Journey to Sustainability and Consumption as a Challenge
There is a growing need to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals that aim to “Transform the World”. Change comes with collective effort, mutual understanding and knowledge toward specific goals.
Despite the UN and other international organisations making crucial decisions, the result is far from expected. It made me wonder what it is that we are falling short on? Is it the lack of interest or lack of awareness?
That’s when I had a eureka moment, and it suddenly started to make all sense. Many people don’t know the complicated terms and references that are used when we talk about sustainability. The idea inspired me to create a new series called “The ABCs of Sustainability Development”. I hope that this series of blogs is well received and serves its purpose.
This week I want to talk about ecological and social justice in business to business sustainability. The conversation about sustainability has been increasingly becoming part of the mainstream, leading to many changes in consumer attitudes and business practices, along with changes in mandated sustainability compliance practices. With the push for sustainable business practices coming even from the UN (which has outlined global partnership as the road to sustainable development in trade), let us take a closer look into what sustainability in fashion looks like. The fast fashion industry has been extremely rapidly growing, with the global fast fashion market having a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.8%. The impact this has on the environment is the subject of this blog, along with a consideration of whether following fast fashion industry practices is actually helpful to business growth and longevity, and whether sustainability in fashion offers an argument for both environmentally friendly and financially viable strategies.
The fashion industry, according to the United Nations Environment Program, is the second largest consumer of water. Further, fashion production is also responsible for 10% of total global carbon emissions. It is a huge contributor to water pollution, where textile dying is the second largest contributor to water pollution, but the nature of the industry is also such that a significantly large part of the output of the industry (up to 85%) ends up in the form of waste at dumps. There are no signs of this stopping either, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change projects carbon emissions from textile manufacturing alone to increase to 60% by 2030.
Current consumption of new clothing in the world is more than 400% times of clothing consumption 20 years ago, however this is not proportionate to the increase in population over the same period because more than $500 billion of value is lost due to underutilisation of clothing and lack of recycling. Further, fast fashion production processes use what is known as the open-loop production cycles. This production cycle creates a system wherein all waste generated through production processes goes straight outside to pollute waters and lands.
Visibly, fast fashion has a significant negative effect on most major environmental aspects and if we are ever going to combat climate change, the problem of fast fashion needs to be addressed drastically.
Why are unsustainable practices common in the fashion industry?
Fast fashion practices are commonly associated with affordability, and therefore access to a larger consumer market, instant gratification for consumers ability to keep up with microtrends made common through social media, more profits for companies, and the apparent democratization of stylish clothing.
All of this, compared to the investment and initial high cost involved in sustainable fashion, along with the current financial crisis resulting in high prices and low disposable income all around the world, results in fast fashion seeming like the more attractive choice for businesses.
However, it is important to note here for businesses that environmentally sustainable practices are not simply a new buzzword to attract socially aware clientele, but it is actually crucial to the longevity and survival of businesses in today’s world.
For one thing, volume-based businesses cannot remain sustainable and have a lasting establishment in the market, based on the actual experiences of fast-fashion mogul brands like Forever 21 and H&M which has fast fallen out of favour due to their environmentally wasteful practices as well as unethical labour management, and the resultant consumer dissatisfaction with the overall brands. Moreover, fast fashion involves significant usage of materials like microplastics and carbon based substances, which are all finite resources. These finite resources are going to run out, not two generations from now but within a matter of years. In such a situation, non-conventional and renewable resources coupled with slow fashion practices are going to be the only way for a business to sustain itself.
What can businesses do to be more sustainable?
The largest reason why businesses shy away from sustainable fashion is because it appears as though fast fashion is the most competitive and there is the fear of losing market share upon making a switch to more sustainable practices and not being able to keep up with the speed of the fast fashion industry. Even here, however, businesses can employ key strategies centred around pricing changes, promotional changes and product changes to regain and re-establish themselves in the market. Given the growing social consciousness of consumers, this re-oriented marketing has a lot of potential to grow and develop a long term, loyal consumer base.
At present, less than 11% of brands are implementing their recycling strategies, despite offering programs centred around recycling which incentivise customers. Changing this strategy, along with other changes in operations such as ensuring eco-friendly packaging, switching to a renewable energy source, utilising offcut fabric, sourcing raw material from sustainable suppliers, can be individual steps taken as part of a larger holistic overhaul to a sustainable production model.
While it is true that the current financial crisis has taken a toll on businesses everywhere, sustainability needs to be viewed not as an item on a checklist but as an investment towards your business’ future in the fashion industry. For instance, investing in solar energy resources as opposed to fossil fuels will have a higher initial cost but in the long run will significantly reduce the costs of production as well as the waste generated by production. Similarly, having a sustainable and controlled source of raw material that goes through environmental quality checks and has a transparent supply chain will ensure quality to the extent of creating brand loyalty and increasing eminence and trust-worthiness within both consumer markets as well as fashion circles.
The climate crisis is very real, and we have already been facing its effects. These effects are only going to get worse and if businesses in the fast fashion industry do not find ways to adapt to these needs they are not going to survive. A new kind of competition with regards to maintaining environmental sustainability, and competition is the mother of innovation in the business world.