LONDON, United Kingdom — Luxury department store Selfridges was gearing up to launch a major new campaign and brand strategy centred on sustainability when the UK went into lockdown in March.
Plans to get the project off the ground earlier this year were put on ice as as the retail economy went into freefall. Selfridges wasn’t alone. Across the industry, companies in crisis mode pressed pause on big new sustainability initiatives.
But as the industry adjusts to a new normal, sustainability is back on the agenda. Over the last few weeks, a flurry of brands and retailers — from Ferragamo to Timberland — have published ambitious sustainability goals.
The long-term targets come at a time of growing urgency. Despite the splashy announcements, greenhouse gas emissions from the industry are still on track to far exceed the level required to meet global goals, according to a report by the Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey & Company released in August. At the same time, fashion is contending with a drastic and prolonged downturn, the result of a global health crisis that has also laid bare its widespread reliance on precarious labour practices.
The latest suite of targets are a revealing peek under the hood at where progress is moving forward and where the industry is still lagging.
A Material Matter
Timberland’s next footwear drop is supposed to do more good than harm for the planet — despite the fact that it uses leather from cows, one of the most resource-intensive animals to farm. The outdoorsy brand is sourcing its leather from ranchers in the US who focus on rearing their herds in a way that mimics natural grazing patterns and keeps soil fertile, reducing erosion and increasing the amount of carbon that is sequestered into the land.
“The idea is that you actually pull more carbon out of the air than is in the greenhouse gases that are emitted,” said Zachary Angelini, Timberland’s environmental stewardship manager.
This method, known as “regenerative agriculture,” is a key tenet of Timberland’s bid to be net-positive by 2030. It plans to source all its natural materials in this way within the next decade. That will mean drawing from rubber plantations that mimic the natural biodiversity of the rainforest and organic cotton farms that are also working to ensure as much carbon as possible is sequestered into the land.
The brand has already signed a contract with 250 organic cotton farmers in India to front the costs of transitioning to regenerative practices, but the initiative is still very much in pilot mode.
Timberland’s targets are among the most ambitious, seeking to fundamentally shift operations. But across the industry, companies are increasingly seeking out materials with better sustainability credentials. Progress will be vital. As it currently stands, production of raw materials accounts for 38 percent of the apparel and footwear industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to 2018 data cited by the Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey & Company.
There’s a lot of work to do. Many companies’ targets rely on third-party certification systems and there’s much disagreement over how to effectively measure progress and quantify impact. That’s a particular problem as most brands don’t have clear visibility over their supply chain, making it difficult to really quantify the impact of the material they’re using. Even regenerative agriculture has its critics.
“I don’t really see a need for farm-to-factory production at all,” said Dio Kurazawa, founding partner of sustainable supply chain advisory The Bear Scouts, noting that it requires large-scale use of arable land when there is the capacity for recycled textiles and lab-grown cotton. “We have to figure out a way to move beyond it.”
One clear preoccupation emerges from fashion’s latest sustainability initiatives: how to make them sell.
Retailers, like Selfridges and Galeries Lafayette, who have little control over the manufacturing processes responsible for the bulk of fashion’s environmental impact, are increasingly looking to promote brands that operate more responsibly. Zalando, Europe’s largest fashion e-tailer, announced in May that it would not stock brands that fail to meet minimum sustainability requirements by 2023.
Similarly, Selfridges has set sustainable material sourcing requirements that all products it stocks must meet by 2025.
“We took a step back and thought, ‘What’s the role of a curator of brands if not to influence the product selection?'" said Daniella Vega, Selfridges’ group director of sustainability.
Many companies are also experimenting with new business models like resale or rental. Earlier this month H&M Group’s COS launched Resell, a platform that allows customers to sell old products and shop archive pieces from the brand. Over the summer, cult Danish brand Ganni teamed up with Levi’s to create a rental-only upcycled denim collection, with rates starting at around $55 per week. Selfridges has also branched out into rental and resale, launched a repair service and set up in-store refill stations for select beauty products.
The initiatives mark an important evolution and are a positive sign of progress. But critics warn that stand-alone initiatives like recycling schemes or resale efforts don’t address the full problem. The holy grail is a circular model that maximises the value of a product through less-wasteful manufacturing, multiple ownership and recyclability at the end of its life.
“It requires a 360-degree view,” said Kristy Caylor, founder of circular clothing start-up For Days. “I’ve heard [people say something] is a circular business because it’s a rental or resale business, which just means that some of the product comes back, but again, those aren’t really addressing the end of life.”
Where Are the Blind Spots?
The mounting volume of corporate initiatives signal sustainability is still on fashion’s agenda. But meeting companies’ goals will be a heavy lift in an intensely challenging retail environment.
Many experts argue that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet climate targets and maintain the industry’s growth-obsessed business model.
“If this industry wants to stay on the 1.5-degree pathway beyond 2030, it needs to decouple value from volume,” said Karl-Hendrik Magnus, senior partner at McKinsey & Company. “The volume growth of the past is not feasible; there is no mathematical way to stay on that volume growth [trajectory] and stay on the 1.5-degree pathway.”
This decade is really the decade of action and implementation.
It seems like an intractable tension, but the industry could make significant progress simply by effectively tackling its excess inventory problem, an issue that has become increasingly pressing since Covid-19 caused demand to slump. The industry could achieve nine percent of the total emissions reductions required to meet global climate goals just by cutting the amount of excess inventory it produces each year in half, according to GFA and McKinsey’s “Fashion on Climate” report. And that’s assuming a reasonable level of year-on-year growth.
Other changes are more challenging. More focus is needed on manufacturing processes, the area where the GFA and McKinsey see the biggest opportunity to cut emissions in the next 10 years. That requires big investments and much greater collaboration between brands and stakeholders across the supply chain. Large chunks of the industry are also still lagging behind on taking even early steps to reduce impact.
“This decade is really the decade of action and implementation,” said Elisa Niemtzow, vice president of consumer sectors and global membership at non-profit Business for Social Responsibility. “We’re seeing some stronger commitments, but we’re not yet seeing progress.”