Fashion companies have advanced from sustainability to a regenerative economy in three steps. In phase one, they focused on their products’ health impacts. Then they aimed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, most recently, they started to regenerate the ecosystems where they operate and from which they extract resources. This transition was facilitated by innovations borrowed from the circular economy and bioeconomy sectors.
The revolution that is transforming the fashion industry has been slowed, but not stopped, by the pandemic. We are not talking about the digital revolution – the other great driver of change in this sector – which actually experienced an acceleration due to the health crisis. We are talking about the sustainability revolution.
Step 1: The Revolution Begins
Like any revolution, the one in the fashion world also had an explosive, chaotic initial moment. This coincided with the increasingly widespread adoption of policies to reduce the environmental and health impact of dangerous chemicals. It was environmentalist movements – Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion first among them – that triggered these changes, much more so than consumer demands.
The companies leading the change were mass market, sportswear, and outdoor brands. Outdoor companies, in particular, took up the very serious challenge of eliminating carcinogenic substances like PFCs – which had driven competition for over a decade – from waterproofing treatments.
The initial phase had two effects. The former was the achievement of the predetermined objective: limiting and, where possible, replacing dangerous chemicals. Substances that just a few years ago were considered essential in dyeing and finishing processes for fabrics and textiles have been replaced by safer alternative treatments. Decades-old industrial practices have also been abandoned in favour of new processes.
This transition, which started with an environmentalist campaign and was looked on with suspicion by the fashion business community, is now promoted by many of the sector’s main stakeholders. Numbers speak louder than words: There are over 10,000 companies whose products are certified according to the Oeko-Tex 100 standard (the most common certification of chemical safety for textiles); over 2,500 dyeing and finishing plants are registered on the ZDHC gateway. Even certifications created for different purposes, like GRS (recycled content, 8,500 textile companies certified) and GOTS (organic materials, 6,300 companies certified) have now incorporated chemical safety criteria.
The second effect has a systemic scope. For the first time, the entire fashion sector – including mainstream brands with their globalised supply chains – accepted environmental protection as a strategic priority, rather than merely as a limited question of conforming to the regulatory framework. Today, the use of safe chemicals is a standard condition for any fashion brand or textiles supplier, vital to surviving on the market. As well as promoting CSRs and sustainability managers from the rearguard to the forefront of decision-making and strategic planning, the new paradigm has driven the fashion business system to become a driver of change, outpacing national legislative systems on chemical safety.
The development of this initial phase was enhanced by its link to health concerns. This raised immediate interest among consumers and citizens, more so than an abstract vision of the future or this new production model’s environmental sustainability.
Step 2: From Health Concerns to Protecting the Planet’s Future
The wave of the first phase pushed the fashion world’s commitment to a new level, adding concern about the impact of fashion on climate change to existing health concerns over chemicals. Thus, began the second phase of the revolution.
It can hardly be said that, in terms of environmental awareness, fashion played a leading role. Many of its distinctive elements – the celebration of travel, globalised logistical networks, dazzling marketing campaigns and events, the glorification of appearances and luxury, the need for speed that led materials and samples to be shipped by plane – led many to see it as an example of waste that ought not be followed. The world of fashion had a late start in prioritising the decarbonisation of its economy. Fashion companies did invest in renewable energy, as happened in many other sectors, with solar panels appearing atop the roofs of textile factories and company headquarters. But what was missing, until recently, was true reflection and a sector-specific programme of decarbonisation initiatives.
Marks & Spencer was a pioneer in this sense, having added decarbonisation goals to its first “Plan A” in 2007. However, it was not until 2017 that a major brand (Zara) announced that its 5,000th store – located at via del Corso, in Rome – was designed to be energy-efficient and certified according to the Leed standard. In 2018, during the UN Climate Conference in Katowice, the first collective commitment for the sector was agreed: 113 fashion companies and organisations, including 8 outdoor and 11 sportswear brands, signed the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which outlines a carbon-neutral vision for fashion in 2050.
Only in August 2019 did the commitment to decarbonisation take on a more structured form, resulting in concrete commitments. At the G7 in Biarritz, the Fashion Pact was presented, promoted by French President Macron and strongly supported by Kering Group (Gucci, YSL, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Brioni), one of the two big players in France’s luxury sector. Of the 67 brands that signed the Pact, none are in the outdoor sector and only 6 are sportswear brands.
At the beginning of this second phase, in which luxury brands took on a leading role, pressure from the Fridays for Future student movement and media coverage of Greta Thunberg undoubtedly contributed to its advancement, as did the intergovernmental Paris Climate Agreement.
The second phase saw fashion companies expand their focus beyond health concerns to include a defence of our shared future, but one fundamental factor did not change. The primary goal was still to reduce the impact of industrial and distributional processes on the environment. However, it started to become clear even to fashion companies that levels of environmental risk had been exceeded and that some effects are already permanent, such as the aforementioned PFC pollution. Furthermore, Greenpeace reminds us that even if all companies decided that “production were to end today, PFC pollution would remain the environment for many years to come,” due to the slow biodegradation rate of these substances.
Hence the awareness that it is necessary to go beyond impact containment by intervening directly with environmental regeneration. This leads us to the third and most complex phase of the revolution, the first signs of which have been detected – now somewhat overshadowed by the Covid crisis.
Step 3: From Reducing Impacts to Ecosystem Regeneration
The slowdown caused by the pandemic has found the fashion industry engaged in early reflections on ways to contribute to the improvement of environmental conditions, rather than merely reducing its negative impacts. This is actually not a completely new concept in the fashion world, having already been addressed in certain specific contexts, such as the focus on biodiversity conservation in the field of exotic leathers, and in the production of essences for cosmetics.
Nevertheless, the issue is complex. In the realm of plant fibre production, the cultivation of organic cotton, while growing, is struggling to take off. Other projects for the improvement of growing practices, like the Better Cotton Initiative, have had more success. There has also been a proliferation of certifications like FSC and PEFC, and of evaluation systems like those developed by Canopy, to ensure responsible forest management. This shows that companies are interested in the sustainability of manmade cellulose fibres – viscous, cupro, acetate – that are made from (mostly wood-based) biomass. In terms of animal fibres – wool, cashmere, and silk – brands like Gucci and Stella McCartney have garments in their collections made from organic wool. Several outdoor brands (including Arc’terix, Fjällräven, Helly Hansen, and Icebreaker) use ZQ-certified wool, while The North Face uses Fibershed’s Climate Beneficial™ wool in some limited edition products.
However, it is not possible to discuss a regenerative future for fashion without tackling the issue of synthetic fibres, which make up two-thirds of the industry’s total use of materials. This is especially salient in the outdoor and sportswear sectors, where the ratio is even higher.
The topic is controversial. Bio-based fibres and plastics – meaning those derived from biomass – still, for example, make up a minimal portion of overall production, and their biodegradability is measured in hundreds of years, exactly like with fossil-based fibres. On the other hand, the recovery of discarded plastics then recycled into nylon and polyester is already a consolidated practice that has beneficial effects on the ocean or land where the waste was collected. Econyl’s success is a good example of this: their nylon made from recycled plastic is highly sought-after by many sportswear and luxury brands. Recycled materials made from plastic recovered from the environment are most often used by outdoor and sportswear brands, such as, for example, Adidas, Nike, Ternua, Vaude, Norrona, Mammut, Patagonia, and others.
The Role of Innovation
Taking a look back at the months immediately preceding the Covid pandemic, an article on The Business of Fashion – one of the most influential online media outlets in the sector – opened with this headline: “The Year Ahead: Welcome to the Materials Revolution”. The topic was the wave of innovations in materials and fabrics that were about to go on the market, most of which aimed at improving sustainability, especially in the field of synthetic fibres, reinvented and redesigned. A McKinsey report estimates that, in 2019, the number of patent requests for new fibres and textile materials was eight times higher than in 2013.
Bio-refineries, biodegradable fabrics, closed-circuit recycling processes, biological processes for plastics production – in addition, obviously, to the integration of textile materials and digital devices – are the keywords that are rapidly entering the mainstream in the production and consumption of fashion.