IMPROVING ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL IMPACTS OF THE APPAREL INDUSTRY
Social, environmental, and economic issues increasingly challenge the $1.5 trillion apparel and footwear industry. As we navigate last years’ unexplored waters of industry disruption, a balance of pragmatic and innovative developments within the business of fashion persists. The industry, over two centuries old, turned on its head, refocuses the linear model of the take-make-waste model to a circular means of production.
Appointed by the United Nations, the Brundtland Commission, defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations' ability to meet their own needs,” becomes profoundly relevant today.
John Elkington’s interpretation of this perspective is often referred to as the triple bottom line (TBL or 3BL) or the 3P’s, where economic profit is considered equivalent to environmental and social impact. A systematic change delivered through collaboration with the Fashion Industry may be a key to progress.
Financial performance goals such as sales growth and shareholder value have historically been the primary focus of retailers. The 3P’s integrates environmental and social initiatives with profit and sales growth goals. Astute retailers and customers see these initiates as complementary rather than competing goals.
The founders of Patagonia Company believe that no economic activity is yet sustainable and define their mission as responsible. Responsible initiatives address increasing employee living wages, providing safe working conditions, along with environmental stewardship. Included in these initiatives are considerations for local communities and society at large to reflect a broadening definition of a responsible business.
DO LESS HARM
Twenty-five years ago, Patagonia initiated a green corporate governance trend by donating 1% of sales to environmental causes. The outdoor clothing company’s vision to “produce no unnecessary environmental harm and have a positive impact on the stakeholders; people and communities associated with its activities” consistently funneled its eco-sense and anti-corporate ethos into a successful clothing business.
In a call to action, Patagonia and Walmart formed the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, SAC, and the Higg Index, an industry-wide self-assessment tool. The apparel manufacturing giants shaped an unlikely collaboration responding to environmental and social concerns. In a joint effort, they invited other brands, retailers, and manufacturers across the globe, along with NGOs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and academic institutions.
The Higg Index, launched in 2012, measures environmental and social impacts across a product’s entire life cycle from raw materials to end-of-life disposal. As a powerful cooperative group, SAC can accelerate improvement through its open-source index to understand that reducing harm must be collective.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Business candor builds legitimacy and creates additional incentives for action and innovation. The shared growth of ethically produced and earth-safe style provides the footing for an upsurge in consumer markets.
These efforts sparked by social and environmental online publications (free) such as - “Who Made My Clothes" by Fashion Revolution, "Detox My Fashion" by Greenpeace, and "Make Fashion Circular" by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, called on influential brands to redesign fashion’s future. “Who made my clothes?” Fashion Revolution asks, consumers now want to know.
“Good On You” became a leading trusted source for sustainable fashion brand ratings. Their popular concept drove millions of consumers worldwide to consult with their free app as they shop for ethical and sustainable brands.
A CIRCULAR ADVANTAGE
As suppliers closed during the pandemic, enlightened manufacturers responded to textile demand by seeking materials on hand. Fashion designers already tuned into environmental responsibility, dipped into the vast archives of textiles called “Dead Stock,” from past seasons or existing clothes to create next season’s circular looks.
Circularity offers a competitive advantage through repair, refurbishment, or reuse of materials not quite ready for retirement. An overabundance of clothing and textiles, only worn a few times, too often meets an early grave in landfills and can take up to 200 years to decompose while emitting GHGS such as methane.
Nature does not create waste for itself; every output becomes nourishment for the next. Our future's fate will not come automatically; judging from the trajectory, it has to be cultivated like a cherished garden, tended, not ignored. Now we can test our commitment to the environment and all living creatures in an opportunity to prove that circularity is not just academic.
The resale and second-hand market continue to grow as consumers reevaluate their relationship with their clothes. The pandemic led to a surge of DIY tutorials educating consumers on sewing, upcycling and repairing goods to increase longevity. Initiatives such as Levi’s Buy-Back scheme, Gucci's partnership with The RealReal, Eileen Fisher’s RENEW, and Madewell's take-back programs encourage consumer participation in circular commerce.
Rethinking some of the most basic principles on which we do business takes a hard look at what we produce and consume. The complexity of human behavior and the fundamental nature of fashion inadvertently overlooks the ethics and environmental consequences of what we buy. Reconfiguring how we function within nature’s limits begins by addressing consumption and excess. No circular economy or fashion brand initiative can unhinge our connection to over consumption patterns and subsequent waste without our participation.
Innovation and creativity to make the fashion industry evolve to our environments inherent needs involve significant technical and commercial challenges. Shifting to such a model to satisfy today's requirements without undermining tomorrow's viability will bring greater accountability as we reconsider priorities.
Loren Blackwood is a guest writer at Huntington Beach Art Center. She is the photographer and illustrator of the images in this blog. She is studying Fashion Design at Orange Coast College and interning at HBAC.
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”