Should being stylish be bad for the environment? The clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry. While significant gains have been made towards sustainability in retail much more can be done across the entire industry. An estimated 68 million American adults make purchasing decisions based on their personal, social and environmental values according to the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
Brands have taken note and are answering the call of sustainability – from doing a better job of communicating to consumers about their ethical and environmentally-conscious practices, to reevaluating how raw materials are sourced and how textiles are manufactured, shipped and reused, to utilizing modern technology and predictive analytics to calculate how much of any given product to produce.
1. Sustainable and Ethically-sourced materials becoming the norm
Ethical consumerism, the concept of voting with your wallet, influences tens of billions of retail dollars spent by consumers worldwide. According to KPMG’s 2018 annual retail survey, nearly 20 percent of all shoppers are drawn to retailers that they know ethically source their goods.
Because of this, brands are beginning to use more recycled and recyclable materials in their products. For example, Adidas has released an athletic shoe that is fully produced from recycled material and announced its goal of using 100% recycled materials within the next four years.
Producing a traditional cotton T-shirt requires up to 2,700 liters of water per garment to dye, finish, and wash clothes. By rethinking the apparel production process from beginning to end, Ralph Lauren designed the Earth Polo Shirt, made entirely out of recycled plastic bottles and dyed through a process that requires no water.
Levi’s co-founded the Better Cotton Initiative in 2010 to reduce the environmental impact of cotton production. The apparel industry uses three-fourths of the world’s cotton, and 90% of Levi’s come from cotton. The Better Cotton Initiative teaches smarter farming practices to farmers so that they can grow more cotton while using less water and less harmful chemicals.
2. Transparent Supply Chains shine light on safety, ethics, and environmental impact
There are major shifts in consumer expectations for how they expect their favorite brands to operate. Consumers want brands to be transparent about the end-to-end product journey. As concerns grow about sustainable production, brands have answered with programs aimed at socially and environmentally responsible supply chain practices.
Everlane has made a name for itself as a leader in corporate social responsibility programs focused on sustainability. They have made radical transparency a business initiative peeling back the covers of their true cost and markup. With factories scoring at 90 or above by independent ratings, Everlane has made ethical-sourcing and production a core driver of business success.
Nike’s Purpose Moves Us campaign is committed to creating apparel that is sustainable and good for the environment, along with promoting equality through sports. As part of the campaign, Nike developed Flyknit and Flyleather Technology, a minimalist design that reduces waste by using less material than in the production of traditional sports footwear.
Nisolo is committed to sustainable factory practices, fair wages, and transparency into how they ethically source the materials for their shoes, bags, and accessories. The brand also publishes an impact report that provides an in-depth look into their supply chain, partners, factories, practices, and sustainability measures.
3. Renewable energy efforts during production and beyond
While consumers often think of sustainability in terms of materials production, the energy used in manufacturing and transportation of goods has a profound impact on emissions. While the traditional manufacturing process can be resource-demanding, companies are innovating methods to reduce energy usage. Athleta has invested in an innovative renewable energy partnership that will fully offset the power consumption of all their stores and their HQ operations across the United States.
In addition to being a significant cost for the industry, the transport of goods generates a big carbon footprint which could be lessened by using renewable energy. At a massive distribution center in Europe, 99% of incoming Nike shoe shipments arrive by canal instead of trucks and the whole center runs on renewable energy. Nike plans to take best practices from the facility to the rest of its global supply chain, to fulfill its goal of running on 100% renewable energy by 2025.
4. Using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to boost sustainable decision-making
Technology is helping brands make informed and targeted decisions in product creation. With better insight into what customers want, brands can accurately plan which products to create to drive the most revenue without producing more than can be sold. By purchasing just the amount of materials needed for that season’s products they reduce waste and markdowns. This eliminates purchasing millions of dollars of excess materials and ultimately, products that end up in landfills. Big retailers like Amazon, Walmart and Target use AI and ML to improve the efficiency of production, manage inventory and gauge consumer preferences so that they can calculate how much of any given product to buy.
New York-based shoe company Soludos leverages AI and ML to make smarter decisions about design and inventory decisions instead of relying only on gut and intuition to determine trends in developing their signature espadrilles and sneakers. Over 18 months Soludos was able to fine-tune its product decision process by catering their product releases to consumer demand and increasing sales by 100%.
5. Clothing buy-back programs reclaim textiles for recycling
We each throw away an average of 70 pounds of clothing and shoes annually. Few communities have textile recycling, so 85% of this waste winds up in landfills. Repurposing and reusing apparel is helping prevent last season’s styles from ending up at the dump.
Brands are seeing the environmental and financial value of recycling and reselling apparel by offering buy-back programs and more generous return policies. Women’s clothing designer Eileen Fisher purchased back over one million Eileen Fisher garments since instituting its buy-back program. Customers receive a credit for every item returned, and the pieces are sold at special Renew retail locations and on their Renew website. In addition, damaged pieces unsuitable for the Renew program are upcycled into artwork, pillows, or wall hangings.
Similar programs have been launched by many brands including Marine Layer, Madewell, Levi’s and H&M. J. Crew recently debuted an innovative partnership with Habitat for Humanity, in which it buys back old pairs of jeans to be recycled into insulation material for the housing company.
6. Expansion of the resale market lengthens garment life
The fashion resale market has been exploding, growing 21 times faster than the retail market over the past three years, according to retail analytics firm GlobalData. Consumer fashion resale website, ThredUp, predicts the resale market will grow to be 1.5 times larger than fast-fashion by 2028. According to ThredUp, 40 percent of consumers consider the resale value of an item before buying it, nearly double of what that percentage was five years ago.
Patagonia’s Worn Wear program was launched back in 2005 to give longer life to their products through repairs, and in 2017 they began selling gently used Patagonia clothes that had been traded in by customers. Even luxury department store chain Neiman Marcus is buying into the resale market with its investment in Fashionphile, a second-hand luxury and designer handbag retailer.
7. Making clothes available to rent rather than buy
Another bustling market has emerged where consumers can rent designer clothing, saving all of the resources needed to manufacture a new piece of clothing.
Urban Outfitters recently entered the clothing rental business in an effort to boost engagement with millennial consumers. The retailer is launching Nuuly this summer offering subscribers the ability to access clothes from Urban Outfitters’ portfolio, including Anthropologie, Free People and Urban Outfitters, as well as over 100 additional third-party brands and one-of-a-kind vintage and designer pieces. When subscribers are done with a piece they return the garment to get their next selection.
With their “Rent, Reduce, Reuse” model, Rent the Runway was founded not only on the premise of consumer cost-efficiency, but also for its sustainability practices. Stylelend, another designer apparel rental service, touts their commitment to sustainability and recently donated 50 percent of their holiday profits to the collaborative sustainable fashion industry group Fashion Revolution in order to cut down on the large amount of clothing ending up in landfills.
According to Allied Market Research, the online apparel rental market was valued at $1 billion in 2017 and is estimated to reach $1.9 billion by 2023, growing 10.6% in those seven years. As the niche rental apparel industry grows, additional retail and fashion rental companies are becoming available to consumers, including Black Tux, Le Tote, FashionPass, and Tulerie.
Sustainable methods offer a multitude of benefits for retailers and customers
Sustainability today is a priority for brands, retailers and customers alike as people inside and outside of the industry realize the enormous societal, environmental, and financial impact of excess clothing consumption. As a result, more brands and retailers are moving toward sustainability initiatives that will not only usher in more respect and credibility from consumers, but also save money and resources in the future and beyond.