Sustainability is a hot term in the fashion industry as more and more designers commit to reducing their carbon footprint. For context, fashion currently accounts for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. So what does sustainability in the fashion industry look like?
According to Madeline Ritaccio, co-founder of online sustainable clothing store SENSE of SHELF, one reason sustainability in the fashion industry lacks a single definition is that “sustainability” can mean different things to different people. “For some customers, ‘sustainable’ may mean no animal by-products ever. So they may be more comfortable with a plastic derivative for a vegan purse,” she explains. “And if they use that purse one hundred times, who’s to say it’s not sustainable?”
Rather than finding a single holistic definition of sustainability, SENSE of SHELF audits a clothing designer to understand where sustainable practices are happening—or not—across the life cycle of the company’s clothing. Supply chain management in the fashion and textile industry is rife with challenges and opportunities, but the iteration that SENSE of SHELF and other auditors undertake centers on three core questions that investors can also ask as they consider putting their money into new and existing designers.
Assessing Fashion’s Carbon Footprint
First, where exactly does the garment come from? SENSE of SHELF uses what Ritaccio calls a “cradle-to-grave” look at a company’s supply chain before deciding if it meets the requirements for listing on their site: “Where is this cotton harvested? Where is the flax for the linen harvested? Where is that being cut and sewn?”
More than three-quarters of fashion’s carbon footprint comes from the mills where fibers are turned into fabrics. Supply chain management in the fashion and textile industry needs to take this into consideration; investing in a factory’s transition to clean energy can make a meaningful environmental impact.
Fabric manufacturing is not the only step where sustainability can happen. From the mills, fabrics are either sent to another factory to be turned into garments or to a fabric wholesaler to be sold. Either way, the fabric’s transfer and eventual manufacture into clothing leaves a carbon footprint.
Sometimes, new or small companies will use “dead stock” from warehouses to make their clothes, effectively recycling fabric that would otherwise go into a landfill. Ritaccio notes that while it may not be possible to trace the fabric’s source, the fact that it is being used instead of discarded is a bonus and makes it more affordable for new designers trying to bring sustainability into the fashion industry.
Certifying Sustainable Standards
Second, what do we know about the people and places producing the garment? Without a single certification for sustainable fashion, it can be difficult for sites like SENSE of SHELF to ascertain whether a company’s supply chain meets their standards. Some clothing companies get B Corp certification, use only WRAP-certified facilities for fabric and garment production, or undergo a third-party audit. But getting those certifications is not cheap. “Especially with small brands, some of them meet the criteria but they’re not able to pay for the certification or monthly dues,” says Ritaccio.
Unfortunately, a number of labor and human rights questions are tied to factories as the fashion and textile industries are notorious for sweatshop conditions, child labor, and other troubling practices. Understanding the practices of farm and factory management and holding them accountable must be an investor’s priority.
Thinking beyond the Consumer
What will happen after the customer is done wearing the garment? Fast-fashion chains like H&M and Zara have come under fire because of their clothes’ life cycles: each year, millions of unsold items are dumped into landfills. At the same time, because the clothes themselves are intended to be cheap imitations of current trends, the customer will likely only wear them a few times before discarding them.
SENSE of SHELF looks not only at how much use a customer is likely to get out of an item before it goes out of style or falls apart, but also at what will happen to the item at that point. Recycling fabric is still a tricky business, but well-made garments can be resold through brick-and-mortar thrift stores or sites like ThredUp. If a customer is able to get years of wear out of an item before discarding it, that also boosts the sustainability score compared to a T-shirt that gets worn twice.
Investors in the fashion industry can consider all three questions or focus on just one as they work to green their portfolios and make conscious decisions. A parting thought from Ritaccio highlights scaling sustainable fashion so that it is affordable and attractive for more consumers. “There’s so many sustainable brands popping up, but a lot of times it’s that sterile, white, over-starched blouse that speaks to one woman,” she says. “There’s a way to be joyful, colorful, and fun, while still embracing sustainable fashion.”