Fashion as an industry has a bad image in terms of sustainability. It is even (wrongly) accused of being the second most polluting industry. It is a myth as explained by Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times. Still, fashion has issues in terms of its working conditions, its carbon footprint both in terms of manufacturing and transportation and its impact on biodiversity through its raw material use and end-of-life disposal. Additionally, fast fashion has encouraged consumers to buy more garments. Today, more than 100 billion garments are churned out every year, double the amount in 2000. What is being done to address those issues today? What more can be done? I argue that the two main avenues for fashion’s sustainability salvation are in innovative business models and consumption modes. 

The innovation in business models is a mix between manufacturing closer to the market, the use of data and technology to better respond to market trends and to reduce the inventory and deadstock; and slow fashion. Relocation is still not a reality and Covid (after SARS) shows us that we should be less dependent on Asia. Can Portugal become a manufacturing hub for all of Europe? Manufacturing closer to the market would definitely reduce the carbon footprint associated with the transportation of raw material and finished products. Fashion on demand is an innovative business model in which products are made only after being ordered which means zero inventory. For instance, the French brands Asphalte and Reuni offer customers to buy before production and participate to the design process. The products are of premium quality, manufactured in Europe (and Portugal). Because there are no sales or discounts at the end of the season the products can have a smaller margin. It makes consumers enjoy products of higher quality for a lower price. These examples are also part of the “slow fashion” movement. Fashion that doesn’t have programmed obsolescence, that provides decent working conditions to vulnerable people, and that only works with natural and quality fabrics to make their products. Brands and designers can also have an impact. Stella McCartney never used fur or leather and has designed some recent collections with mushroom leather products. 

Additionally, there is a responsibility and an increased conscience in the consumption modes. The volume of apparel and footwear being produced is forecast to increase by 81 percent by 2030, according to the Global Fashion Agenda in Copenhagen and the Boston Consulting Group. This is not sustainable! Why don’t we work on alternative consumption models that are now emerging such as secondhand, renting and recycling/upcycling. The business of secondhand is growing particularly in the high-end segment. Vestiaire Collective was a pioneer and has created many followers on specific segments or markets. Farfetch is also present in the “designer preowned” area. In Portugal one of our alumni has entered this market with Maudde Preloved luxury. Renting clothes is another innovative sustainable alternative to property. It is a trend that comes from other industries and to which the Millennials are very driven to. Le Closet in France is based on a membership fee and clients receive clothes that they can use as much as they want and then return them and get a new batch. These initiatives give a longer life to products. The next important step is recycling and upcycling. H&M is working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) to develop new technologies for recycling old clothes into new ones. Patagonia launched an upcycling initiative called ReCrafted, a collection of clothes made from scraps of fabric waste that are even more beautiful versions of its products. Following the same trend, Levi’s challenged the Portuguese brand Behen to create products from its leftovers. 

The fashion industry still has a long way to go but the recent innovations in terms of business and consumption models are paving the way for sustainability. Recent moves, such as the acquisition of 5% of Vestiaire Collective (the leading player in a high-end second hand) by Kering this week, show that these innovative business and consumption models are becoming more mainstream

Have a great fashionable and impactful week!

Céline Abecassis-Moedas
Founder and academic director of CTIE (Center for Technological Innovation and Entrepreneurship) 
Dean for Executive Education 

This article refers to edition #77 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter.
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