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Sustainability is no longer optional for fashion retail

Rebecca Thomson

Sustainability and ethical retailing have long been on the agenda for fashion retailers. 

Since the late 1990s, when poor working conditions in sweatshop factories hit the headlines, a brand’s social and environmental impact has steadily moved up the priority list.

When the Rana Plaza disaster occured in Bangladesh in 2013, however, the industry reached something of a watershed moment, and momentum has continued to build since. Consumers are becoming increasingly passionate about the issue, and this shows no sign of abating. It is also starting to attract government attention – in June, the environmental audit committee announced an investigation into fast fashion and its impact.

Given recent shifts in legislation relating to microbeads, recently banned, and plastic bags, which now cost 5 pence, it is not outside the realms of possibility that parliament could act on this, especially if public opinion demands it.

While these pressures continue to build, retailers have shifted from talking about sustainability to doing something about it. Asos and John Lewis have launched initiatives around design and recycling, while Marks & Spencer now uses 75% sustainable cotton.

Leaders on the issue, such as H&M group, are helping to bring the rest of the industry with them. The Swedish fashion giant’s aim to use only recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030 is exactly the sort of ambitious goal retailers need to be setting to ensure change happens.

Our sustainability special issue is focused on a circular model for fashion, which will involve drastically increasing clothing recycling, and reducing the industry’s reliance on raw materials. While it is undeniably important to find more sustainable ways to produce cotton and other raw materials, it is crucial is that the industry finds ways to use less of them. At the same time, increasing its use of recycled materials will reduce the huge volumes of clothes that are sent to landfill every day.

These changes are complex and difficult. They require cross-industry collaboration and, in the short term, are potentially costly. But they are likely to be necessary for any brand that wants to be here in the future.

Fashion’s existing operational model is unsustainable in the long term and, as labour and resource costs rise, the industry will need a new model to protect profits and remain relevant with increasingly eco-minded consumers.

To read our full report on the circular model, click here.

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