Report: Fashion sector stalling on sustainability progress, with high street giants holding industry back

As SMEs and luxury brands bolstered their sustainability efforts during 2018

That is the key conclusion of NGO Global Fashion Agenda’s (GFA) annual ‘Pulse of the Fashion Industry’ update, which tracks the environmental and social ambitions and progress of the 105 designers and retailers currently disclosing information through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) Higg Index.

Using information disclosed to the SAC, the GAF index ranks the wider sector’s progress across eight areas: preparedness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution; promotion of better wage systems; circularity; sustainable material use; combatting climate change; providing respectful and secure workplaces; efficiently using water, energy and chemicals and ensuring supply chain traceability.

These figures are then translated into an overall “Pulse Score” out of a possible 100 points, with zero points being minimal sustainability action and 70 or more points classed as ambition and actions significant to align with the agendas of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Pulse Score underwent a four-point year-on-year increase, the report reveals, rising from 38 in 2018 to 42 in 2019. However, given that the year-on-year rise was six points between 2017-18, GFA is concerned that overall measurable sustainability progress has “slowed by one-third”.

GFA claims the year-on-year progress documented in the report was largely driven by SMEs in the “entry-level price” sub-sector, with many of these businesses putting place foundational measures in strategy, governance and target setting in place for the first time. It also praises the luxury fashion sub-sector for achieving higher Pulse Scores than their high street counterparts, while urging them to scale up their efforts to leverage a greater positive impact as the industry grows.

However, it claims that the “giant players” in the entry-level price sub-sector have proven a key barrier to progress this year, recording no annual improvement to their collective Pulse Score.

In order to break this inertia and spur further progress, GFA and SAC are urging such businesses to collaborate more closely with each other and with governments to incentivise a race to the top and to redefine best practice. The bodies claim that by taking a “bold stand” and championing sustainability in a way that prioritises the areas in which the sector can drive the most positive change, these companies can help bring about “transformational” new standards and pave the way for alternative business models – including repair, resale and rental – to scale up.

“These latest findings emphasize the dire need for the whole industry to join the race and accelerate change now,” GFA’s chief sustainability officer Morten Lehmann said.

“Scaling existing solutions will depend on leadership from brands. However, some transformational changes will take co-operation among policymakers and stakeholders across the entire value chain.”

From catwalks to climate challenges 

Fashion is one of the largest industries in the world, employing around 75 million people worldwide and producing 100 billion garments every year.

But for all of its benefits to the global economy, the sector is believed to be the second highest-risk industry for modern slavery after technology and employs thousands of people below their nations’ living wage.

Moreover, it is estimated to account for one-tenth of global carbon emissions, with wider environmental impacts also including deforestation, chemical pollution and contributions to water scarcity in developing nations. 

These issues, the GFA claims, are only set to be exacerbated through to 2030, during which time the industry is predicted to grow by 10%, against a 2017 baseline, without a sea-change in sustainability ambitions and actions. 

Several collaborative initiatives have been launched in recent months to help the fashion sector come together and decouple its biggest environmental and social challenges from its growth. Among them is the United Nations’ (UN) sustainable fashion charter, which requires signatories to reach “net-zero” carbon status by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C trajectory. More than 30 of the industry’s largest firms have joined the initiative, including the likes of Gap, Inditex, H&M Group and Adidas. 

More recently, the UN additionally launched a platform called the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, aimed at uniting fast fashion firms to identify “gaps” in the actions UN agencies are taking to solve fashion’s sustainability problems by championing a joined-up approach between departments. This analysis will be used to shape future UN initiatives, improve existing schemes and lobby national governments to change their policies in ways which will drive positive change across the fashion industry. 

Elsewhere, NGO The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is using its Make Fashion Circular Initiative to help businesses across the garment value chain to collectively combat the sector’s waste challenges. Globally, $460bn currently lost due to the underutilisation of clothes each year, as well as $100bn from clothing that could be used but is currently lost to landfill and incineration.

Sarah George 

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