Fashion is focused on sustainability say Ralph Lauren and H&M

The Economist Sustainability Summit in London saw a panel of industry luminaries making a case for fashion’s genuine commitment to sustainable goals late last week. That was no mean task with an audience which, while not actually hostile, remained sceptical that an industry dedicated to making consumers buy more and more can ever reduce its footprint.


The fashion industry is increasingly going green


But Ralph Lauren Corp’s sustainability head Halide Alagöz, H&M’s equivalent Pernilla Halldin, and Cyndi Rhoades, who’s founder and CEO of polymer recycling specialist Worn Again Technologies, made a good case.

They showed that a lot of work is being done, we’re not there yet, but that the once-seemingly-impossible aim of 100% circularity might be achievable.

And given that the panel included one representative from the very high-end and another from the mass-market, it also showed that sustainability can sit within the strategy (and profitability) goals of both types of business.

Ralph Lauren’s Alagöz highlighted how sustainability need not be at odds with good business and how the luxury-as-an-investment message really chimes with sustainability. “Our brand is about timelessness,” she said. “We love to create products that people love and wear forever, then pass onto the next generation with the story behind them. This blazer I'm wearing was produced in 1988, it still looks good. We do not believe business and sustainability are mutually exclusive.”

Importantly, she added that “we’ve been doing a lot of work on supply and demand, how we can ‘sense’ demand so we will not overproduce. In the last two years we've managed to increase our top line and our bottom line, but we're actually producing much less units than before.”

That’s a big step forward in itself and should help the company steer clear of PR nightmares such as high-end peer Burberry had last year when it emerged that tens millions of pounds of unsold goods were being incinerated.

Of course, it’s easy to see how high-end fashion (plus the impact of the resale industry) lends itself very well to sustainability, so it’s no surprise that companies like Ralph Lauren are making great strides.

MASS-MARKET

By contrast, H&M, which targets the more price-conscious consumer, might appear to be locked into a never-ending cycle of consumers buying - and disposing of - fast fashion and so has a much bigger challenge. But the company has bold ambitions with Pernilla Halldin saying its vision is to become “100% circular”

She said its strategy is to be 100% renewable and sustainable, as well as “100% fair and equal and 100% leading the change. We can use the size and scale that we have to help [the industry] transform.”

Is that just talk? Apparently not. Rhoades hailed H&M as being one of the few big names that it approached that took a very pro-active approach to the subject rather than taking a come-back-when-you’ve-got-something-to-offer-us stance (the two firms are now partners in moving toward circularity).

One key aspect of H&M’s approach is via the consumer. The company has recycling bins near the tills in-store and Halldin said that “in our CO2 emissions the customer impact is 20%. The customer cares more and more and that's one thing that is driving us.” And as well as recycling, “we encourage our customers to wash less, iron less, dry less.” But she added that the biggest impact will come from what H&M itself does.

“We’re digging into each stage to see how we can make it circular. Everything from how we can design, to how we produce, to the take-back scheme and different business ideas. I would not say that we’re there today, but there's so much we can do.”

PROCESS & TECH

Halldin admitted that the biggest task is to ensure that the materials issue is addressed. “If you look into CO2 emissions, the raw material and production of the material is by far the largest chunk, and it's the same for water,” she said.

Which is where Worn Again Technologies comes in. Rhoades said “something like 50m tons of end-of-use textiles go into landfill every year. Less than 1% of end-of-use textiles are going back into new textiles, primarily due to existing technologies and the inability of [those] technologies, [plus] the price, the economics and the technical [issues].”

She said her company and others like it are a “couple of years away” from large-scale sustainability becoming a viable reality because the processes aren’t yet in place, even though there’s a lot of exciting developments in sustainable fibre innovation. “But in terms of dealing with the problem that we have today, the 50m tons of textiles going to landfill, we need more recycling, so its process innovation that’s needed.”


H&M is working with Worn Again Technologies on its sustainability drive


Hand-in-hand with this will be “chemical innovation,” she explained. “Polyester and cotton are the highest volume fibres used today (80% of our textiles are made out of them). Creating new technologies or new processes that can recapture them and produce a virgin-equivalent raw material at the same price, to go back into the supply chain as new again. That’s circular textiles.”

So is this all simply blue-sky thinking that’s some way away from becoming reality? Not really. Rhoades said the timeline is a challenge as “taking the new technology from lab scale into an industrial plant” isn’t that easy. It takes about 10 years, but she said “we’re in year eight. So we’re about two years away from that being a scalable solution.”

“What people have to really get behind and appreciate is that it's happening, there's a real will to do it, and the reason for it is resources. Big companies are asking ‘where are we going to get our raw materials from?’ In the future they're going to cost more and they’re going to be harder to access. Creating virgin equipment or materials at the same price, why wouldn't you?”

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