Despite its pivotal role in democratizing fashion, the industry’s fast fashion model has many detractors, especially in relation to the throwaway nature of its clothes and their negative impact on the environment. However, several companies are now investing in innovative materials and techniques to endeavour to address the situation, which represents a marked shift towards more sustainable thinking.
As recently reported by Bloomberg’s Anna Hirtenstein, Gap Inc. has promised that by 2021, it will only take cotton from organic farms or other producers it deems sustainable; Japan’s Fast Retailing Co., the owner of Uniqlo, is experimenting with lasers to create distressed jeans using less water and chemicals; and Swedish retail giant H&M is funding start-ups that are developing recycling technologies and fabrics made from unconventional materials such as mushroom roots.
While such steps are now slowly being taken, companies are acutely aware that they need to speed up the shift toward waste-free models. According to McKinsey & Co., three-fifths of the 100 billion accessories and garments made annually are thrown away within a year, and in turn, as Rob Opsomer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation notes, less than 1 percent of this is recycled into new clothing. “The equivalent of a dump truck filled with textiles gets landfilled or incinerated every single second,” he says. However, despite these alarming statistics, a key driver for companies is not only preserving the planet, but preventing a further slowing in their growth figures.
As Hirtenstein writes, millennial consumers are not only becoming increasingly aware of fast fashion’s negative impact on the environment, but they are also preferring to spend their disposable income on experiences rather than goods. And this new thinking is undoubtedly having an impact upon industry results, with both Zara-owner Inditex and H&M missing analysts’ revenue expectations in recent quarters, and shares in both companies losing about a third of their value since last summer.
“Their business model is fundamentally unsustainable,” says Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel. Simply put, he goes on to say, “We all have enough stuff.” But while this shift in consumer mentality may be starting to signal the beginning of the end of traditional retail practices, it has created an opening for companies to use sustainability to differentiate their brands.
Hirtenstein cites H&M as one of the companies tapping into this trend. It has pledged to make all its products from recycled and sustainable materials by 2030, and since 2015 has sponsored an annual contest in which start-ups developing technologies to make fashion greener compete for a sizeable grant to put their innovations into production. One of this year’s winners was Smart Stitch, a company that has developed a thread that dissolves at high temperatures, which could simplify recycling by making it easier to remove zippers and buttons. Another is Crop-A-Porter, which spins yarn out of field waste from flax, banana, and pineapple plantations. A third is working on separating fibers from blended fabrics, and others make textiles from mushrooms and algae.
For its part, Inditex started disassembling old clothing last winter to spin into yarns for fashions it markets as “garments with a past.” The company has grouped many of its sustainability efforts - clothes made from organic cotton, Refibra, and other repurposed fabrics - into a sub-brand called Join Life. The company is also funding research programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and universities in Spain, including one initiative seeking to use 3D printing to make textiles using by-products from timber operations, and another looking for ways to separate cotton from polyester in blended fabrics.
Highlighting such initiatives in tandem with efforts to use greener materials can help win customers, says Jill Standish, a retailing consultant at Accenture Plc. And if any of the initiatives “succeed at a commercial scale, it would be pretty disruptive,” says Vikram Widge, head of climate policy at International Finance Corp. and a former judge for H&M’s competition. “Anything anyone can do is critical,” he says.