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Sustainability In Fashion Takes Off

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Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about rising concerns over sustainability in fashion. I worried, at that time, that retailers and their merchandise vendors were not moving fast enough, or as I said then, “staying ahead of the pain.”

As it turns out, things are moving very quickly in the fashion industry, and suddenly everyone is talking about it.

Stella McCartney has committed to “pushing the envelope” for sustainable luxury. What a fascinating time, when sustainable and luxury can be used in the same sentence! She starts back at sustainable farming, like they used to teach when I was a kid so many years ago, which includes crop rotation to replenish the soil. I mean, I remember this from Junior High School, but that seems to have been forgotten in the universe of “good stuff cheap” and “take whatever you can as cheap as you can get it.”

Cotton is the main fashion culprit. There’s a huge demand for it, but it uses tons of water, fertilizer, chemicals, etc. And for reasons I don’t completely understand, cotton picking is an exhausting process, that lends itself to slave labor. It’s happening in China and seems to be a problem all over the place. I listened to a podcast between Imran Amed and Ms. McCartney on just how challenging this is. Her company re-uses all the waste that sits on the floor after fabric and fibers are made and must be very clever about what they use it for. The fibers tend to be shorter so they can’t be used for heavy garments. She even went on to discuss regenerative cashmere. Amazing.

Of course, it’s fair to note that the McCartney family are notable Vegans, and hence are in the forefront of being environmentally thoughtful and species-kind.

Then there’s JustStyle. The publication sent out an email editorial on Monday, April 19 suggesting that the pandemic has given the apparel industry an opportunity to reset with sustainability in mind. To quote:

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented the apparel industry with an opportunity to pause, reflect and rethink its future. Winners in this new post-Covid world will be those that reset with sustainability in mind – shifting to more circular business models that move away from the traditional ‘take-make-waste’ system and allow for more transparency along the supply chain with greater cohesion between brands and suppliers.

That’s apparel, and it’s easy to brush it off by saying “well, these people are rich enough to throw some extra cost into the process.” That sounds right, and fits right into our “correct” world of culture wars, but none other than Walmart has committed to being carbon neutral by 2040. Let’s look at one statement:

Our focus on climate, nature, waste and people in supply chains has strengthened our business and communities in measurable ways. Among our progress in 2019, Walmart bought more wind and installed more solar than any other company in the U.S., according to solar and wind associations, and diverted 80% of our waste from landfills and incineration globally. We also made climate disclosure nonprofit CDP’s ‘A List’ for climate action in 2019 and 2020.

In 2020!! Along with everything else the company was doing! That’s a commitment.

Long story short, brand managers and retailers are starting to move quickly. The implications for suppliers are not insignificant. Instead of a concept that’s out in the future, it’s here now. Retail Time might be back! The race is on. Climate is changing, glaciers are melting, and we are finally starting to find ways to do our business faster.

As we started to build our 2021 agenda, I really wanted to include something on the sustainable product lifecycle. In the middle of a pandemic, that’s a tough sell, but an end of the pandemic seems to be coming into view. Whether it be herd immunity or continued annual boosters, for many of us, life will continue again.  I’d still like to survey retailers on their thoughts, but the reality is, what any of us think just doesn’t matter. This stuff is happening. Retailers are going to need compliance initiatives, creative ways to use what would have been waste and, of course, re-cycling fabric and fiber that has gone unused. I really recommend giving Ms. McCartney a listen.

Do me a favor, please. Send me a note if you think a benchmark on sustainability across retail verticals is a worthwhile endeavor. It’s more than cotton. Someone tried to persuade me that container ships that carry more than 20,000 containers (remember the Suez Canal and the Ever Given?) are more environmentally friendly than smaller ships. That all sounds good on paper, but I’m not buying it, nor are the 300+ ships that got backed up behind it in the canal.

I have passion around this issue. Do you? Do you want to know what winners are doing? Let me know!