Sustainable fashion: How to provide a proof mechanism for investors and consumers

Sustainable fashion

In this article, Debbie Shakespeare, Senior Director, Sustainability, Compliance, and Core Product Lines at Avery Dennison explains how to achieve sustainable fashion successfully.

Sustainability is firmly front of mind today for investors and consumers alike, putting intense pressure on retailers to set, and achieve, clear environmental goals. As the shutters came down on Cop26 this November, retailers around the world asked themselves: Are we answering our investors’ demands for greener, more ethical standards? And will eco-conscious consumers want to engage with our brand, now that the negative impact of climate change have been so vividly thrust into the spotlight?

Fashion is charged with generating 10% of the world’s human-related carbon emissions, while globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created each year and the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second. It’s not surprising that apparel and footwear retailers are desperately seeking ways to lighten their environmental impact, and prove to stakeholders they are changing for the better. 

Quantifying sustainability 

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Brands and retailers across the globe have set ambitious targets for reducing the impact of their supply chain, but they need data at their disposal to quantify their process. This can only be achieved with collaborative industry initiatives and supply chain transparency proving businesses are operating ethically at every step of a garment’s journey. By providing as much valid information as possible to consumers, investors and increasingly, regulators, brands can earn trust, loyalty and credibility. The challenge is measuring the actual impact of reaching targets: how much water will be saved; how many emissions will be reduced; how many garments will be recycled?

Industry initiatives are coming fast, and the recent Copenhagen Fashion Summit (CFS+ 2021) organised by Global Fashion Agenda celebrated progress and called for more action on innovation, accountability and setting standards. Speaking at the event, Sandra Capponi, Co-founder of Good On You, explored how transparency will ensure consumers understand what they are buying into: “There’s a case for rigorous, independent ratings. Industry standards will make a difference. This can’t be just capsule ranges. It’s about being accountable across all products and supply chain elements.”

Industry initiatives such as the US Cotton Trust Protocol give retailers and brands the critical assurances they need that the cotton fibre element of their supply chain is sustainably grown. Members including Gap, Next and Levi Strauss are able to verify the sustainable credentials of the cotton they source and use in their apparel, giving reassurance to shoppers. 

Similarly, the Higg Index, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) in 2019, tracks sustainability data across areas including water usage, carbon emissions, and labour conditions, which can then be used by retailers – including German e-commerce giant Zalando – to inform their sustainability strategies. Today Higg and Avery Dennison’s atma.io platform are collaborating on Higg’s newly launched traceability program for supply chain sustainability. atma.io is a connected product cloud that unlocks the power of connected products by assigning unique digital IDs to everyday items, connecting the physical and digital worlds. 

This collaboration aims to track global brands’ hidden impacts, involving their manufacturing processes, to ensure fibre integrity, and to understand and accelerate product sustainability. Max Winograd, VP, atma.io and connected products at Avery Dennison Smartrac, says this provides fashion retailers with a whole new level of information. “It gives brands and retailers a complete view of their supply chain and an opportunity to provide accurate sustainability insights to consumers and other key stakeholders,” he commented. 

Meanwhile, UK, EU, and US governments are beginning to take action to tackle the growing issue of misleading sustainability claims, and it’s expected the legislation will be passed in most countries in the next five years, to make carbon reporting by retailers and brands mandatory. 

Circularity can be measured 

The extent to which brands can give garments a second life presents another means of measuring progress on sustainability. Landfill reduction and the carbon benefits of recycling could be quantifiable with the right technology tracking systems in place. Currently, only 1% of textile clothing is recycled globally, which means we have a marathon to run before true circularity in fashion is achieved. But experts say extending the life of garments must be a priority because textile re-use and recycling presents a huge and achievable opportunity that can only be good for the planet.

Avery Dennison collaborated to make circularity a reality this year when we teamed with US lifestyle brand UpWest, and reuse operator ReCircled in a pilot that gave garments a second life. Avery Dennison provided the digital triggers and data connectivity essential to complete the circularity loop between the retailer and the upcycler.  

UpWest Shoppers had the opportunity to scan the QR codes on Avery Dennison’s Digital Hang Tags and Digital Care Labels (DCLs) to take them on a journey outlining the item’s story, how it should be looked after and recycled and allowing them to engage closely with the UpWest brand. The collaboration proved hugely successful, turning unneeded sweater stock into mittens and blankets for sale. 

Scott Kuhlman, CEO of ReCircled, says DCLs are pivotal in upcycling and recycling processes. “If we have textile information on a DCL we can make processing decisions very quickly. We know what we are dealing with, and we can embark on a much clearer, purer process for garment recycling.”

The beauty of projects like this is that data can be gathered and reported back to stakeholders, and learnings shared with others in the industry, eager to make progress on their carbon reduction programmes, and ESG reporting.

Data is the holy grail of green fashion

Data has a critical role to play in helping fashion brands and retailers properly and effectively communicate to their customers the positive steps they are taking to become more sustainable. 

That data also becomes hugely valuable in generating insights and analytics that can help drive business decisions and intelligence. With data, it’s possible to track the flow of a product through the supply chain, from how an item is produced, what it contains, where it has been in the logistics network, through to the point of sale, retail, post-purchase, and then driving into circularity, so providing total visibility of a product. 

Action plans must deliver

Platitudes about ‘green fabrics’ or ‘cutting carbon initiatives’ simply won’t appease today’s clued-up consumers and highly-informed investors. Verified facts and figures are the order of the day. Retailers also need to get their – often extensive – supplier networks on board with carbon data management and reporting, if they are to create a cascade impact within the business. 

As sustainable and ethical issues become more ingrained in stakeholders’ mindsets, and legal obligations develop, brands must put in place robust tools and processes that can prove they are aligning with their customers, and taking sustainability seriously. Not doing so is a dangerous game, both for the individual business, and the planet.

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