Even as we seek to sell more, the broad issue of sustainability is increasing in importance to our customers. Ian Jindal considers how retailers and brands might approach an action plan.
In 2015 there were 100 billion articles of clothing produced, yet research shows that many people only wear an item 7-10 times before discarding it. Despite recycling efforts, nearly 10 billion kilograms of textiles a year are sent to landfill in the USA. These textiles may never decompose, due often to plastic content in the fibres. If we avoid landfill by incinerating textiles then we produce some 3,000lb of CO2 per megawatt-hour. Coal produces 2500lb/MWhr.
Notwithstanding the environmental impact of waste, retailers and brands promote consumption: new range, new season, refresh, update, buy more, buy now. Improved manufacturing capabilities keep costs low, and discounting keeps consumption high.
There are however voices calling for increased sustainability, and as retailers respond we realise the complexities and challenges in this journey. At the end of April 2019 we will publish our RetailX Analyst Report on Fast Fashion, which will consider sustainability as one of the strategic issues. Some of the considerations are already evident.
Customers want to be educated in our choices, and given access to how our thinking turns into action. While there is a growing number of accreditation programmes for trees, cotton, recyclability etc, we have to explain to the customers the impact of this choice, both upon our business practices and as a benefit to the customer.
To supplement a transparent approach we need to be able to trace and confirm the movement of money and goods. This could range from ensuring that a Fair Trade premium actually makes its way to the source, or that we can be certain that we’ve procured organic and sustainable materials. There are emerging technology options, blockchain-powered ledgers and tracking systems, but it’s vital that brands invest in credible assurance and assessment procedures, rather than accepting promises at face value. The weakest point in current procedures is often the source, and technology cannot rectify an initial falsehood.
Take cotton as an example. While we may source organic cotton (no pesticide use, no fertilisers), we also have to consider the water usage in growing and processing the crop. As with products from beef to almonds, water usage is as significant a challenge as land use. Addressing one part of the interconnected chain of production leads us to address broader, linked issues.
Broader considerations of the cost of production must include issues of modern slavery, child and bonded labour. All too often wages are kept artificially low by exploiting staff. Slavery is invidious and can take many forms. For example withholding passports, money or contact from workers. Factoring in fair, living wages for workers is an issue both of sustainability and of ethics.
Sustainability can involve compromise or even irresolvable positions. One brand may ban fur on the basis of animal suffering; another might support fur as a sustainable aspect of indigenous people’s way of life. Both brands need to make their case to consumers who can then choose.
While we have focused upon reducing the waste or harm, a growing number of brands feel that we must reverse previous damage. The sustainable mantra of “reduce, re-use, recycle” now adds a “renew” as well. Can we produce raw materials in ways that leave the land better than we found it? Beyond a ‘plant a tree’ approach we see brands working to bring poisoned land back into production, or to sequester carbon through their activities. In retail we see the growth of marketplaces that extend the life of products (formerly known as ‘second hand’ or ‘vintage’), rent-not-buy, and repair or renewal services.
Sustainability is a complex and complicated field, but the imperative to act is clear. Customers, governments and good business will compel us to make some steps (at a minimum) in this direction. For our businesses to be sustainable, so must be our business practices, products and services.
We would love to hear your thoughts, questions and experiences in sustainability. Drop a note in confidence to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to reserve a copy of the Analyst Report visit retailx.net/product/fast-fashion-2019-sector-analyst-report/