Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Laura Wise headshot

Industry Leaders Discuss Whether Sustainable Fashion is Possible

By Laura Wise
Sustainable Fashion

Can the fashion industry ever really be sustainable? Five industry leaders recently came together to make the case of how sustainability could become a reality within the world of fashion. These industry leaders shared their expertise on the risks and opportunities associated with a more sustainable fashion industry, and how various actors can play their part. There has been a lot of talk about the idea of sustainability in fashion over the last several years. It’s clear to apparel companies, however, that now is the time to dig into the tactics of how sustainability can be better identified, measured and benchmarked.

Fashion’s global impact is massive, and not always in a good way

Sustainability has become a buzzword over the last several years for good reason. The climate crisis, for one, is undeniable—and the fashion industry is a major contributor to the problem. The apparel industry is now valued at over $1 trillion, accounts for 2 percent of the world's GDP, and is believed to employ more than 1 in 10 of all workers globally. And as a leading United Kingdom sustainability news site recently reported, the apparel industry accounts for a tenth of the world’s annual carbon emissions, 5 percent of global water use, and has been identified as one of the sectors with the highest risk of modern slavery in supply chains.

Fast fashion is often seen as the culprit—retailers like H&M, Zara and Forever 21 (which is reportedly preparing a bankruptcy filing) have often been accused of perpetuating production practices that don’t support authentic sustainability in the industry. While the actual production of fashion is detrimental to the earth, consumer shopping patterns also continue to fuel the cycle. The truth of the matter is: Shoppers are buying more and more clothes—and the outlook doesn't look promising. According to the 2018 State of Fashion report from McKinsey and Business of Fashion, more than half of all fast-fashion items that consumers purchase are thrown away in less than a year.

Can fast fashion really evolve to become sustainable fashion?

Both H&M and Zara have been proactive over the last several years in developing strategies to become more sustainable and socially responsible brands. In 2016, H&M outlined an aggressive set of goals in its annual sustainability report, including a commitment to using 100 percent recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials by 2030.

Hendrick Alpen, H&M’s sustainability engagement manager, was among those who spoke out about the fashion industry’s ongoing evolution as he shared some insights on the progress the company has made around some of its initial goals. He insisted that becoming a 100 percent circular business is important to the Sweden-based company and explained what 100 percent circular would mean to H&M’s business:

“​Creating a circular production module means ultimately coming to the point where we do not have to use virgin cotton or virgin polyester ... but actually use old garments as a resource, and recycle it into new products. We are investing heavily in that recycling technology.” 

H&M now uses about 57 percent of materials that are organic, recycled or sustainably sourced cotton, Alpen said.

What apparel companies must do going forward

Apparel companies keep saying that they are looking to make changes, but such talk is not enough. To that end, these companies also discussed how genuine industry progress and government regulations together are key.

On the industry front, various tools are available to measure a company’s sustainability performance. The Higg Index is one such tool. Developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, ​the Higg Index​ is a suite of tools that enables brands, retailers, and facilities of all sizes to accurately measure and score a company or product’s sustainability performance.

As for government involvement, China—which oversees the apparel industry’s largest production operation—is now focused on building a greener supply chain as part of the country’s five-year plan. In January 2019, the China National Textile and Apparel Council outlined its plan for “Technology, Fashion and Green​” to address environmental issues.

If sustainability is to become the norm in the fashion industry, we’ll need to see more partnerships across all stakeholder groups and sectors. Brands, manufacturers, and governments must work together to deploy more aggressive goals and targets—and make them public in the interest of transparency and accountability.

With new advances in technology coming out every day, it’s equally as important to find innovative ways to disrupt the lifecycle of apparel, including developing next-generation processes that can turn old clothing into something new. If H&M or any of its competitors can crack the code that allows them to become 100 percent circular businesses, we’ll witness an industry that will set the bar for circularity high—and will motivate other industries to move quickly in order to keep up.

Image credit: Brunel Johnson/Unsplash

Laura Wise headshot

Laura Wise writes and speaks about business, philanthropy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), technology, and entrepreneurship. You can check out her portfolio here

Read more stories by Laura Wise