Black Friday rings up the financial costs of fast fashion
Black Friday has become almost as popular as Thanksgiving Day itself. Each year, retailers open their doors earlier. This year, Macy’s announced it would push up its opening hours to 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day — perhaps before some have even sat down to eat their turkey dinners.
Investors in apparel and retail companies are surely excited about this day and the approaching holiday season. However, there is one consideration they may not be bearing in mind, but which could have financial ramifications for the companies they are investing in.
Is fast fashion always profitable?
The problem with fast fashion, and the hype for huge savings on days such as Black Friday, is that sustainability issues around raw materials sourcing — oftentimes overlooked — could create supply disruptions and result in higher raw material costs over time.
Concerns related to climate change, water scarcity, land use, resource scarcity and conflict in the supply chain increasingly are shaping the industry’s ability to source materials, including cotton, leather, wool, rubber and precious metals. The ability of companies to manage potential materials shortages, supply disruptions, price volatility and reputational risks is made more difficult by the fact that they source materials from geographically diverse regions, usually through complex supply chains that often lack transparency. Further, the type of risk faced for different materials can require different solutions.
Take cotton. According to the World Resources Institute, 57 percent of cotton is grown in areas with high to extremely high levels of water stress. It is a heat- and drought-tolerant crop, but given that it takes roughly 20,000 liters of water to produce a kilogram of cotton, the crop is susceptible to shifting weather patterns, while also contributing to increased water scarcity.
Further, innovation to find sustainable alternatives for these materials is lacking. There is currently no commercially viable textile recycling techniques for the major fibers used in apparel, which presents a major challenge to a closed-loop system.
Apparel companies understand this risk, and some are taking steps to ameliorate it. In its FY2013 Form 10-K, Hanesbrands discussed its exposure to shifting cotton prices through a sensitivity analysis. The company concluded that an increase of $0.01 per pound in cotton prices would influence the cost of sales by $3 million at 2013 production levels.
In September, the H&M Foundation invested $6.5 million in a four-year partnership fund to research and develop new textile recycling technologies, with the aim of recycling blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns. Patagonia will be the first to use Tencel fiber in its products beginning in early 2017. Tencel is made from post-industrial scraps and wood pulp, and producing it uses 95 percent less water than traditional cotton production.
We know there are risks in each apparel company’s supply chain based on what raw materials they use to make their products. What we don’t know is how much of each raw material the major apparel companies use, and what the risks associated with each material are.
Protect your profits
It’s up to investors to engage with companies and ask them questions such as: What risks are associated with the materials the company is most reliant on, and how is the company innovating to mitigate these risks? To make better investment decisions, investors should consider environmental, social and governance factors (such as resource constraints and where companies are sourcing their materials from) in addition to traditional sales numbers and valuation metrics.
This Black Friday, I encourage you to consider these questions and engage with the companies you invest in by asking how they are ensuring the environmental and financial sustainability of their business.
Thie image shows the current state of disclosure on raw material sourcing by the largest publicly traded apparel, accessories and footwear companies. Nine of the top 10 companies in this industry disclose on this topic in their annual financial reports — but it is not effective disclosure because there are no comparable quantitative metrics or specific information around each material. More details on how they are managing their raw materials is needed.
This story originally ran on SASB.