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Apparel Industry Looks to Improve Sustainability Efforts

Consumer concerns prompt new industry initiatives ranging from in-store clothing recycling to total supply-chain transparency.

A customer browses black and white t-shirts hanging on steel retail rack.

September 17, 2019

In 2018, online secondhand clothing retailer ThredUp openly criticized a well-known luxury brand for incinerating unsold products worth more than $37 million.

ThredUp pointed out that the company was not alone in this regard. Incinerating unsold merchandise is a common practice among luxury brands, who claim that doing so helps to maintain the exclusivity of their lines while also reducing the incidence of almost identical-looking fake products.

Few consumers are likely to pay thousands of dollars for a designer garment if they think that they’ll find the same or similar garment at a discount retailer a few months later. Luxury brands, by their very nature, command premium prices because of the law of supply and demand scarcity makes products inherently more valuable.

Heavy on resources and pollution

Overstock incineration isn’t the fashion industry’s only environmental problem. According to reports by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company and sustainability metrics company Quantis, the apparel and footwear industries are responsible for more than 8% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Fabric dyeing and finishing release toxic chemicals into water supplies, and it also devours resources. According to Quantis, the apparel industry’s annual per-capita water consumption totals 23,900 liters, the equivalent of taking 150 baths.

Waste is a problem too, a casualty of an industry increasingly devoted to disposable, fast fashion. The EPA estimates that in the U.S. alone, textiles make up more than 9% of municipal solid waste, meaning that the average American tosses about 81 pounds of clothing in the trash every year.

Consumers are getting savvier

But consumers are starting to pay attention, and sustainability is moving from a niche concern to a mainstream “reason to buy” (RTB), especially among younger people. According to Nielsen research, millennials are twice as likely as baby boomers to say they are changing their habits to reduce their impact on the environment (75% versus 34%).

The fashion industry is responding to consumer concerns with efforts ranging from in-store clothing recycling drop-offs to total supply-chain transparency.

“Apparel companies have started to embrace the importance of sustainability, realizing that sustainability is not a trend,” said Teresa Marshall, a representative for Sitka, a Canadian outdoor-lifestyle clothing brand that seeks a balance between conservation and consumerism.

“With the population’s growth, the strain on resources will eventually force companies to adapt,” said Marshall. “It’s best to get ahead of the inevitable and make the shift now. Social realities are rapidly changing. Consumer preferences have shifted, and continue to shift, toward sustainability. We’re seeing savvy customers asking more questions, calling brands out for unsustainable practices, taking the time to educate themselves.”

Chemistry 101

One starting point on the route to sustainability in the apparel and footwear industries is a focus on the chemicals that are used at the beginning of the clothing production process.

According to Dr. Anne Bonhoff, a principal chemist with UL, the scrutiny began with an awareness campaign by Greenpeace in 2011.

“That was the starting point for this discussion when they could prove the direct links between the global clothing brands and suppliers, and pollution of the waterways globally,” Bonhoff said.

This led to the founding of the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Foundation (ZDHC). Its mission is in its name:  zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the textile, leather and footwear value chain. Today, 28 signatory brands, 81 value chain affiliates and 17 associates are working with the ZDHC to implement safer chemical management practices. This includes global brands such as H&M, Gap Inc. and Nike.

The ZDHC also created a searchable database, the Gateway, that allows textile and leather manufacturers to find safe substitutes for hazardous chemicals.

Waste not, want not

Fashion brands are also shifting attention to keeping clothing out of landfills and closing the loop on a garment’s life cycle. Japanese brand Uniqlo includes recycling bins in its stores around the world, giving customers a place to deposit Uniqlo-branded items that are no longer wanted. According to the company, it collected 77.6 million items from 18 countries and regions in 2018.

Items that are in good shape are donated to refugees, disaster victims and others in need through partnerships with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as well as other non-government organizations (NGOs). (In 2018, 30.3 million donated items were redistributed in 65 countries and regions around the world.) Items that are deemed unwearable are recycled into refuse paper and plastic fuel pellets.

International retailer H&M also collects unwanted items from customers — from any brand, in any condition. Items that can be worn again are sold as secondhand clothing, while less-wearable items are turned into products such as cleaning cloths. The rest is recycled into items such as textile fibers for insulation. According to the company, H&M stores collected 20,649 tons of textiles in 2018, a 16% increase over 2017 and the equivalent of 103 million t-shirts.

The recycling of unwanted clothing does help create a circular system. But what happens at the start of a garment’s life cycle can affect its second life as a recycled item. If hazardous chemicals are used in the production of an item, it cannot be recycled safely, noted UL’s Bonhoff.

“The first point to reduce waste is to enable recycling in a sustainable way, which means that we need safe and long-lasting products,” Bonhoff said. “But they need to be free of hazardous substances because otherwise the materials cannot be recycled.”

A new look at fabric

For many fashion brands, sustainability starts with the raw materials — the fabrics used to construct the clothing.

Women’s fashion brand Eileen Fisher makes sustainability and social responsibility part of its core missions. Its Vision 2020 initiative includes recycling programs, accountability and transparency in its supply chain and the use of sustainable fibers. According to the company, all of its cotton and linen materials will be organic by 2020, rayon will be replaced by the more sustainable Tencel, and polyester will only be used if it is recycled.

Sitka likewise produces many items with organic cotton, and the Canadian company is committed to what it calls “ethical and quality-based production.”

“Sometimes looking to the past can help us move forward,” said Sitka’s Marshall. “The majority of clothing made these days comes from a fossil fuel (petroleum) base. This has only been around for 70 years. Prior to the advent of polyester, nylon or acrylic, humans still wore clothing. Getting back to using natural fibers that have a lower carbon footprint and can biodegrade is actually an innovative solution these days.”

This article was originally published in On the Mark, a UL magazine.  Marla Caceres is the author. Read more stories about the growing connection between sustainability and business by either downloading the magazine or subscribing to receive the Sustainability issue by mail