Apparel companies must confront an uncomfortable truth: The industry must meet a massive increase in consumer demand while simultaneously reducing its environmental impact in the decades ahead.
While companies are making sustainability pledges, they aren’t changing their business strategy, which remains to be sell more stuff to more people more often. How can companies achieve their sustainability goals and meet demand while operating within the bounds of our planet’s finite resources?
Clothing production is responsible for up to a fifth of industrial water pollution. Combined, apparel and footwear production are responsible for approximately 8.1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Apparel alone accounts for 6.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 215 billion cubic meters of freshwater withdrawal for production of clothing. That’s more water than there is in Lake Tahoe. If the industry continues its current pace of accelerating production, its greenhouse gas emissions will increase 49 percent from 2016 levels and freshwater withdrawal will increase 39 percent by 2030.
Businesses must find a way to be successful without relying on the current linear way of doing business which is taking resources, making the product, then discarding the product at the end of its life — also known as the take-make-waste business model. As millions of families enter the global middle class over the coming decades, especially in emerging markets like China and India, demand for goods and services will increase. This will be a powerful market opportunity and a human development victory, but when it takes 713 gallons of water to make a single cotton t-shirt, companies may struggle to meet global demand within the planet’s limits.
Some companies have made progress through improvements in efficiency and recycling. Examples include big names like Nike, which uses recycled materials in many of its products, and H&M, which collects and recycles used clothing in many of its stores. Reformation, an eco-fashion label based in Los Angeles, publishes on its product webpages the amount of water and greenhouse gas emissions it saves compared to conventional clothing makers.
These initiatives are still not the norm, nor are they at the scale needed to sustainably stock the world’s closets. The average consumer purchased 60 percent more clothing in 2014 compared to 2000, thanks in part to lower prices and shorter fashion cycles. If the current-fast fashion business model dominates sales to the growing middle class and remains the norm for current high-consuming countries, the volume of clothing produced might overwhelm any gains in efficiency.
To keep pace, then, we need radical shifts in business models. Designing clothes for longevity can limit environmental impacts, create jobs, and decouple business growth from resource use. Success in tomorrow’s markets will mean setting ambitious targets and providing clothing that is shared, meant to last, refurbished, recycled or resold. Clothing rental and resale services like Gwynnie Bee, Rent the Runway, Le Tote and Eileen Fisher’s Renew get more mileage out of one garment and have the potential to reduce the number of garments produced, all while giving consumers the variety of on-trend fashions they crave.
Can these models scale profitably? Fidelity Investments seems to think so—they invested $60 million in Rent the Runway in 2016. ThredUP anticipates the apparel resale market will nearly double from $18 billion to $33 billion by 2021.
Despite these early successes, we still don’t know what it means for fashion business models to be truly sustainable. The Higg Index has standardized how apparel companies can measure environmental impacts throughout their supply chain, but many companies do not publicly disclose their environmental impacts (or perhaps more tellingly, the volume of clothing they produce). Without transparency in the volume of clothing being produced by the industry, companies who pride themselves on sustainability may be wary to innovate business models and consumers who prioritize sustainability could be left in the dark when it comes to making decisions.
Companies are not in this alone. Government policies that encourage innovative and circular business models are imperative to have a lasting change in the status quo. Companies may be more inclined to put resources behind innovating their business strategy if they have confidence and clarity that government policies will support these efforts.
When it comes down to it, apparel companies and fashion executives must ask themselves: Are we in business to churn out more product, or to clothe people — providing the protection, dignity and means of self-expression that every individual deserves? If the latter, they must do the math on their long-term projected growth and be honest about whether their current way of doing business aligns with their sustainability goals. As in other industries, including energy and transport, apparel leaders must ask, “What is the benefit we are meant to provide? How do we provide that benefit profitably within the planet’s limits?”
Fashion leaders are natural innovators. They design garments that allow billions to express themselves every day. They must channel that creativity toward new ways of doing business. The companies that will clothe the world in the future will be those with innovative business models that can serve more people with less strain on the environment.