Skip to main content

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.

The good news is that consumers and the U.S. government are getting involved.

In the wake of the recent Bangladesh catastrophe, 1.1 million people signed a petition to pressure retailers to invest in worker safety. In addition, several studies indicate a shift in consumer thinking about the origins of their clothes. There may be an emerging counter-trend to resource-intensive, throw-away fashion.

The government is taking the issue more seriously. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a spending bill that would require all military branded clothing sold at military bases to comply with the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord. The Obama administration said in late June that it would suspend trade privileges for Bangladesh 60 days later because the country isn’t doing enough to rectify its garment factory and labor rights issues.

Aron Cramer, president and CEO of Business for Social Responsibility, recently said that while the Bangladeshi apparel industry hasn’t reformed in more than 20 years, there may be hope.

“Initial signs of systematic industry collaboration, working with governments, trade unions, the International Labor Organization and others, give me some confidence that we have learned our lesson (finally) and will take decisive action,” he recently wrote.

Bangladesh's government, for its part, has agreed to raise the minimum wage for garment workers and let them unionize without permission from factory owners.

For more context on why factory owners build multi-story buildings to begin with, check out the report "What’s the cost of cheap clothing?"

3. Big name brands leading the way

One company to be commended for improving worker well-being in the supply chain is Levi Strauss & Co. More than 20 years ago, it became the first multinational apparel company to establish a comprehensive workplace code of conduct for its global suppliers. A year ago, the denim brand upped the ante by kicking off an ambitious, long-term commitment to focus not just on factory compliance, but also on broader worker issues such as health care, maternal health and gender equality.

Earlier this year in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Levi Strauss gathered representatives from its suppliers, NGOs, other brands and industry partners to discuss the best strategies and tactics to improve working conditions. Topics included increasing fire and electrical safety training, boosting clean production and improving the interaction between workers and management. The meeting is documented in the case study "How to build worker well-being: Levi Strauss in Cambodia."

Another corporate leader is Nike. It joins 17 other brands, including Adidas, Gap and Levi’s, as members of the Apparel and Footwear International RSL Management Group (AFIRM), an organization working to educate suppliers around the world about how to reduce the use and impact of harmful substances.

Since its founding in 2004, AFIRM has met semi-annually, hosted hundreds of calls and assembled multiple task forces to identify and solve restricted substances lists (RSL) issues. These include hazardous substance identification, appropriate analytical test methods and limits, laboratory performance evaluation, new regulatory requirements and best practices in the education and engagement of supply chains.

The group offers suppliers the AFIRM Supplier Toolkit tool translated into English, Chinese and Vietnamese, with Spanish on the way. It includes a matrix of chemical risks by material, background on restricted substances, a step-by-step outline for launching a factory management or RSL program, best practices and more.

Nike's achievements were highlighted last month when Hannah Jones, the company's vice president of sustainable business and innovation, received an award that cited milestones including: the Considered Design standard, which marries sustainability and innovation; the GreenXchange, a pioneering platform for sharing intellectual property; an Environmental Apparel Design Tool, released to help clothing designers make more sustainable choices; the Nike Materials Sustainability Index and the Sustainable Manufacturing & Sourcing Index; and targets such as achieving zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in Nike’s supply chain by 2020.

More on this topic