The fashion industry is among the most polluting industries in the world, while demand for inexpensive fast fashion products is increasing the burden on the natural environment. Globally, environmental scientists, researchers, watchdogs and activists are exerting pressure on fast fashion retailers to be more responsible and sustainable while producing clothing. Moreover, sustainability and climate change issues are now at the forefront of all global environmental accords such as the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), COP and so on.
It is not surprising, therefore, that all major apparel brands are addressing climate issues at the moment, and rightly so. Many have their own initiatives and targets on these issues, while others have signed up to industry-wide initiatives such as the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action which, among other things, includes a pledge to reduce 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions along their value chain by 2030.
In theory, this is positive news. But how will brands meet these commitments? Well, let’s put it this way: they won’t meet it by turning a few lights off in their retail stores. We all know that the real environmental impact with regard to the fashion industry takes place in the East, not the West. It happens in supply chains, whether that be the coal-fired boilers which power so much of the Chinese textile industry; the excessive water use in textile wet processing; or the often wasteful and inefficient nature of many ready-made garment manufacturers which have been far too slow in implementing technological upgrading to operate more efficiently and sustainably.
Apparel brands have attempted to address these issues in recent years, and there are several exciting and innovative initiatives in Bangladesh, for instance, led by brands and aimed at reducing water, cutting down energy use and generally reducing the carbon footprint of suppliers.
But the question is: why are brands always taking a lead on these issues? Why does it need a brand to come along to encourage suppliers to act? As has been stated, many of these issues lie with manufacturers themselves, and it is they who have the power to act. So what are they waiting for?
There is actually so much that manufacturers can do and, while it might take time, investment in proper resources needs to be seen as something that will be paid back in spades. Operating sustainably is essentially about operating efficiently. It is about good housekeeping which, as any factory owner will tell you, is the essence of good business.
But what can the factory owners do? There are all manner of actions that manufacturers can take, and none will require any support from brands. Most of these actions are aimed at improving efficiencies by cutting down on the use of water, energy, chemicals and other resources. For instance, a manufacturer can replace low-efficiency boilers with more modern ones, often driving huge efficiency gains in the process. They can look at improving water efficiency by recycling wastewater. There is a wealth of technology options available in this area, and if manufacturers are serious about the sustainability issues, addressing excessive use of water should be a top priority. In many cases, 80 percent or more of wastewater can actually be recycled, leading to huge environmental savings, and potentially financial savings if the government were to begin charging for water one day, which is surely not out of the question.
There are actions that manufacturers can take in denim effects, for instance, by replacing manual denim processing techniques with laser machines. Technology in this sector is progressing at a rapid pace. And there are actions they can take in the laundry, by switching from traditional washing machines to modern ozone machines, for example. Again, some of the new equipment available on the market is light years away from what large swathes of the industry continue to use.
The question everybody will rightly ask here is: what about the cost? It is often the case that manufacturers look for brands to support them on these issues due to the high initial capital outlay. While it is true that technological upgrading does not come cheap, manufacturers would do well to think beyond cost and consider numerous potential benefits.
There have been various initiatives carried out within the textile supply chains globally, where mills have partnered with brands to implement energy and resource saving measures. Often, these initiatives have a payback in 12-24 months. This means that the initial investment quickly pays for itself and, after that, all the savings last the business a lifetime. So what’s not to like? Greater operational efficiency has serious bottom-line benefits.
There are other factors to consider as well. Many manufacturers have been able to attract new buyers after implementing new sustainability measures, which is understandable. Brands right now are, in many cases, rationalising their supply chains. We know they want to work with factories where employee relations are good, as they can’t afford controversy. But increasingly, brands are looking at the green credentials of factories. Put another way, if a brand has to choose between two suppliers with similar offerings but one of them has introduced green and efficient manufacturing methods, we know which factory it will go for.
The world’s environmental challenges will not go away, and if anything, they are getting worse. The sources of environmental issues are, in many cases, found in supply chains, and ready-made garment factories are the root cause of many environmental problems. Factory owners can’t wait around for brands to come and tell them what to do about these issues. They need to act now, for the future of their own business, and the planet. Sustainability cannot be addressed in a reactive manner. It’s time for supplier factories to learn how to integrate sustainable practices within their business. It’s for them to take the lead on these issues and be proactive.