Technology has changed, if not improved, every facet of the fashion industry. Finding inspiration, trying on clothing, making purchases — it’s all been brought into the digital age. So why does sustainability in fashion still lag so far behind?
The environmental and economic issues within the fashion industry are myriad, and it’s a complex problem to solve. The fashion industry ranks second after big oil in the worldwide production of pollution; an estimated 14 million tons of clothing is thrown out annually in the U.S. alone.
While there’s no overnight fix for the havoc fashion wreaks on the planet, change has to start somewhere. We asked industry experts to identify what they believe is the main challenge or idea holding fashion back from becoming a sustainable industry.
Yael Aflalo, founder and CEO, Reformation
Old habits die hard. Becoming a sustainable company isn’t something that happens overnight — it takes work to restructure, re-source, and replace archaic ways. Brands often see fashion and sustainability as mutually exclusive, rather than things that can coexist in the same space. For example, cotton is one of the worst crops for the environment, but continues to be used for more than half of the clothing and textiles worldwide. Moving forward, I hope that sustainability isn’t seen as an added bonus for companies, but rather as the new standard.
Kit Hickey, co-founder, Ministry of Supply
What’s holding the fashion industry back from being sustainable is the [lack of a] widespread realization that not only is it the right thing for companies to do, but it can also raise revenue and profits. We are seeing more and more consumers wanting transparency from the brands they love and identifying with brands that act in ways aligned with their values.
Brett Northart, co-founder and president, Le Tote
There has been very little innovation in the the traditional retail model, which today encourages customers to buy low quality and low cost items to satisfy their demand for increased variety. Alternative consumption models give customers access to the variety they are looking for without the massive waste and extremely low utilization of items purchased. The current retail model is very limiting and retailers should look at creative ways to appeal to the next generation of shoppers if they really want to become sustainable longer term.
Max Lenderman, CEO, School
The very nature of fashion’s raison d’être — new styles, looks and lines every season — is diametrically opposed to sustainability. The industry is based on discarding the old (which could only be six months old) and enticing people to buy the new. The more the industry clings to this dynamic, the less likely it will become more sustainable. The notion of holding on to your clothes longer must be instilled in culture — something that the industry is not likely to support — and the idea that clothes can be “upcycled” should be part of every fashion brand’s business model.
Tracy DiNunzio, founder and CEO, Tradesy
We believe it’s possible to have both sustainability and instant gratification, by re-imagining the evolution of your closet as a cycle of buying and selling quality pieces.
Mona Bijoor, founder and CEO, JOOR
The main thing holding the fashion industry back with regards to sustainability is its slow embrace of technology and predictive analytics that would help them cut down on excess inventory. Retailers are too quick to embrace lay-offs and other methods of lowering costs, rather than investing in new systems that would help them stay ahead of trends and reduce mark-downs and the amount of wasted product.
Randy Rubin, CEO, The Crypton Companies and Nanotex
As with other product categories, sustainability will advance when manufacturers understand it is not a “responsibility,” but a central component of quality manufacturing. When sustainability is positioned to the consumer as a value add and engineered to actually enhance product value, then it will advance. And where the technology might be lacking, the motivation of delivering a better quality product to an educated consumer who demands as much, will help mills and manufacturers further innovate in sustainability quickly.
Bayard Winthrop, founder and CEO, American Giant
Sustainability should be more than a marketing point for the label, and true sustainability should measure how the production and consumption of a product impacts the environment and the people producing it. The fashion industry, specifically, needs to take a hard look at how it sources its materials, produces apparel and treats each individual who is involved in the production process and, ultimately, how a company constructs its model to be sustainable as a business and practice.
Joey Zwillinger, co-founder, Allbirds
The fashion industry operates on an old business model, almost exclusively wholesale, with razor-thin margins. The result is that reducing manufacturing costs becomes one of the most important priorities for brands. With the advent of technology and e-comm, we can reach consumers much more effectively, and take a larger margin to invest in innovative materials and all the research and development that comes with that approach.