. So brands who do nothing to invest will find significant disruptions to their businesses in the future.
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