Another year has passed with disappointing progress to show for it from the fashion industry.
That’s the consensus among experts and critics regarding fashion’s sustainability accomplishments in 2023: raw material strategies have not reduced natural resource extraction; next-gen materials are stuck in a seemingly perpetual pilot phase; climate targets do not align with the urgency of climate science; and circularity promises have increased in number but decreased in meaning. It all amounts to a lot of incremental change, but a lack of investment in the systemic transformation that’s needed.
“The science is clear on the devastating environmental impact of the sector and the public is showing its distaste for unsustainable fashion,” says Dr Lewis Akenji, managing director of the Hot or Cool Institute. “The industry will need to undergo transformational shifts to get set on a path towards true sustainability.”
Will 2024 be any different? That depends on whether the industry chooses to focus on the most-pressing issues, or to pursue a convenient sustainability agenda that fits easily into its business model. Critics say fashion’s sustainability efforts have for too long centred on the latter at the expense of the former. If researchers, academics and others working directly on issues impacted by the fashion industry had their say, where would fashion focus its energy this year?
After years of unconvincing climate pledges and sustainability initiatives, fashion ended 2023 “with a new crystal-clear imperative”: reduce production volumes and its dependence on fossil fuels, says Katia Dayan Vladimirova, senior lecturer at the University of Geneva and founder of the Sustainable Fashion Consumption research network. That’s no easy task, she acknowledges — fashion’s entire business model has been inextricably linked to both for a long time. Yet fashion is an industry that is built on creativity, and one that has the power of social influence beyond measure, and should be better equipped than any other to chart a new path.
That’s the shift Vladimirova would like to see from the industry this year.
“[The] creative potential of fashion could and should extend to creative business transformation,” Vladimirova says. She wants to see brands thinking about circular business practices as revenue streams in order to move beyond reliance on new production: repair, modular upgrades, secondhand resale and rental services should all be under development. Brands also need to work together. “Those who start early will have a strong competitive advantage when the European legislation comes into force and the international agreement on fashion (which should be signed in the coming years) puts a forceful ban on the current exploitative and wasteful practices,” she says.
Legislation, in the pipeline in some places, cannot come soon enough. Not only have voluntary measures not worked, say experts, but brands that try to operate sustainability-first put themselves on an uneven playing field.
Eileen Fisher CEO Lisa Williams, too, says the importance of legislation cannot be overstated. “Given the size and scope of the sustainability challenges that we all face, legislation is key to getting the entire industry to take responsibility for its impact on people and the planet,” Williams says. Public-private partnerships that accelerate the adoption of textile recycling are crucial as well. “We need to scale existing recycling infrastructure so that it is available for more materials, build new technologies and facilities, and make recycling more easily accessible to consumers.”
The EU has gained the most ground on the regulatory front, with due diligence rules moving along and a number of frameworks starting to come into force this year, including the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, Waste Framework Directive (including an extended producer responsibility mechanism) and the Ecodesign Criteria for Consumer Textiles.
Policies must be designed carefully, however, particularly with equity and a just transition as top priorities; otherwise, not only does progress get distributed unevenly — potentially redistributing waste rather than eliminating it, as one example — but there’s also a risk of backlash by those left on the margins.
“Now that the EU has opened the gates for legislating fashion, expect other regions and countries to follow suit — including countermeasures where producing countries feel EU legislation could become burden-shifting mechanisms,” says Hot or Cool’s Akenji.
Equity and living wages for workers
The call for decent wages took the spotlight towards the end of 2023, when Bangladesh, the second-largest manufacturing country for ready-made garments, voted to remain one of the lowest paying in the industry.
“At Remake, we will be singularly focused on the need to make progress on living wages and to have the industry pledge resources for climate adaptation for garment workers, who are on the frontlines of heat and floods,” says Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of the nonprofit.
Workers and advocates want to see more than barely liveable minimum wages, however. They want fashion to listen to workers first and foremost about what they need and want, and place workers at the centre of its pricing model — a stark contrast from today’s status quo, in which wages become the most flexible in the eyes of brands and suppliers looking for places to cut costs, particularly as material, energy and other costs rise.
“Prevailing purchasing models and practises neglect to fully incorporate living wage principles. None of the fashion brands establish pricing targets based on the needs of workers, resulting in a staggering 98 per cent of garment workers in fashion supply chains earning less than a living wage,” says Dr Hakan Karaosman, academic and chair of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion.
Within brands, he notes, there is often a clash between sustainability teams and purchasing and marketing teams. “Fashion brands therefore need to embrace systems thinking, and approach sustainability holistically. This is the most basic antecedent to understanding how to create worker-centric purchasing and production models.”
Just transition to a green economy
The climate crisis demands that businesses work towards decarbonising their supply chains, but they must do so with the whole of society in mind.
Today, however, much of the world suffers from carbon tunnel vision that tends to ignore — if not exacerbate — many of the economic and social issues that persist in marginalised communities, says Karaosman; issues that cannot be separated from what is driving climate change in the first place. “Decarbonisation strategies criminally disregard social justice principles and overlook the complicated interplay between behavioural change and technical solutions,” he says.
In fashion, the notion of decarbonising the supply chain is linked directly to how brands engage with their suppliers. “The burden of sustainability investments is disproportionately pushed upon suppliers, inducing financial strain that coerces some into engaging in unethical or perilous practices,” he says. “True, socially fair and equitable decarbonisation hinges on responsible purchasing practices, making it imperative to challenge and revolutionise the decision-making processes within fashion supply chains.
Climate justice and sustainable fashion advocate Aditi Mayer believes that COP28, and its possible signalling towards the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era, may have marked a turning point. “I believe a major focus of fashion’s key sustainability themes this year will be understanding the ties between fashion and fossil fuels,” she says. “Governments and businesses now need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes.”
Changing the culture of consumption
For all of the concrete, metrics-driven change that fashion needs, there are many less-tangible factors that are just as important. The industry plays an enormous role in shaping culture, but has shied away from its potential, as a creative industry with outsize influence, to make sustainability desirable. Instead, it’s focused on wedging it into its existing model, hoping consumers won’t notice if a product looks or feels different, or at least not see it as a sacrifice — because in reality, that’s as far as they have motivation to push.