Part I: The way forward
Companies have a median score of 1.6 out of 10 on the circular fashion index. Yes, there is still a mountain to climb in making fashion sustainable.
That it takes almost 7500 liters of water – equivalent to the amount of water average human drinks over a period of seven years – to make a single pair of jeans may come as a surprise to many. In fact, according to pre-COVID estimates from the UNCTAD, the global fashion industry uses close to 100 billion cubic meters of water annually – enough to meet the water needs of almost five million people; and dumps into the ocean every year about half a million tons of microfibre – equivalent to about 3 million barrels of oil.
A 2019 research report from the United Nations found the fashion industry to be the world’s second-largest commercial polluter. Consulting giant AT Kearney writes:
“The challenge of creating a sustainable, clean environment is so large no single industry can solve it by itself, no matter how well-intentioned or successful any single initiative or set of initiatives may be. Consumers have to be willing to support brands that credibly reduce their environmental impact and punish brands that don’t. The same is also true for retailers and regulators.”
To this end, during last November’s global COP26 climate summit, companies recalibrated their medium and long-term goals, committing to reduce emissions by almost 50% by 2030 – pledging to net zero by 2050. Called the United Nations’ Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, it also set a number of other ambitious targets for 2030 – such as sourcing the entirety of their electricity needs through renewable sources, using environmentally friendly raw materials, and removing coal from the supply chain entirely. Collectively, the 130 firms and 41 supporting organizations in the charter represent significant chunks of the global fashion industry.
To be effective, however, Kearney writes: “enforcement of global regulations and laws for circular materials, business models, and production processes must incentivize every link in the fashion value chain including the consumer.”
Broader regulations become key in order to make every aspect of the fashion supply chain – including brands, suppliers, vendors, and retailers – accountable for their share of global pollution. Addressing said challenges at a regional level or by discrete sectoral supply chain elements will not solve the problem. Creating cross-industry harmonized effort across geographies and sectors is what will allow for timely mitigation.
“A recent survey from Kearney of 30 executives from fashion brands shows the perceived level of complexity per sustainability objective and points at actions they plan to implement first, starting from increasing the share of recycled and eco-friendly materials to improving product traceability and reducing the impact from overproduction thanks to better planning and allocation capabilities.”
Aspects such as the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model, which relies on large volumes of easily accessible energy and resources need to be foregone completely. Louder calls for circular fashion models – a regenerative system where garments are circulated for as long as their maximum value is retained and then returned safely into the biosphere without causing harm – may just be the way forward.
Kearney writes, “since circularity is crucial to reducing fashion’s environmental impact, the industry also needs to educate and incentivize consumers to buy fewer clothes in the first place and keep them for longer.”
To this end, the consulting giants set up their Circular Fashion Indexi n order to measure brands’ efforts to extend clothes’ life cycle. The results, according to them, were rather sobering. With a median score of just 1.6 out of 10 across all examined brands only a few brands showed credible efforts to reduce their environmental impact.
[Read more about the Kearney Circular Fashion Index in Part II]