3 ways sustainability is in vogue in fashion and retail

The fashion industry often gets slammed in sustainability circles. Dyeing and finishing fabric involves using copious amounts of chemicals, steam and water, leaving behind an enormous environmental footprint. Then there are the labor issues, such as poor and unsafe working conditions in places where laborers are paid a pittance for long days of toil.

But the tide may be changing, at least on a few important levels.

1. Getting hip to upcycling and recycling

If Etsy is any indication, people really dig repurposing things. More than 260,000 “upcycled” products -- items such as earrings made from watch parts or belts concocted from soda can tabs -- are for sale on the handmade e-commerce platform.

Companies are upcycling as well. Looptworks, an Oregon startup that takes issue with the apparel industry's waste, captures abandoned materials from textile cutting room floors and turns them into fashion-forward T-shirts, laptop sleeves and more. Its mission is to reduce the million tons of fabric sent to landfills each year and slash the more than 400 gallons of fresh water needed to produce one cotton T-shirt.

That’s not to put down regular old recycling.

Similar to what the North Face has done with its Clothes the Loop program, Swedish retailer Hennes & Mauritz is rolling out a new plan that offers discounts on new H&M merchandise to people who bring their old clothes of any brand or condition to its stores. The company resells clothing that’s still wearable, offsetting some of what it loses in discounts. Textiles that no longer can be worn are converted into compost or new products, such as cleaning cloths or automotive insulation. The program began in February and will be rolled out to all H&M stores by the end of the year. Puma's classic T7 Track Jacket

Puma has created a high performing polyester zipper to replace the metal one in its classic T7 track jacket, which is made of recycled polyester. Now when consumers are done with the jacket and bring it back to a Puma store, the whole thing can be recycled together.

Puma’s industrial composting initiative also is impressive. It’s now making a basket shoe that uses cotton thread, which is tough to find from suppliers, instead of polyester thread. Consumers can bring worn-out shoes back to a Puma store. The company will ship them to a facility to be shredded and decomposed by microorganisms. The resulting methane is used to generate energy.

Patagonia, a pioneer in this area, started its recycling program back in 2005. Since then, its Common Threads Partnership encourages people to use fewer clothes and wear them until they’re worn out. It also buys back and resells Patagonia products that are still in good condition, and offers to repair clothing for free or a nominal charge. Patagonia does all of this while promising to trim energy, water and toxic substances from manufacturing, reduce packaging and transportation waste and use more sustainable fibers, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester, in many of its products.

2. Tackling sweatshops

When an eight-story building housing five clothing factories collapsed in April in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 people, the catastrophe drew a great deal of attention to the hazards faced by the country’s 3.6 million garment workers, who earn some of the world's lowest wages.

Since then, more than 60 global retailers have signed the legally binding Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord. Through this, each agreed to pay as much as $500,000 toward administering the five-year pact and underwriting the repair and renovation of dangerous factories. So far, the agreement pertains to 2,000 of Bangladesh’s 4,000 garment factories.

However, several big brands, including Wal-Mart, Gap, Target, Macy’s and Sears, would not sign the agreement and instead are working on their own $50 million, five-year pact -- one that reportedly wouldn’t make them as vulnerable to litigation as the other accord might.

Will either agreement pool enough cash to truly make a dent in the problem? It’s unclear, considering that some estimates peg the cost of fixing all of the country’s factories at as much as $3 billion.

Clothing image by Africa Studio via Shutterstock.

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