Is Apparel Sustainability Real or a Marketing Ploy?

Much of the media assumes consumers want products that are manufactured and sold in an environmentally conscious manner.

Numerous research surveys present a picture of shoppers demanding that brands be environmentally conscious and being willing to pay more for sustainable products. For example, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a U.S.-based trade association, reports that 93 percent of global consumers expect brands to support social and environmental issues.

However, other research suggests that sustainability is not the most important factor in consumer decision-making; people may still emphasize price, suggesting that cost is concrete while sustainability is abstract.

Sustainability is a broad term. There are many ways that brands and retailers are touting their environmental practices — supplier relationships, ecological footprint, product materials, packaging. Not all of these have meaningful impacts, and it’s sometimes difficult to separate legitimate sustainability efforts from marketing-speak.

Excess Inventory

Apparel contributes about 10 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Until recently many manufacturers, especially high-end brands, incinerated their dead inventory rather than sell it at a discount. While that practice is much less common now, the apparel manufacturing process, the supply chain, and a high rate of customer returns all contribute to environmental harm.

Swedish fashion manufacturer and retailer H&M claims to be sustainable because it has a “Conscious Collection” of clothing that uses fabrics made with textiles such as recycled polyester and plastic, organic cotton, linen and silk, and sustainably produced wood pulp. Customers can also recycle garments at H&M stores and receive a discount for a future purchase.

However, H&M’s fast fashion business model — trendy, inexpensive clothing — relies on quick inventory turnover, with new apparel delivered to stores about every two weeks. The concept works only if the styles sell out in that timeframe. Three years ago, H&M held $4.3 billion worth of unsold inventory. H&M’s solution was to send it to a power plant in Västerås, Sweden, which burned the goods.

The subscription-box business model caters mainly to women, who periodically receive curated products. Customers keep what they want and return — for free — the remaining goods. Such product returns produce a staggering amount of environmental damage, both in packaging and vehicle pollution. Nevertheless, most of the subscription-box purveyors say they are committed to sustainability because they engage in recommerce or use only organic materials.

Sustainable Apparel Examples

  • Eileen Fisher, a female fashion brand, is a Certified B Corporation with Fair Trade Certified clothing and a commitment to fair wages in its factories. It has several circular (longevity and minimal waste) and take-back (recycled and reused) clothing initiatives.
Eileen Fisher home page

Eileen Fisher is a Certified B Corporation with Fair Trade Certified clothing and a commitment to fair wages.

  • Levi’s is reducing chemical and water use during production. Denim manufacturing requires huge amounts of water, but Levi’s new collection, Water<Less, uses up to 96-percent less water than normal production. Levi’s is committed to sustainability through the entire design and manufacturing process, such as using 100-percent sustainably sourced cotton and recycling old jeans into home insulation.
  • Patagonia not only uses sustainable materials in its clothing, but it also helps customers repair their clothing instead of buying new items. Patagonia follows fair-trade practices and closely monitors its supply chain to make it safe for workers, consumers, and the environment. Its goal is to find solutions to environmental issues without causing unnecessary harm to the world. Customers are encouraged to recycle old Patagonia gear and purchase items second-hand.
  • People Tree, based in England, has engaged fair trade artisans and farmers in third-world countries for more than 20 years to produce a wide collection of eco-wear. Its apparel is PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) approved vegan and made with organic and biodegradable materials.
  • Sézane, a French manufacturer of women’s apparel, is committed to fair labor standards, natural materials, and recycled packaging. It uses renewable energy sources. The brand focuses on producing zero waste when possible.
  • Tentree is a Canadian clothing brand that plants 10 trees for every product purchased. It hopes to plant 1 billion trees by 2030. It is a Certified B Corporation that has removed many tonnes of CO2 from the environment and reforested over 5,000 hectares of land. It uses only recycled and organic materials such as cork and coconut as well as recycled polyester.

Sustainability Standards

A validation authority similar to B Corporation certifications would help consumers find sustainable companies. Certified B Corporations meet standards of social and environmental performance and public transparency. They pledge to balance social good with profitability. B Lab is a non-profit organization that awards the B Corporation certification to for-profit organizations. B Lab also provides a directory of the 4,000 global B Corporations.

Another company, Good on You, rates businesses on how they treat contractors, employees, animals, and the planet.

Good on You home page

Good on You rates businesses on how they treat contractors, employees, animals, and the planet.

Marcia Kaplan
Marcia Kaplan
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