Sustainable Fashion Today: A Sweet But Short High

By Dawn McGregor 18 December, 2019

2019 has been a busy year for sustainable fashion but full of sweet but short highs. CWR's McGregor expands & looks to strategic solutions

2019 has seen even more industry commitments on sustainability yet the State of Fashion 2020 report says '[industry] yet taken its environmental responsibility serious enough'
Despite this, some brands are serious as McGregor shares highlights from Puma & Kering events in 4Q2019; and as 'circularity' spreads across industries, fashion's lag more apparent
Given fashion's huge responsibility in our climate future & its mixed bag of actions, the industry needs to get more strategic & serious on solutions; need to tackle root causes & clear blockages

It has been another busy and noise-making year for the fashion industry on the sustainability front. It can leave one on a sweet high but unfortunately this feeling is short lived. As said by The State of Fashion 2020 report by McKinsey & Business of Fashion (BoF), “…despite some modest progress fashion hasn’t yet taken its environmental responsibility seriously enough”.

Another busy year for sustainable fashion but…

“…[industry] yet taken its environmental responsibility serious enough” – McKinsey & BoF 2020 report…

…climate alarm bells are ringing

This is alarming since if the fashion industry were a country, it would be the 4th largest global emitter of CO2 related emissions. Clearly fashion has plenty of responsibility in our climate future and needs to be at the forefront on the climate fight, the most epic fight and one that we are not winning. Cambridge Dictionary recently declared “climate emergency” the word for the year for 2019, with the number of times it’s been used in the last 12 months soaring 10,796%. Meanwhile, COP25 just wrapped up. It was the longest climate talks on record and yet despite this, headlines are largely of disappointment over low ambition levels and too compromised deals.

With the above in mind and as we wrap up this year, I share 3 sweet but short sustainable fashion highs. Hopefully 2020 will see just sweet highs.

  1. Commitment cascade – How serious is the industry?

There has been a cascade of commitments from the industry recently, the latest of which is the G7 Fashion Pact. While this shows increasing awareness and should indicate more action, there is concern on how much these latest commitments – including the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (UNFCC) & G7 Fashion Pact – on top of all the other many industry commitments will actually do/ achieve. Some of these commitments cover 20-30% of the industry, which is no small feat but what about the remaining 70-80%? Especially since it is usually the same guys joining the different initiatives.

While industry may not be serious, some brands are  – Puma & Kering events in 4Q19 left me impressed

That said, some in the industry are definitely taking commitments and sustainability seriously. In the last several months I participated/ presented at Puma’s stakeholder event and Kering’s annual sustainability forum. I was impressed by both events.

Lots of good stuff is being done. From not only updating targets but disruptively so and in a way that is in tune with the biggest sustainability challenges facing us today (plastic, waste, climate, circular, resource scarcity) and, in the future. As well as delivering on ambitious goals across a wide set of areas, not just the norm & obvious ones. A good reminder for myself from these events – especially in a world of growing transparency – was to not assume; many brands are in fact doing a lot on sustainability but may have said little or nothing about it. There is of course more that can be done but isn’t there always.

  1. Circular fashion – Still taking baby steps & missing $$

H&M recently announced a new rental, repair and recycling concept in their flagship store located in Stockholm. The three-month trial is a positive circular economy move but we need bolder actions, especially from the big boys. There are many existing successful renting platforms – Yeechoo, Rent The Runway – so why such a limited trial?

Meanwhile, I was at the Responsible Business Forum in Singapore last month the theme was ‘circularity’. As a multi-sector event it was positive to hear fashion & circularity discussed but meanwhile, to tackle the plastic crisis in Asia, an investment fund of USD106mn was announced. Where is the fund of this scale for the fashion crisis?

  1. ‘Anxiety & Concern’ – Mood on business landscape & sustainability too

‘Anxiety and concern’ was the prevailing mood among executives, according to The State of Fashion Report 2020. The executives are anxious and concerned about the business landscape but there is plenty of anxiety and concern over fashion’s environmental & climate impact with news like sustainable items account for just 3% of US and UK online fashion items combined. And that consumers (even in developed countries) are still unaware and in some cases “not bothered” about the environmental effects of fast fashion & their purchases. There is also the sobering news that the fashion industry is slowing down on sustainability efforts (dropped from 6 to 4 points) and that the 2020 commitment by ZDHC to phase-out hazardous chemicals in textile supply chains was missed.

Fashion industry is actually slowing down on sustainability efforts…

…even more reason to get more serious & strategic on solutions

I think if the fashion industry wants to be serious about the environment and sustainability – and the world needs it to be as it can impact our climate future since it emits more CO2 related emissions than international flights & shipping combined –  the industry and brands needs to be more strategic.



 Being more strategic – Root cause solutions & clearing roadblocks

Sustainability and circularity are complex, there is no getting around that. Plus, the risk (physical, regulatory, financial etc.) landscape, trends and consumer demands are constantly changing. One way to overcome these issues is to find and implement root cause solutions and be sure that the solutions we are implementing are actual solutions, not ‘almost-there’ and riddled with roadblocks.

Many solutions do not tackle root cause & are riddled with roadblocks…

…online shopping is an example, especially ‘serial returners’

One example where solutions need to be more strategic is the behemoth that has become online shopping and brands increasing their online presence to capture this market. Two points here. One, do brands know/ even look at their impact from online sales – the emissions/ resource impact? Two, there is now something called the “serial returner” – someone who buys a lot of clothes online and returns all or most of them, usually because the company allows them to do this for free. The Cambridge Dictionary is considering making Serial Returner an official word. Are brands monitoring this? What are they going to do as this clearly will significantly increase emissions & waste? So, online shopping, something that could be viewed as sustainable by being online may actually be even worse than brick-and-mortar shopping.

Another example is waterless dyeing. The technology has been around for 5+ years but it is still not widely used, usually because it is “too expensive”. How can we not have found a way to make this financially viable? Especially given how water intensive and water polluting the fashion industry is.

Then there are interim solutions from the industry that we need to make sure we don’t become reliant on or stuck in. One example here is carbon off-setting. One can’t off-set forever as there simply won’t be enough off-setting options if everyone does it.

Action in 2020 needs to be bold & strategic given fashion’s huge climate impact…

…feel free to get in touch if you want to chat

I can’t help but wonder why the industry doesn’t seem to be more strategic & serious on solutions with future business & profits at risk. Maybe one way to improve this is to get more executive time on this; make sure it is not just an ESG or compliance level issue. Moreover, today’s youth, fashion’s future consumers’, are being crystal clear that they do not want profits over planet. Fashion will not be able to hide from its dirty, thirsty & wasteful ways. I know I will be busy thinking and on the hunt for solutions for the industry in 2020 – feel free to get in touch if you have ideas or just want to chat.

I leave you with this line I heard recently and hope it inspires you for bold action in the new year. “If we move from making beautiful things to making them beautifully, this is something”.

Further Reading

  • Future Fashion & ‘Beautiful China’ – Together Forever? – With fast changing regulatory landscape moving against pollution from the textile industry, is there really room for fast fashion in a ‘Beautiful China’? China Water Risk’s McGregor on why it’s time for fashion to become beautiful inside and out
  • Circular Fashion Today – Closing the loop in the fashion is not new. But perhaps now that China,  the world’s largest manufacturer of garments, wants to go circular, it might become a reality. Get on top of the latest trends with leading circular fashion innovators
  • Fashion’s New Cycle – With 12,000 garments entering landfills every hour, the USD3 trillion fashion industry is ripe for a disruptive overhaul. FINCH Designs’s co-founder Heather Kaye shares how this Chinese brand is doing this through their swimwear made from recycled PET
  • Fast Fashion: Sucking Aquifers Dry? – Groundwater is over-extracted to grow cotton. As the world’s largest importer of cotton, is it China’s fault? Or is fast fashion to blame? China Water Risk’s Tan explores trends in the growth across major brands, China’s imports & global cotton production

More on Christmas

  • More Bad Climate News This Christmas – Want to stay in blissful ignorance this festive season? If not, get your head out of the sand to receive a quick dose of “real news” on our climate future
  • More Green, More Money? – Companies’ participation is vital to combat climate & water risks – what if they can access to more capital at the same time? CWR’s Ronald Leung illustrates the secret lies in active investor engagement
  • The Hidden Cost Of Our Christmas Cards & Crackers – Thinking of sending Christmas cards? Think again as our Yuanchao Xu expands on the hidden costs and argues that it’s time to go circular with our festive paper habits
  • Think Before You Bake! – Mince pies, gingerbread men, Christmas pudding… all delicious Christmas foods! Yet, did you know baking them is highly water-intensive? Our Dharisha Mirando ponders and asks us to rethink our recipes
  • Pets – Cute But Are They Green? – Did you know that the water footprint of a golden retriever’s diet is 80% that of a China diet? CWR’s dog lover Chien Tat Low explores the environmental impacts of rising pet ownership
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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