LFW 2019: what does sustainable fashion really mean?

Today marks the start of Fashion Week here in London. This is always an exciting and busy time of the year for any fashion brand. This year, however, I have noticed that there is something peculiar going on – in parallel and often hand in hand with the expected catwalks and fashion shows. Sustainable September, Second-Hand September, Conscious September, Fashion Boycott September. Sustainable fashion has become a buzzword this September. Hopefully more than just a trend. What these initiatives really show is the increasing consensus that the current clothing system and its industry are extremely wasteful and polluting.

Most sustainability experts, academics and practitioners now agree that the fashion industry is one of the major polluting industries in the world. There are many complex and interconnected reasons why this is the case.

There is no ready-made easy-fix solution to such a convoluted and deep-seated issue, especially when there are numerous parties at play, all with their own vested interests. However, there is increasingly widespread awareness that business-as-usual needs to change and significant steps need to be taken by the industry to bring about this change.

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

Some companies – big and small, retailers and suppliers –  are stepping up their responsibility and making considerable efforts in moving away from that “pile them high, sell them cheap” approach that has characterised the industry in the last couple of decades. We have seen more and more brands beginning to offer customers take-back schemes, like Eileen Fisher encouraging customers to bring back unwanted pieces, which get cleaned and sometimes upcycled depending on the piece’s condition and resold; or H&M Group owned COS, who, in partnership with The Renewal Workshop, has launched its first-ever Restore Collection consisting of clothing that has been mended and put back on sale. Aquafil, a leading manufacturer of Nylon, has developed Econyl, a nylon fabric made from discarded fishing nets. Emulating the quality and physical likeness of traditional nylon, it has become the favourite of Burberry, Gucci and Prada who have all started to use it in their lines. Levi Strauss has launched a new supply chain initiative to protect female supply chain workers, threatening to cancel contracts should their suppliers not take steps to effectively change staff. Others are combining sustainability to scale and, like Zara, have committed to produce collections created out of 100% sustainable fabric, by the end of 2025.

These are great examples of how sustainability can be harnessed within the fashion industry. There are many opportunities for sustainability to be at the core of the industry, but this must be embedded in everything from your values to communications and also how you enhance your company’s culture among your employees. You certainly don’t want to fall into the trap of (in)famous corporate “greenwashing”, where your sustainability efforts are not authentic nor aligned with your company’s purpose.

Therefore, fashion brands that want to make positive change, need to ensure that sustainability doesn’t stand alone as an exercise that shows that they are taking care of their responsibilities. It’s about taking a step back, stripping everything down to the company’s true purpose and looking at how sustainability naturally weaves through. It means aligning global sustainability goals with the profitable activity of the business. This will enable companies to have a clear and comprehensive vision of their purpose, mission and values that leads to positive change, with longevity.  To achieve this, there are several steps that you can take. Below are four good examples:

  • Put sustainability at the heart of your business purpose and business model – this means that you don’t only ‘do less bad’ by putting one (or if you are lucky more) sustainable practices into your supply chain, but that you make a continuous dedicated effort to ‘do more good’.
  • Embed your purpose across the whole business – to ensure that purpose drives your whole business’s decision-making process and direction, it needs to be embedded in the systems that govern behaviour. By that we mean your policies, strategies, targets and incentives.
  • Join the debate and define your role within it –every fashion brand is at a different stage in its sustainability journey – from 100% sustainable brands to others that don’t have any sustainability target as of yet – but all brands can (and should) play their role. No matter how big or small. It’s crucial that you define what your business can achieve within the bigger sustainability debate and define your ambition. Being part of a wider vision, together with other players in the industry, will make your sustainability efforts even more valuable.
  • Find the partners that will help you achieve maximum impact – as with any complex global issue, individual corporate action is not enough. Therefore, co-operation andpartnerships among business, law-enforcement and governments, NGOs and civil society across the world is the key to positive change. Map out who the stakeholders are within your mission and connect.  

These will allow all departments within your company to work in the same direction – forming one voice that is unique to the brand provides part of the solution to the problem and engages your consumers meaningfully.

Skating Panda specialises in enabling our clients and partners to embed a clear and actionable purpose at a global and local level, so if reading this has struck a chord please get in touch via camilla@skatingpanda.com. We would love to talk this through further.    

by Camilla Beretta, Strategy Executive, Skating Panda