Sustainable fashion: a long road ahead

The fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters. But it doesn’t have to be that way, say Henk Hofstede, Sector Banker Retail, and Marijn de Haas, a risk and policy advisor on environmental, social and ethical issues at ABN AMRO. Here they review the latest sustainable developments in the clothing industry and talk about the long road ahead to becoming fully circular by 2050.

ABN AMRO organised its recurring knowledge session Vijftig Tinten Groen (Fifty Shades of Green) on June 12, 2018. The focus this time was on sustainable fashion. The session gave staff an overview of the challenges facing the clothing industry, as well as a chance to think about ways in which they, too, can be more environmentally conscious when it comes to the clothes they buy. After all, the industry has a lot of work to do if it wants to move towards a more sustainable revenue model. ABN AMRO also held discussions with clients that afternoon. Marijn de Haas says, “Together with our clients, we’re looking at ways to make improvements. We organise regular knowledge sessions and workshops to help identify opportunities and risks.” Clients are also asked questions like, Are alternative materials available? What does your supply chain look like, and how do your suppliers approach sustainability? Who’s in charge of your business’s corporate social responsibility policy?

Fashion in figures

But before taking a critical look at the fashion industry, we first need to know how sustainable the sector currently is. Let’s start with some figures. Dutch consumers buy about EUR 10 billion worth of clothing each year. It’s estimated that an annual 91 million tonnes of clothing are thrown away worldwide. For the Netherlands, that comes to 235 million kilograms annually – or about 13 kilograms per person. In addition, 1.2 million new, unworn garments are destroyed each year. On average, a garment is worn just ten times before it’s thrown away. 

But there are other considerations. The production of cotton requires an enormous amount of water, while supplies of fresh water in cotton-producing countries are starting to dwindle. Just think – producing one cotton T-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water, a pair of jeans no less than 8,000 litres. Not to mention that the cotton industry uses massive amounts of chemicals and pesticides, all of which have a negative impact on the environment. Then there’s the social aspect: working conditions in factories around the world are often poor. Take the 2013 disaster in Bangladesh, where a factory collapsed in which clothing was being produced for multiple Western retailers, resulting in 1,100 dead and another 2,500 injured. Furthermore, many garment workers do not earn a living wage – the minimum needed to live a decent life in these various production countries.

Respect for people, animals and the environment

Obviously, the fashion industry has a huge impact on the world. What if we could start over and redesign the sector from the ground up? What would the industry look like in a perfect world? Henk Hofstede gives us a definition of sustainable fashion: “Sustainable fashion is about manufacturing products with respect for people, animals and the environment, while generating as little waste as possible. One example is clothing made from recycled material, meaning that waste is no longer waste, but a raw material.” De Haas adds, “It’s also about making products that last. Fashions change from month to month, but manufacturers have to start making products people can wear for the rest of their lives.” 

That doesn’t sound all that difficult… In actual practice, though, it is. De Haas explains, “There’s extreme urgency here, but unfortunately, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. It’s going to be hard to implement major changes quickly because the whole fashion chain is very fragmented and therefore difficult to monitor.” Hofstede continues, “Things are moving very slowly. You have to remember it’s not about changing a single product or material, but a whole system. And that takes time. The annual international fashion report Pulse of Fashion 2018 shows that 52 per cent of all CEOs at the helm of major fashion brands give priority to sustainability objectives when making strategic decisions.”

Big players, big steps

The same report shows that the best fashion retailers in the world just squeak by with a mark of ‘satisfactory’ on a scale of 1 to 100 for sustainability. On average, though, the sector scores a dismal 3.8, according to the survey. Hofstede says, “When I was a boy, if I came home from school with a 3.8, I’d be in trouble. Then again, a poor score doesn’t mean you can’t start taking steps.” 

And those steps are desperately needed, since the goal is to be fully circular by 2050. Hofstede continues, “The big players in the sector must lead the way in terms of reducing volumes in the market. There are already examples of big companies producing new clothing from recycled material. H&M aims to produce a fully sustainable clothing collection made from recycled or sustainable material by 2030. C&A has already introduced a cradle-to-cradle T-shirt made from organic, biodegradable cotton. And they launched the most sustainable pair of jeans back in August.” De Haas mentions another initiative: “One manufacturer called Nudie Jeans encourages its customers to return and repair damaged jeans. Not only does it make that particular pair more unique, but it also prevents waste.” The outdoor brand Patagonia, too, encourages its customers to bring in products for repair.

Borrowing or AI

All this doesn’t mean that the rest just have to sit back and wait to see what the market leaders will think up – there are younger companies we can look to for inspiration. One of these is Lena, a business that lets customers borrow clothes instead of buying them, either piece by piece or as a subscription. This is known as the product-as-a-service concept, and it’s powerful because it keeps a customer from buying another dress which will only be worn once. Hofstede says, “Sustainability means that consumers shouldn’t have to buy a brand-new item each time – borrowing them is an option, too.” 

New technology can also be a potential game changer for the industry. The Danish online menswear shop Son of a Tailor produces tailor-made T-shirts using artificial intelligence based on data such as age, weight, height and much more. As a result, the company has no excess stock, and the perfect fit means that customers wear the product much longer.

Where to start?

A sustainable fashion industry also requires a change in mindset on the consumer side. De Haas gives an example: “Stop and think before you buy something. Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this? Will it truly benefit me?’” She also encouraged everyone at ABN AMRO to take part in the Slow Fashion Summer campaign. Those participating abstained from buying any new clothes for three months in an effort to raise awareness that clothes last longer than we often think and that it’s not always necessary to buy new ones. 

Hofstede says he thinks the state should also do its bit by introducing an incentive to accelerate the circular economy. “That might take the form of tax relief for circular businesses and additional tax for those who continuously use up new raw materials. Schemes such as these need not apply only to the fashion industry either.” 

The first steps towards sustainability are being taken by the fashion industry. 2050 may sound far away, but there’s still a long road ahead if we want to be fully circular in just over thirty years’ time. One glimmer of hope is that the Pulse of Fashion report shows that 90 per cent of the sector is already working towards greater sustainability. “That’s very promising. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the industry really does need to change,” Hofstede says. De Haas concludes, “Consumers, too, are going to see sustainability in this sector more and more as a priority. If they, together with the government, put pressure on the industry, sustainable fashion will really take off.”