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Fashion’s Coming Day Of Sustainability Reckoning

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Greetings of the season, friends! I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about inventory problems, revenge of the retailers on shipping companies (three cheers from this quarter), and most importantly, at least to me, the complete lack of sustainability in fashion, and its coming day of reckoning.

My “Bible” on this subject has been the Business of Fashion, my favorite blog, and one that has grown from small stories on luxury goods and fashion week to the full panoply of fashion’s business and technology dilemmas.  While I may not have drunk BOF’s NFT Kool-Aid, I have understood that from inception through end-of-life, fashion is not helping our environment at all.

It starts with a dilemma once posed by comedian Paula Poundstone (yes, I know she’s out of favor now) regarding grocery. She had a standing joke that when she hit grocery checkout and they asked her “paper or plastic” she would freeze.  Do I kill forests, or do I flood the ocean with plastics, which keep on giving forever? We seem to have settled on “paper if you must, but better for you to bring your own re-useable bag.” 

But that brings us to the first of the fashion dilemmas: polyester or cotton? The logical answer is “cotton, of course”, except that’s not right.  To quote the World Wildlife Foundation:

Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world. Its production provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries. Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton.

The global reach of cotton is wide, but current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable—ultimately undermining the industry’s ability to maintain future production.

Bringing cotton production in line with even minimally acceptable environmental standards is a challenging task.

Cotton creates problems at every stage of production: it uses a lot of water and drains nutrients from the soil, though Pakistan’s floods were too much water for it. It’s very labor intensive and leads to slavery (or near slavery) wherever it is grown. The US seems to pay its cotton pickers a fair wage now, but we all know about the Uyghurs, who are living in forced labor camps in China and has caused the US to ban cotton produced in the region of Xinjiang, where they live. It’s fair to say this is virtually unenforceable since we buy finished goods, not raw materials and as far as I know, there’s no one policing the supplies.

Then there’s cotton waste from the cutting process. And toxic dye that ends up in fields and streams during the dying process.

Of course, the product eventually gets made, and ends up in retail locations. If it doesn’t sell, it is often burned. Consider this, from website

Luxury merchandisers are burning unsold merchandise valued over $600 million each year. Destroying clothing is a common practice amongst fashion merchandisers in order to keep the price of goods high and the availability of products low.

There are multiple sources for this data. University of Georgia, Rutgers, and of course, the previously mentioned Business of Fashion.

And what do we, the consumers, do when we’re done with the clothes we’ve bought at H&M or other places. Yeah, we throw them away, and they end up in landfills often. The resale/consignment industry is helping reduce that somewhat, but not nearly enough.

Here’s a message that has just come out of COP27, the UN’s high stakes climate summit.  Another headline from Business of Fashion (paywall).  ‘Stop Lying, Stop Greenwashing’

“Using bogus net-zero pledges to cover up massive fossil-fuel expansion is reprehensible,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. “The sham must end.”

Yes, the sham must end.

So, having just spent 600 words telling you the problem, it would make sense for me to offer some solutions. 

  • Brand managers and retailers MUST do a better job of forecasting need. We have just lived through a supply chain nightmare. Product was made, but it was…off the coast of California for a very long time. Once the product was around, and we came out from our pandemic hidey-holes sales went through the roof. Despite whiners like me saying, “this is a rebound romance, you cannot assume this trajectory will continue” a combination of hope (that it would) and fear (that we’d have more supply chain shocks) most companies simply bought too much. Target is a prime example (and no, I don’t really believe that their margin was “suddenly” impacted by theft…we have data back from 2011 that tells us employee theft of merchandise was the most frequently cited cause of margin erosion and shrink), as is Walmart. They’re going to take their markdowns and carry on. Savvy stockbrokers have realized the ultimate beneficiary of this excess will be TJX and keep raising the stock’s target price, but this is just silly.

We know that some seriously good forecasting applications are out there. I am pretty certain that if we roll forward at what would have been “normal” growth rates from 2019 and use those numbers as one input into a forecast engine for 2023 and beyond, we’ll get a lot closer to accurate than we have been

  • Source goods closer to the point of demand. I’m sure everyone is tired of me saying this (though I haven’t been around much this year), but you cannot source product half a world away and expect to “get it right.” Cannot. I don’t think it’s possible. You must place big bets, and big bets are generally safe bets (unless you’re Elon Musk buying Twitter, but I digress), which leads to boring and excess product.
  • Work with industry leaders to come up with REAL solutions: This quote from the COP27 tells a tale:

“Stop lying, stop greenwashing and start placing people and the planet over profit,” climate activist Sophia Kianni said during the UN Fashion Charter’s COP session.

I understand that this is producing a lot of eye rolls among corporate executives. But honestly, what choice do you have? Fifty years ago, a very dear teacher of mine observed that “mankind is cutting off the same branch he is sitting on.”  He may not have been the first to say it, and based on the image in this article, he clearly wasn’t the last, but dang, fifty years is a long time to be talking about planetary destruction and doing almost nothing about it.

Maybe there are fabric alternatives. I know LVMH is working on that (with Ms. McCartney).

So, the next time you’re asking yourself,” But is this dress going to be made of cotton?” remember that cotton is not a panacea.  We have work to do. Greenwashing is old and the secret is out.

I have no children, so in many ways, I don’t have much skin in this game. But damn…this is a beautiful planet. Can’t we try to put it back the way it was when we found it?  

Be smart. It always fascinates me when people/executives compartmentalize their jobs from their personal lives. If you are under 60, and if you have kids, this is VERY personal. They have to live here. Mars isn’t all that attractive, really.

Plus, it could cost you money.  Consider this:

Fashion has faced its own greenwash reckoning this year, with regulators in the UK, Netherlands and Norway taking aim at brands’ green marketing claims, and H&M now facing class action lawsuits in two US states. Companies increasingly need to sharpen their climate commitments — and how they communicate them to consumers.

It’s time.

Newsletter Articles November 29, 2022