If the optimists are right, 2023 is going to be a busy year for sustainability in fashion. Last year’s efforts were designed to lay a foundation for progress, industry experts said as 2022 came to a close. It’s time to build on those foundations.
“2022 — it was the year of maturity. Now, it’s [time] to implement at scale, on the ground,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Gucci and Balenciaga parent company Kering. “If we want to have a big effect on the planet, we have to speed up in 2023.”
Pointing to efforts coming from both within and outside of fashion, experts say the industry has wind in its sails when it comes to climate action. A number of initiatives that started small seem poised to scale — renewable energy collaborations, for example, and regenerative agriculture projects — while external forces, primarily in the form of European policymakers, are forcing the industry’s hand toward reform.
We talked to brand executives, tech startups, manufacturers and sustainability advocates about where they expect fashion to focus its sustainability efforts in the year ahead. Here are the key themes that emerged.
Getting serious about emissions
The industry is still very far from a 1.5°C pathway, but there are some encouraging signs that fashion’s climate promises are more than just talk. Most notably, funding is starting to materialise.
The Apparel Impact Institute (AII) is shifting into the next phase of the Fashion Climate Fund, with plans to release criteria for the Climate Solutions Portfolio and a strategy for how the funds will be used. “We see 2023 as a critical year,” says AII president Lewis Perkins, for driving action in the six areas mapped out in the organisation’s Roadmap to Net Zero report last year, including maximising energy efficiency and eliminating coal in manufacturing.
Rumours of other fund launches, such as from the Global Fashion Agenda, lend additional confidence. “It’s big commitments with big dollars,” says Carrie Ellen Phillips, co-founding partner of communications firm BPCM. Funding has been slow to emerge in part because it’s not the most attractive form of investment for traditional investors, she says. “It’s not a thing where you’re going to triple your money in a year or two. The thing that people need money for is no longer, ‘Can I get my idea off the ground?’ It’s scale. You see it actually happening now.”
Brands are also making encouraging moves. Kering has committed to reducing absolute emissions and not just emissions intensity. “2023 will be the year to think about absolute value in reductions of emissions in Scopes 1, 2 and 3,” says Daveu (CEO François-Henri Pinault has said the same). LVMH-owned Louis Vuitton is working to reduce its reliance on air freight, and increase its use of biofuel where it does use air freight, as a way to cut transportation-related emissions, says the brand’s global head of sustainability Christelle Capdupuy. “This one is really on our 2023 list. We’ve got to have the right product at the right moment for the right customer. We have to work together with the supply chain teams to identify the right SKU to be transported by sea freight.”
LVMH is also prioritising energy efficiency in stores, according to group environmental development director Hélène Valade — having taken steps such as launching an “unprecedented” partnership with a Chinese landlord to ensure that retail spaces it does not own still comply with its environmental management policies, and planning to announce similar partnerships in the US and Europe in 2023, as well as expanding a restricted electricity use policy in stores, launched in France last year, to all of Europe. “It’s important because the store is a meeting point with customers. We are a leader in the luxury sector,” she says. “We can set an example.”
Suppliers, who shoulder the work of emissions reductions, confirm that this is a brand priority. “We see three areas of focus, and number one, at the top of the list, is GHG and our carbon footprint,” says Zaki Saleemi, vice president of strategy, sustainability and innovation at denim manufacturer Crescent Bahuman in Pakistan, followed by a growing focus on both water and chemical use.
Reducing chemical impacts and water use
Next to renewable energy and emissions reductions, fashion is making room on its agenda for the largely forgotten issue of water.
LVMH, for example, plans to roll out a new pillar under its Life360 programme. “We are updating the water footprint of the LVMH value chain, and testing the Science Based Targets Network framework. It will help us to define this new water pillar in [early] 2023,” says Alexandre Capelli, group environment development deputy director. “We already have some targets, but we really want to enrich this pillar.”
It’s a top issue that suppliers say they’re hearing about from brands as well, in terms of both the quantities used and the quality of what gets released. Brands still aren’t paying for the legwork necessary to deliver the impact reductions they’re asking for, but suppliers such as Saleemi credit them with providing the motivation to at least tackle the lowest-hanging fruit, on both carbon and water efficiency. “That has been prompted by the brands. There’s definitely credit due to them for that. The awareness that they helped create helped us actually reduce our water footprint,” he says.
The types of technologies most urgently needed, though, are still out of reach, he says. The most effective filtration systems are too expensive, and there is not yet a way to recycle water back into the fabric manufacturing processes — only to clean it enough to use it for other purposes such as in flushing systems, or for cooling or agriculture. “Putting water back into fabric dyeing — that’s very far from reality,” he says.
Holistic approach to sustainable materials
This could be the year that “sustainable material” sourcing starts to look more, well, sustainable.
“I don’t think most people realised until recently they were essentially wrapping themselves in plastic everyday and supporting Big Oil,” says Caroline Priebe, founder of the Center for the Advancement of Garment Making (CAGM). “As awareness of the various risks associated with synthetic fibres and chemicals increases, I predict growing demand for natural fibres — [and] companies with bio-based solutions continuing to blow up.”
The ability of those companies to expand, though, relies on a crucial but often-overlooked step: supply chain adoption. Despite the proliferation of technologies promising to transform old textiles into new ones, Miran Ali, vice president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and managing director of manufacturer Bitopi Group, says most do not offer realistic solutions because they are too costly or use too much energy to make them sustainable, or come with some other inherent hurdle.
For Ali, figuring out the right technology for his company is high on the agenda this year.
“I do not see a lot of technologies out there that will allow us to recycle post-industrial waste in a way that is competitive. This is still a nascent technology; we are trying to take it to another level in terms of capacity and volume,” he says. “That’s going to be the big challenge for 2023: which technology are you going to invest in?”
Textile-to-textile recycling is also not the only gap remaining in the road to circularity. “Closing the loop is critical,” says Saskia van Gendt, head of sustainability at footwear brand Rothy’s, which is working to be able to recycle the thread from used shoes into new thread, and is eyeing a 2023 launch. “But, we also need to be thinking about the inputs. We need strong chemical reform, to make sure we’re not introducing toxic materials into the circular journey.”
Policy comes to the forefront
The momentum around policy in 2022 is expected to continue, with hopes it will force the industry to reckon with or accelerate some of the tougher challenges.
“I’m not generally an optimistic person, but I have some hope within the policy space,” says Katina Boutis, director of sustainability at US fashion brand Everlane. “I have hope we’ll see movement on things that many of us feel should be table stakes, and that today are entirely voluntary, to be compulsory.”
What that will look like is a question many are watching closely, particularly in Europe, where officials are expected to release the highly anticipated due diligence laws and Product Environmental Footprint programme, among others; and in the US, where one federal bill and several state laws relating to fashion were introduced or passed in the last two years.
“I think we will continue to see a push for policy like the NYS Fashion Act and the federal Fabric Act,” says CAGM’s Priebe, although she does not expect US lawmakers to actually pass any bills this year. Without it, she says that emissions will continue to climb “without a doubt”. “I also predict and support the growing momentum of the labour movement here and abroad. There is no sustainability without safe and equitable working conditions and as [industrial ecology professor] Roland Geyer argues, investing in labour versus materials is actually our best chance at curbing emissions.”
Still missing from the agenda
While the industry is increasingly ambitious in setting sustainability goals, its tolerance for risk is stagnant — but lofty goals, by definition, require bold actions and deep investments that often come with few guarantees.
Saleemi of Crescent Bahuman can see the gap between what brands say and the choices they make very plainly in the denim he makes for those brands all year long.
“My water consumption on a pair of jeans is directly related to the wash or the construct that the brand tells me to make. That is not being rethought,” he says. “Brands are not, at the moment, willing to take the risk of alienating their customers. Nobody wants to take that first step.”
Add to that economic inflation, the war in Ukraine and the various other global crises playing out, “it doesn’t seem like the industry feels it is in a good position to make drastic changes”, says Beth Esponnette, former designer and co-founder of custom denim startup Unspun — which could lead to stagnation, the opposite of what the planet needs. “With less investment, not only will fewer brands take risks on the changes we need to hit 2030 carbon reduction goals but also fewer venture capitalists will have the funds to put into solutions that help us meet these goals.”
Fashion also remains stubbornly focused on incremental progress, potentially at the expense of the big picture. “It’s great to see resale and ‘sustainable’ materials go mainstream, but we would love for the industry to tackle its bigger issues like overproduction, supply chain management and linear lifecycles,” says Esponnette.
The industry’s net impact is where Whitney McGuire, attorney and co-founder of community consultancy Sustainable Brooklyn, wants the year to bring a sharper focus. “I want Scope 3 emissions being tracked across the board. I want to see there is actually a limit on what people are willing to do to maintain their business,” she says.
Also on her wish list: space for more voices in an industry so heavily dominated by large global companies. “There are people with incredible talent, incredible business acumen who repeatedly get overlooked or who have to abandon their craft to just survive. I would love to see the industry put more investment into this next crop of talent, especially because they are so heavily focused on sustainability.”
Daveu of Kering remains optimistic. “I try to be pragmatic. We have the tools. We know what to do. Now, 2023 and 2024 are the key two years to keep in mind.”
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