LONDON, United Kingdom — This year, the global fashion industry finally began to take environmental and ethical problems seriously, with major luxury conglomerates and mass retailers alike taking significant steps in the right direction.
There is still a huge way to go and much of the positive momentum comes in the form of pledges and promises whose true worth will only be proven when followed by real action. What’s more, some of the progress on ethical issues, in particular, was sparked in reaction to scandals and human tragedies, like the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 people.
But it’s important to give credit where it’s due. Over the last few years, Kering, the luxury conglomerate that owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney, has positioned itself as a true leader in sustainability under the leadership of François-Henri Pinault, as well as Marie-Claire Daveu, who was appointed as Kering's chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs in September 2012. Having made strong pledges and promises in previous years, 2014 was the year that the conglomerate followed these up with real actions.
“I don’t want to sound like greenwashing,” Pinault said earlier this year. “If we wait for governments to solve the environmental crisis, not much will happen. It is up to us to show initiative, to be extremely proactive and go beyond simple compliance rules.”
This year, the group inked a five-year partnership with the London College of Fashion to support sustainable practices and innovation in fashion education; created a 'Smart Assessment of Materials' tool to evaluate the environmental performance of its plastics; rolled out its 'Smart Supplier Programme' to reduce emissions, water consumption and waste from suppliers; and implemented the Natural Resources Defense Council’s ‘Clean by Design’ programme for textile mills, the first time the programme has been launched in the luxury sector. The company also inaugurated the Kering Materials Innovation Lab, at which a team of technical experts work to create greener solutions for materials and manufacturing.
Kering also cast a careful eye over its sourcing practices in 2014, making the single largest purchase of Fairmined certified gold to date and launching two initiatives to tackle the volatile trading of exotic skins used in luxury goods (the Python Conservation Partnership) and a new programme to monitor and manage of the trade in Nile crocodiles from Madagascar, both in partnership with the International Trade Centre.
At the other end of the spectrum, positive steps were also taken by high street behemoth H&M. It can certainly be argued that the company’s fast-fashion business model is fundamentally unsustainable. But, in recent years, the company has put more emphasis on its sustainability agenda. Helena Helmersson, H&M’s head of sustainability since 2010, is a member of the company’s executive management, and the company’s head office in Stockholm has a 20-specialist-strong sustainability department.
In the last few years, H&M has laid out its biggest commitments yet — which include pledges to use only sustainable cotton by 2020, reduce its operations’ total greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, and improve pay structures for fair living wages in its key suppliers by 2018.
And this year, it followed through with actions. In October, H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson met with Bangladesh’s Minister of Commerce, Tofail Ahmed, to request proper regulation of prices in the country, and wage development through annual revisions. In December, the retailer opened the first Centre of Excellence for the Bangladesh Apparel Industries in Dhaka, in cooperation with the International Labour Organisation and Swedish Development Agency, to train workers, supervisors and managers on topics including health and safety and workers’ rights. And, following a year of in-store “Garment Collecting”, the brand launched the first garments made using recycled materials donated by customers.
It’s not perfect. The commitments are not comprehensive (for example, the fair living wage plan will only be implemented in “strategic suppliers”) and by sponsoring The Guardian’s sustainable fashion hub, the brand has basically turned a section of a national newspaper into a PR machine. Many of H&M’s biggest pledges have not yet been completed, in particular its roadmap to fair wages, and its commitment to source all of its cotton from “more sustainable sources” by 2020. However the progress made thus far displays a significant shift in the mindset of this fashion behemoth.
Other significant victories in 2014 came as key companies took steps to improve the ethics of their supply chains, where working conditions remain the biggest stain on the industry’s global garment.
In September, fashion firms including H&M, Inditex and Primark penned a letter to the Cambodian deputy prime minister and the chairman of the local Garment Manufacturers Association, claiming that they were "ready to factor higher wages" into their pricing. In October, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement involving 189 brands and retailers, completed initial inspections at more than 1,100 factories. A milestone for transparency in the oft-murky retail supply chain, the findings demonstrated the long way left to go, identifying more than 80,000 safety hazards.
Further gains towards improving the ethics of fashion’s supply chains came from Gap, which in December partnered with investment fund Tau to raise $1 billion to buy minority stakes in factories and upgrade their environmental standards and labour conditions; Levi Strauss & Co., which pledged to offer lower-cost capital to its factories with the strongest environmental, labour and safety standards; and Japanese apparel maker United Arrows Ltd., which became the first Japanese firm to launch a brand under the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a flagship programme of the International Trade Centre that facilitates sourcing relationships between luxury brands and marginalised artisans in Africa & Haiti.
Things are far from perfect; some major brands have refused to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and set up a similar group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Retailers in the Accord have committed to providing the funds to make the necessary repairs, and are legally accountable if they do not — though whether they will do so — and with what speed — remains to be seen. The Alliance is not legally binding.
Many of these gains follow considerable and tragic losses. The letter to Cambodia came after thousands of workers took to the streets of Phnom Penh to protest low wages — and, it’s a letter, not a legally binding contract. Similarly, H&M blacklisted a spinning mill in southern India for not meeting its ethical standards, but only after a report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands uncovered “appalling” working conditions and child labour there. 2014 saw the fashion industry once again become the site of tragedies, including earlier this month, when a Bangladesh knitting operator was killed by a faulty lift.
This year, key industry players have taken promising steps to become more sustainable and ethically sound and to stop turning away from critical issues. We’ll be watching in 2015 to see if these brands, retailers and designers will finish what they have started.