Long gone are the days when business schools used to teach that the main objective for a company was to make a profit.
Long gone are the days when corporate social responsibility was only a PR necessity and not a firm’s priority. Long gone are the days when fashion brands used to maximize margins and reduce production costs without caring so much about the implications.
Just over four years ago, the Western world woke up to a devastating piece of news: The Savar Building at Rana Plaza, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, had collapsed, leaving more than 1,100 dead and 2,500 injured. Among other shops and offices, the Rana Plaza was home to a couple of clothing factories, where some of the most well-known European and American apparel brands were manufactured. This event, together with the Pakistan factory fires in Karachi and Lahore just a year before, shed light on the harsh daily reality the clothing factory workers were living — extremely low wages, unacceptable working conditions and no security measures whatsoever. CEOs representing renowned apparel brands and fashion corporations spoke out and took action to improve safety standards and compensations and committed to improve labor conditions in developing countries.
But this was just the tip of the iceberg, because the real change was not coming from companies, but from customers themselves: Fashion was no more just about looking and feeling good, but it was beginning to be more about doing good.
“Today, CEOs and brands are asking themselves a new set of questions,” the Sequoia Lab Team writes in a column for The Guardian. “How do we position our products to reflect this new customer mindset? How do we preserve our DNA while taking a sustainable approach? What should we do internally so that the message of conscious branding is understood, integrated and transmitted throughout our organization?”
And those questions have arisen in the minds of the top management of the most important luxury maisons as well, especially the ones working with South American fiber — pima cotton, alpaca and the softest and warmest fiber in the world, vicuña. It is evident that sustainable fashion is no longer a matter of brand reputation. It is a matter of an innovative and conscious value proposition.
Sustainable fashion takes a circular approach. It starts from the raw materials, with attention to the sources. Then it touches manufacturing activities, considering workers’ conditions and process safety. It follows the logistics and the sales process to land finally in waste management and control, which has to be 100 percent eco-friendly.
Even though critics argue that this concept is just a way to increase prices and to improve brand equity, the industry is growing constantly. Volumes of sustainable fabrics have grown by 19.7 percent year-on-year, and some apparel companies have formed coalitions to tackle environmental and social challenges together, such as the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Programme or the Better Cotton Initiative.
Still, this is just the beginning. Data shows that there are bigger challenges on the sustainable fashion road: McKinsey & Co. predicts that in the clothing industry, CO2 emissions will increase by 77 percent, water use by 20 percent and land use by 7 percent in 10 years. Also, the most important challenge is still to be solved. In a world in which consumers keep their clothing items half as long as they did 15 years ago, how does the industry match sustainable practices and the fastest fashion ever?
The need to develop standards and practices for designing garments that can be easily reused or recycled is evident, as well as the need for further investments in low-impact fibers and processes. But fashion businesses are optimistic about what 2018 has in store. We all hope that not only we will never ever see a Rana Plaza again, but we will be able to be good to planet Earth thanks to what we wear.