Every year, 1.5 million wildebeest migrate from Tanzania’s southern Serengeti towards the greener pastures of Kenya’s Masai Mara to the north. They do it all at once, moving en masse, sometimes with breathtaking, earth-shaking momentum — but when they get to a river crossing, they freeze. One of the world’s largest mammal migrations comes to a halt because the wildebeest at the front of the line are afraid of what’s in the water, what lies ahead.
This is where the fashion industry sits on its sustainability journey: stuck at the edge of the river. Brands dip their toes in the water to test ideas and innovations from the safety of the riverbank, but they’re afraid or too risk-averse to go all in.
A look back at 2023 confirms that more brands have strategies for sourcing raw materials more sustainably, according to Textile Exchange, but have yet to “decouple the extraction of raw materials from economic growth”. Sustainability commitments are failing to translate onto the runway, and momentum for next-gen materials is too slow to make a dent in the industry’s overall impact. Similarly, brands are working towards climate targets that reduce the intensity of their footprint but do not align with the necessary climate science; resale continues to grow but with little evidence that fashion is using it as a strategy to offset new product sales; and circularity promises continue to hinge on parts of the circle, but rarely if ever do they close the loop.
“We keep saying enough commitment, we need action. It’s about crossing that river and getting to the other side. And yet — everybody’s hedging,” says Helen Crowley, former head of sustainable sourcing innovation at Gucci parent company Kering, who also holds a PhD in zoology.
In the plains of the Serengeti, wildebeest eventually do cross the river — they would have no food if they chose to reverse course — although not until a couple wildebeest at the front of the line demonstrate the courage to jump in and swim across first. Once those first few begin, the masses behind them can’t follow fast enough. Brands, too, must accept that staying put and operating business as usual is not an option; no brand relies on stagnation as a business strategy, and no executive wants to take their company backwards
The threats are there, no doubt. Systemic transformation is risky, by definition, because there is no blueprint for how to achieve it successfully. That’s precisely the problem. Brands have already picked the low-hanging fruit, and what’s left are the tasks that no one can guarantee they know how to do.
Fashion has yet to scale pilot projects into industry-norm practices, whether it’s water efficiency, textile recycling or regenerative agriculture. It’s a basic paradox, says Brittany Sierra, founder and CEO of the Sustainable Fashion Forum. “Brands are hesitant to support sustainability initiatives until they are proven effective and scalable. However, many of these initiatives need substantial backing from these brands to reach a level of maturity where their effectiveness and scalability can be demonstrated,” she says.
The challenge that’s even more difficult and profound is to shift business models away from being so heavily dependent on new product sales, and from valuing economic profitability above all else. “Public companies have to grow regardless of climate change, regardless of any sort of risk it poses to humans, environment, animals for the sake of creating shareholder wealth,” says Caroline Priebe, sustainability advisor and founder and CEO of plastic-free apparel brand Driftless Goods.
Crocodiles in the water
That’s the real crux, says a sustainability-focused executive at a major luxury brand, because companies and their leadership remain solely evaluated based on economic performance — not on their contributions to people and the planet.
“When you get on calls with investors, they want to know how much the company is going to grow, and how they’re going to prove their profitability. That pressure is still the number one thing that decides the value of the stock, and therefore the value of the company. For senior executives, the value of their options or whatever variable compensation they have is heavily dependent on that. So all the intent is to maximise profitability — and sustainability is a conflict,” the executive says, speaking anonymously. The role of the predators lying in wait cannot be underestimated. “There are crocodiles in the river. The crocodiles are investors, and to some degree consumers — the investors say you have to keep the margins, consumers say don’t raise prices. Everyone wants to attack the fashion brands, and that’s part of it, but at the end of the day, the brand that has lower margins is going to get punished in the market…
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