You try. I Googled “Sustainability efforts” and a few variations of that search term. What I did get back was a very interesting article about how Burger King has introduced lemongrass to its cows’ diet, which will make their intake easier to digest, resulting in fewer cow farts, which in turn results in less harmful methane gas in the environment.
What I didn’t get was any articles on page 1 (or 2 or 3) from the search results referring to efforts made by apparel or textile brands or retailers.
When I added “Major Apparel Companies” to my search, I did get some news about companies you would recognize like Adidas, H&M, Burberry detailing some sustainable products or events that are geared to warm your heart about sustainability.
Sorry to say, for me it didn’t do much. Sustainability in apparel is not a small matter; with the millions of tons of apparel that are purchased—and thrown away—every year, a style here or there does not solve the problem.
Who Can Make a Real Difference?
Further, the apparel industry volume is dominated by a few huge companies. Therefore, it stands to reason that, even if thousands of small companies made huge efforts to totally or overwhelmingly cleanse their lines of products that were not sustainable, it would make little impact, at least in the short term; one article in Business of Society, for example, said that “The top 20 companies in the clothing industry, mostly in the luxury segment, account for 97% of its economic profit (McKinsey, 2019).”
So, it stands to reason that, without major, tangible and measurable efforts by these big companies, sustainability is going nowhere. If companies, driven by profits and overwhelmingly answerable for those, are corporately giving lip service to sustainability to placate customers, or trying to answer the sustainability call while also satisfying the CFO, Board and shareholders, no measurable progress will ever be made.
Does anyone care?
Clearly, today’s customers are very interested in sustainability and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. The same report in Business of Society claims:
94% of Gen Zers believe that companies should address social and environmental issues (Cone, 2017).
Gen Z alone will account for 40 percent of global consumers by 2020. (McKinsey, 2019)
90% of Millennials would boycott or otherwise refuse to buy from a company that is doing harm (Cone, 2017)
Consumers want to support brands that are doing good in the world, with 66 percent willing to pay more for sustainable goods (McKinsey, 2019). (Business of Society)
The above speaks to their motivation to buy clothes. If clothes are seen as a negative influence, or just not a positive one, there is no urgency to buy. Spend your money on something else.
How do you Measure Sustainability?
So how to hold major companies accountable and show customers whether they are really making substantial efforts toward sustainability? I am pretty sure Burger King has already devised some sort of fartmeter to measure the efforts of the cows’ diet change (I really want to taste a Whopper fed with lemongrass!). What can the apparel industry do?
Metrics have been developed to measure sustainability efforts, but I feel they are too obtuse to clearly measure all of the efforts that could possibly be made on a major scale by major clothing companies:
The TBL, or Triple Bottom Line, put forth by John Elkington in the 1990s, seeks to add environmental and social dimensions to financial reporting. As the researchers at Indiana University stated,” The trick isn’t defining TBL. The trick is measuring it.”
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (a very well-meaning organization with precious little clout) has developed the HIgg Index, which seeks to measure sustainability efforts in each segment of the apparel process, from design through delivery. Again, well meaning, but can you imagine VF or PVH paying for the technological changes to measure what are sometimes vague steps from the beginning to the end of their supply chains?
What I propose next is that the industry leaders be mandated by customers to develop some metrics that can be easily understood and followed, which will be required for financial and business reporting on a quarterly and annual basis (AKA CSR?), such as:
Amount spent on sustainability efforts, to be specifically detailed;
Cost of measures taken to reduce waste and environmental damage in processing, packing, packaging and shipping; again, specifically detailed and defined;
Average lifecycle of garments based on testing, compared to previous periods;
Number and weight of garments recycled per period, regardless of original brand.
It will take better accountants than me to clarify and quantify these types of measurement, but guess what? These large companies all have them; and if they don’t, they have the money to hire some. The major question is, again, will they spend the money to institute these measures? And the more important question is, will they actually DO something that shows up in the measures?
Easy, Do Now Steps to Radical Improvement.
To ease the path, I would suggest some simple and straightforward measures that could be taken, such as:
Say NO to plastics and synthetics, as in ALL of them. As stated in the article, “Sustainability Trends that will Shape the 2020’s”, EcoEnclose suggests, ”Changes to our relationship with Plastic”. Yes, as in NONE. The damage done by plastic and synthetics to the environment is incalculable. From packing, packaging to microparticles in the laundry water, it is easy to eliminate or change everything NOW. For example, no plastic bags on garments or in packaging; no plastic bags in shipping to customers. NONE. What is stopping you other than the bottom line? Can any of the large apparel companies tell us that this is a BAD MOVE?
Follow this guide in every stage and product of the supply chain. This logic should be carried to the entire product: buttons, thread, the fabric itself can be sustainable. NOW.
Be Investment Dressing; make better quality, easy-care garments. As we did from the outset at Lotus & Michael- The Art of Shirts-- make quality garments that will last longer, that require cold washing and NO drying. As the writer of the BOS article quoted earlier said,
o “I am often asked what one can do as an individual to be more sustainable when it comes to fashion. My answer is in two main parts. First, buy fewer, better quality items and wear them for longer. Classic, good quality pieces will wear better and last longer. Even if they cost a bit more at purchase their extended life makes them a more affordable option in the long run. Second, re-think how you care for your clothes. Washing them less, at lower temperatures, and hanging them to dry will all result in gains for both your energy bill, as well as the environment, estimated at a 3% carbon reduction (WRAP, 2017). “
Start a Recycling program- NOW. Every garment made and shipped to customers should be clearly marked as to how it can be returned for recycling- permanently and next to the care label.
Communicate with your customers. Let them know what you are doing and make them into supporters and fans. There is no doubt that, if they are fans of your efforts, they will:
o Spend more on their clothes;
o Buy more garments (if you make them interesting);
o Become brand ambassadors, telling their friends, colleagues etc. by WOM or Social Media.
o Tell you what they like and don’t like, as well as give you suggestions, so the relationship feels two-way. 99% of Brands today talk AT their customers, not TO.
o Only the customer can be the driver of these efforts. Without significant pressure on their sales, companies will not make significant changes.
That moving big companies is a bit like turning the Titanic. While there is a lot to do even to execute simple steps like I have proposed above, the Power of the Ship will be awesome once the turn is made.
And, if Leadership sets and implements priorities of action that maybe leaves the Finance guys grumbling, I believe it could happen surprisingly fast.
Let’s leave it at, in this case, something is not better than nothing. Everything is better than something. We need measurable, significant action, not a style here or there.