Report: 6 in 10 fashion giants see sustainability as ‘key priority’ amid Covid-19

Representatives of large

The only strategic priority which was cited more in the survey, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of the US Cotton Trust Protocol, was improving customers’ experience. In contrast, just 15% of respondents said that rewarding shareholders was important this financial year.

When asked to list their top sustainability priority, respondents most commonly cited the sourcing of sustainably produced raw materials and the sourcing of greater quantities of recycled materials. Improving circular economy provisions and reducing emissions in line with climate science were also frequent answers and investing in new technologies was also found to be a common goal – blockchain to improve supply chain traceability, 3D printing and recycling innovations were all repeatedly cited.

Most respondents, however, said they are not planning to produce less product in the name of sustainability. Seven in ten argued that fast fashion can be sustainable and that making fashion sustainable will not result in higher product prices.

This is in spite of the fact that fashion is widely regarded as one of the world’s most wasteful industries, purely because of how many products are produced, how short their lifespans are and a lack of end-of-life solutions. More than 100 billion garments and 20 billion pairs of shoes are manufactured annually. 73% of these items will end up in landfills or incinerators, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. Fast fashion is also linked to human rights abuses and is the world’s second-largest source of water pollution.

Another concerning finding from the survey is the lack of environmental and social data which large brands are collecting. Almost half (45%) of respondents said their company does not track emissions across the product lifecycle. Four in ten don’t track how much water and energy is used to produce the raw materials they source.

Without improved data collection and sharing, the report warns, fashion brands risk not only failing to act in line with the scale of environmental challenges, but to deliver on their ambitions to collaborate.

Refashioned approach

Covid-19 has presented multiple challenges for fashion businesses. Lockdown restrictions in many nations forced fashion retailers to close their stores, spurring a shift to online shopping. Supply chain workers needed to be protected amid the pandemic – and businesses were exposed in the media for failing to fulfil their obligations here, both for suppliers in the UK and abroad.

Several brands are trying to pair the need to change and improve the customer experience to regain footfall with the sustainability agenda. H&M, for example, has installed a garment-to-garment recycling machine at one of its Swedish stores, and is encouraging consumers to pay a set price to watch their used clothing being deconstructed and recycled in real-time.

Selfridges, meanwhile, has launched new repair, resale and rental services for fashion since re-opening its stores in the UK.

As part of the swathe of new offerings, the department store has expanded on a previous pop-up with clothing resale platform Depop by inviting small resale businesses to showcase their collections, and has extended a six-month partnership with online multi-brand rental platform HURR. HURR this week announced plans to help grassroots non-profit Malaika, which provides education and health programmes to vulnerable girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Smaller brands with built-in sustainability measures have also been impacted by the pandemic. Birdsong, which supports women facing employment barriers in the UK as they make its made-to-order garments, had to pause production amid social distancing measures and due to issues importing materials. It has since pivoted to create face masks made using reclaimed cotton and organic cotton sweatshirts printed with self-portraits of people in Tower Hamlets, which it hopes will encourage people to look after their health and support small businesses. 

Sarah George

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