It’s worth three trillion dollars annually; engages complex and interconnected global supply chains; provides a mind-boggling range of consumer choice, and appeals to every conceivable rational and emotional human aspiration and motivation. There is little doubt that the fashion industry is a vast, complicated system which in some way touches practically every person on the planet.

But today, the long-term sustainability of the fashion industry is under significant threat from a wide range of social, labor rights, environmental and commercial governance factors.

The viability of the fast fashion industry

This is an industry based on rapid production of a high volume of items generally disposed of after a short period of consumer use (in the U.S., each person discards an average of 85 pounds of textiles per year—with 70 pounds going straight to landfills). The industry is the world’s second-biggest polluter, after oil production.

The global cotton supply is impacted by human rights issues and multiple long-term risks including climate change and drought, population growth and food scarcity. All of these factors affecting the future of mass-produced fashion are converging to demand an urgent response.

Certain innovations in production, consumption and disposal are beginning to challenge the business status quo and provide opportunities for a more sustainable future:

  • Levi’s recently partnered with Evrnu, a textile recycling start-up, to produce its first pair of fully recycled cotton jeans.
  • Campaigns like “Who Made My Clothes” connect consumers with the people who stitched their clothes in an attempt to raise awareness of labor abuses.
  • To curb waste, new businesses like Rent the Runway and Le Tote allow for consumers to rent rather than buy clothes.
  • Companies like Zady are encouraging consumers to forgo fast fashion for timeless style and well-crafted pieces that will last longer.

While these programs provide hope, much remains to be done to promote a fashion industry that minimizes waste, pays workers well and produces quality garments.

It begins with the absolute necessity to increase consumer demand for sustainably produced garments. But with so many of the garment industry’s social and environmental issues being felt “elsewhere,” i.e. away from the end-market, it is difficult to get most consumers to care.

Responding to the challenges all along the supply chain

The end-user is just the beginning, however. The relevance of sustainable practices needs to be emphasized at each stage of fashion’s supply chain. From the production of raw materials, to the disposal of garments, a coordinated, multi-faceted approach is required.

Production processes that conserve resources, for example, would benefit from both internal and public policy incentives. Levi’s has challenged and incentivized its internal sourcing team to develop products that met the criteria of waterless jeans (which use on average 28 percent less water, and up to 96 percent for certain products) and now, 45 percent of all Levi’s products are made using waterless processes.

As the link between the consumer and the finished product, designers have the unique task of creating affordable and sustainable product while remaining financially viable. In this area, biotechnology holds considerable promise, with science and new technologies combining to create sustainable, high-performance fabrics. Designers will increasingly come to understand the capabilities of these new materials and learn how to work with them.

Designers do not work in a vacuum, however, and industry business models need to evolve away from the short-term quarterly cycle while simultaneously accelerating innovation.

Given the interconnectivity of supply chains, industry collaboration is vital to promoting sustainability principles through a systems-level perspective. But collaborations, by their very nature, do not lend themselves to speed, varying levels of ambition are at play and different organizational structures can impact rates of progress.

Still, progress is possible: The Better Cotton Initiative adopted a systemic approach to achieve a 10 percent level of sustainable cotton adoption, despite its diverse stakeholder population and time-consuming processes.

With any progress, the fashion industry must harness its collective strength in marketing and promotion to highlight successes. These stories need to be told, and sustainable best practices deserve to be promoted by harnessing the profile of brands and their leaders.

Ultimately, it comes back to consumer awareness to drive values-based fashion purchase decisions.

All tools and tactics are up for consideration, ranging from rating systems on tags to the use of key influencers and celebrities in pop culture to increase consumer interest in sustainable choices. From a brand perspective, sustainability can be a differentiator if all other factors—especially style and price—remain competitive.

Strong corporate cultures and incentives, new technologies, exciting design innovations are all at play in transcending operational realities along the supply chains. In the meantime, all participants in the fashion industry agree that the end consumer is the final arbiter of the success of sustainability—not as a fashion trend, but as an industry necessity.


Alisha Bhagat is a senior sustainability advisor at Forum for the Future, an independent non-profit that works globally with business, government and like-minded organizations to solve complex sustainability challenges. Forum’s Cotton 2040 project is focused on building demand for sustainable cotton, improving traceability, training farmers and scaling cotton recycling. The Fashion Futures project features a free toolkit that can be used by businesses and educators in designing products or strategy. Alisha can be reached at a.bhagat@forumforthefuture.org

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