Grave concerns about the negative impact the fashion industry is having on the environment, as well as associated labor, gender and poverty issues, recently led the UN to call for delegates attending its High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development to consider plans to launch a Partnership for Sustainable Fashion. How we currently make and consume clothing is having a significant impact on the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are committed to ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. However, while there is indeed much work to be done in creating circular economies within the industry, a recent report shows that progress is being made.
Put together by the non-profit Textile Exchange and global advisory firm KPMG, the report, entitled ‘Threading The Needle: Weaving the Sustainable Development Goals into the Textile, Retail and Apparel Industry’, is the culmination of industry interviews, non-government organization inputs and independent research. “Four in 10 of the world’s largest companies already reference the UN’s SDGs in corporate reporting,” Joanne Beatty, director of sustainability services at KMPG, told WWD’s Arthur Zaczkiewicz, which, she believes, suggests that “Business interest in the SDGs has grown quickly since their launch in 2015”. And indeed, there are many examples in the report that reveal the fashion industry has been working on the issue of sustainability for some time.
The report cites the transformative effect of the adoption by many of more sustainable fibers and materials. It also highlights how industry collaborations and cooperations have and will continue to play an important role in the implementation of the SDGs, addressing environmental and social issues and establishing effective standards to promote sustainable products. It references organizations such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which collectively accounts for a third of the global fashion industry; the Textile Exchange, which counts Zara owner Inditex, Gap Inc, Kering SA and Target Corp among its membership; and ZDHC, which along with signatory brands such as Adidas, Burberry and H&M, is working towards ensuring zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the textile, leather and footwear value chain.
Spotlighting how companies are integrating the SDGs into their businesses, the report also offers practical examples for others both within and outside the fashion industry that may be struggling, focusing not only on shared value opportunities, but making a business case for integrating and aligning with the SDGs, including market penetration and customer relationships, as well as the “ability to shape market trends to drive the industry towards a more sustainable future”. For example, the report urges companies to design apparel that is durable. “As buyers of raw materials, fashion brands can leverage their size and balance sheets to design more durable clothing that increases the frequency with which customers use an item and lower the number of items they keep in their closets, and offer personalization to extend the life of a product”. Mention is also made of “upgradable clothing”, or multipurpose designs that have more than one functional purpose, to again increase frequency of use and lower the number of items owned.
For those companies that are looking to take the first steps towards sustainability, the report also hopes to spark ideas, quoting GAP’s successful Personal Enhancement and Career Enhancement program, which equips women in the company’s factories with work/life skills. Since its launch in 2007, the initiative has empowered 91,000 women in a dozen countries, and GAP has committed to reaching 1 million women and girls by the end of 2020. Another example given is the deployment of WWF’s water risk assessment by Target to help the company cut the amount of water used in its own brand products and in its stores. Target has also committed to sourcing 100% sustainable cotton for its own brand products, and is working with its suppliers to reduce water use in textile dying and finishing.
Companies in the fashion industry have an unprecedented opportunity to continue to advance gender equality, improve economic livelihoods, and mitigate climate impacts. And as Arthur Zaczkiewicz writes, the SDGs offer a framework for transforming companies in a way that is not only ethical and sustainable, but drives business value too.