Is a sustainable future really possible for fashion?

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Lee Alexander Risby, Head of Effective Philanthropy at C&A Foundation, speaks to two authors of a new report, ‘The Future of Sustainability in the Fashion Industry’.  

They discuss why this research is a wake-up call for the industry…  

 

Experts from across the global fashion industry have contributed to a new report that takes an honest look at where the industry is heading - and what needs to be done to achieve net-positive impact for the environment and for working conditions. 

The bad news? If current trends prevail, the majority of experts say fashion will continue to deliver a bad deal for people and the planet. The good news? There is hope. With the right effort, courage and commitment they believe a sustainable sector is achievable within as little as 16 years. 

Lee Alexander Risby spoke to two of the authors - Cornelia Daheim from Future Impacts and Kacper Nosarzewski from 4CF - to understand why this report marks a fork in the road for the fashion industry.  

Lee: Before we get into the findings, can you explain a bit about the methodology? What is the goal of a Delphi assessment and how does it work? 

Cornelia: Delphi* is a forecasting method that brings together views from a range of subject matter experts with different backgrounds. It is often used to understand the future better. While other survey approaches tend to deliver widely differing views, and no clear outcome or consensus, Delphi enables a rich dialogue to take place, so experts can think together about how the future may unfold.  

Lee: We have heard many sustainability pledges and bold statements coming from the industry before. How is this report’s call to action any different? 

Cornelia: It’s different because this time, despite all that is being done by the industry to be sustainable, the experts are saying these activities do not go far enough. They will not get us to a sustainable future. However, if efforts are seriously ramped up across each of the 14 concept areas** presented in the report, the experts believe it would be possible to achieve a paradigm shift for the majority of strategies within a timeframe of 16 years or less.  

The Delphi method, coupled with clarity of message - both on the current state of play and the strategies to achieve net-positive impact - are what make this report different. It is both a wake-up call and a clear call to action. 

Lee: How does the industry balance delivering against current pressures with the vision of creating a new, sustainable system? Why is it important to take a two timeline approach? 

Kacper: The experts are calling for a radical re-envisioning of the fashion system, but given how far the industry is, at present, from sustainability, they are also realistic about the need for a transition period. 

The two-timeline approach allows us to deal with problems caused by the current system and the relentless push for ‘more, faster, cheaper’, while we establish new business models that put reuse, recycling and circularity at the centre.  

Cornelia: I think the two-timeline approach is very powerful, and very clear. It’s saying, on the one hand, that what we are doing is not enough and we need to do much more, and secondly, that it’s feasible. We do not fall into negative messaging focused on the difficulties and the barriers and for all the concepts we actually outline where the opportunities lie. That can be very helpful and it’s also just a very clear push for how much has to be done, but that it’s also doable - according to the experts. 

Lee: Across all of the 14 concepts discussed in the report, what's the role for government and policy makers? Because, surely based on current trends and past experience, we cannot expect the industry to self-regulate, or can we?  

Cornelia: The experts stress a need for more regulation - and clearer regulation - that pushes for and enables sustainability. They believe a variety of incentives with a combination of top down and bottom up solutions could be put in place alongside regulation, so we have a ‘carrot and stick’ approach.  

Lee: How are the concepts proposed in this report any different from what companies and NGOs are already working on today? 

Cornelia: While each of the 14 concepts on its own is not entirely new or unheard of, the difference comes from the portfolio approach. The report pulls these strands together and calls for change across a number of interrelated areas, from policy to public awareness, sustainability reporting to technical innovation.  

Succeeding in one area - for example, Fibres and Processing Innovation - will not be enough; we need to see coordinated action across every field of activity. And where we see positive signs of change today, we need to make sure those strategies are far more widely distributed and implemented.  

Lee: Today, only 8% of consumers are ‘sustainability’ conscious-consumers. So, what makes the experts think a global awareness campaign will work? 

Cornelia: The experts believe there is currently a window of opportunity, thanks to the Fridays for Future movement (led by Greta Thunberg), Extinction Rebellion, and others. Sustainability is far more prominent in the mainstream media compared with a few years ago and younger consumers, particularly, are pushing strongly for action. Companies are feeling the pressure to change - and showing greater willingness to do so.  

The fashion industry can take advantage of this heightened awareness to draw attention to the negative impact and burden of the current system. A shift in consumer consciousness will be fundamental to enabling a broader, radical shift in production and consumption behaviour. 

 
Lee: Sustainability reporting in its 20-year history has not made much of a dent on all of these difficult environmental and social problems the planet faces. However, the third concept outlined in the report is ‘Highly Detailed Sustainability Reporting’. Perhaps you could unpack how that relates to building on accountability and transparency for corporates? 

Cornelia: Sustainability reporting is often rightly criticized as a marketing or communication tool for brands rather than as a lever to drive real change. What the experts are calling for instead is Highly Detailed Sustainability Reporting that is mandatory, transparent and comparable.  

It should be tied to strategic decision making within companies and to shareholder value. And brands must also be more courageous and honest about sharing failures, barriers and lessons, not just their successes.  

Kacper: Highly Detailed Sustainability Reporting can also create a lever for investment. Many industries are still at the beginning stages of realizing that what they put in their non-financial reporting does affect their credit rating and ability to access finance at a reasonable cost. We will only see this increasing in the years ahead. 

Lee: How should the industry use this report? 

Cornelia: One place to start might be to create an industry coalition to drive a global awareness campaign. This is the right time to do it and success would create fertile ground for many of the other concepts outlined in the report. 

Other areas where the industry can make a significant dent are those related to production and working conditions - these can be spearheaded through serious, highly detailed sustainability reporting where brands join forces to compare progress and lobby for policy change.  

The multi-concept approach gives brands an opportunity to zero-in on the actions where they can make greatest progress, fastest. 

Kacper: This a wake-up call and an opportunity. If people at the helm of the fashion industry do not start thinking of completely different business models, there is a high probability that someone else will. Disruptors and established companies need to be planning new approaches now, even if they remain behind Boardroom doors for the time-being.  

 

For more information about The Future of Sustainability in the Fashion Industry, contact:

Stephanie Klotz 

Senior Communications Manager, C&A Foundation 

+49 211 9872 4557  

press@candafoundation.org 

 

*The study presents insights from a group of international fashion and/or sustainability experts from a variety of backgrounds. The key approach was that of a Delphi-study (in the form of an online survey), supplemented by expert interviews and a face-to-face workshop, which built on and refined the survey results. 

 

**14 concepts fostering sustainability in the fashion industry: 

  • Increased Global Awareness 
  • Fibres and Processing Innovation 
  • Highly Detailed Sustainability Reporting 
  • Worker-Driven Initiatives 
  • High Concentration / Cooperation 
  • Extended Producer Responsibility 
  • Wages in the Fashion Industry 
  • Clothing as a Service 
  • Automation Revolution 
  • Circular Economy 
  • Consumer Level Sustainability Index 
  • Resale/Second-hand Models 
  • Majority of Clothing is Locally Produced 
  • Tax Regulations for Increasing Sustainability 

 

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