The demand for sustainable fashion is on the rise and so is demand for increased transparency, better recycling options and durable designs. The policies are yet to catch up.
The emergence of data on the environmental impacts of consumer behaviour recently prompted serious changes. We are ditching plastic bags, driving electric cars and are now willing to express our identities by wearing sustainable clothing. The latest surveys from across the globe, like the ones conducted by Nosto and IPSOS, conclude that the modern consumer cares about environmental protection when it comes to the content of their wardrobe. We see a surging demand for high-quality, durable products, pollution-free production processes and greater transparency throughout the supply chain. However, obstacles like more expensive and undiscoverable offering of more sustainable alternatives, unclear labelling and traceability issues make it burdensome for consumers to make better choices.
Although we see a number of new initiatives facilitating a sustainable transition for fashion, widespread knowledge about them is still lacking. But where the information comes from is just as important. Based on recent data, only 19% of consumers trust information on how sustainable a clothing brand is when this data comes from the brand itself. Hence, the involvement of independent certification schemes and non-governmental organisations’ reports offer more to build trust. When 80% of consumers find that information on clothing brands’ environmental commitments should be available, the question of whether it is a requirement under the current policies arises.
In an official European Commission report, corporate sustainability reporting is listed as a ‘lead-by-example tool’, with the lowest level of encouragement by the EU. The basis for this categorisation is the assumption that ‘people do not need value engagement and are able to act to change their individual behaviour in response to no more than being aware of the situation’. But the key issue is that consumers lack awareness in the first place. One finds that EU law requires the disclosure of non-financial and diversity information by large companies, such as listed companies, banks, insurance companies and public-interest entities, thus excluding most fashion retailers. Rules on corporate social responsibility (CSR) also apply, rightfully recognizing that social and environmental concerns persist in the supply chain. Nevertheless, language like ‘promote’ and ‘encourage’ can hardly be read as requirements. As a result, we see some brands being more proactive and forthcoming with their sustainability policies than others, and thereby winning over the conscious consumers, voluntarily.
While standardisation of CSR and environmental reporting are not part of the policy framework, the role of non-governmental organisations to investigate and spread information stays prominent. Awareness raising campaigns, like Fashion Revolution and Clean Clothes Campaign, shed more light on the industry’s impact, promote local recycling schemes and share tips on proper garment care, seen as the most water, energy and pollution in a garment’s lifecycle appears during consumer use. Nevertheless, as society keeps on purchasing more than needed, accessibility of sustainable garments goes hand in hand with transparency. To change the game, millions of dollars are being invested in scaling up circular designs, by the H&M Foundation and C&A Foundation, to name the biggest trend-setters. And other stakeholders are catching up: the EU now offers through its ‘COS-CIRCFASH’-2019-3-02’ action financial support to partnerships on a transnational basis.
Yet, seen as overproduction remains an issue, financial incentives to reduce waste are arguably necessary. For instance, UK MP’s advocate for the introduction of a 1 penny tax on each sold garment, the sum of which could in turn fund recycling projects. While for other products, like electronics, recycling schemes have been put into effect, garments, even unused ones, mostly end up in landfills. Thus, fashion also demands good design, fair access and informed consumers, all of which underpin the right to repair movement. With EU legislation on the right to repair for electronics taking effect in 2021, we might have a blueprint for future applications. In the meantime, alternatives for recycling are provided by other stakeholders. Trade-in systems like that of H&M and C&A offer customers vouchers to promote recycling, and new purchases at the same time. With wardrobes full of barely-worn garments, wearing second-hand is increasingly popular and is promoted by clothing swaps through local events and mobile apps. Still, to trigger sustainable consumption patterns the interaction of said initiatives is needed.
In sum, sustainability is a selling point that makes some brands stand out of the pack. However, can the future of the industry be built on a race whose competitors are participating on their own initiative? Instead of shifting the responsibility to consumers, decision-makers should take responsibility in facilitating changes by adopting policies that answer the calls for more transparency, long-lasting garments and appropriate recycling schemes.