Until now the fashion industry as a whole has largely lagged behind consumers in responding to their growing demand for environmentally responsible, sustainable fashion.
Sustainable fashion has primarily been relegated to niche fashion brands—Patagonia, Everlane, Rothy’s, Toad & Co, Eileen Fisher—and to narrow product categories within the industry. It has yet to be adopted widely by the mainstream and across the full product spectrum. That surely will change and change fast as Adidas steps out with a bold new initiative to do away with all virgin polyester (i.e. plastic fiber) in its products by 2024.
Adidas, ranked No. 3 in global sales in the Apparel/Accessories category in Forbes World’s Largest Public Companies list, behind only Christian Dior/LVMH and Nike, just announced that by 2024 it would use only recycled plastics in all its shoes and clothing.
The implications for Adidas and the rest of the fashion industry are profound. Explaining that about 50% of the materials it uses in the over 900 million items it sells are polyester, Eric Liedtke, head of Adidas’ global brands, told the Financial Times, “Our goal is to get rid of virgin polyester overall by 2024.”
Adidas’s decision follows initial success in selling recycled plastic footwear. Its commitment has grown from one million pairs produced in 2017, to 5 million in 2018 and this year a projected 11 million pairs.
“In 2018 alone, we saved more than 40 tons of plastic waste in our offices, retail stores, warehouses and distribution centers worldwide and replaced it with more sustainable solutions,” said Gil Steyaert, responsible for global operations, in a company statement.
Virgin polyester is the mainstay fiber of the fashion industry. Market intelligence firm Plastic Insights reports polyester accounted for 55% of the global fiber market, followed by cotton with just over one-quarter share in 2016. In that year alone 76 million tons of the stuff was produced globally, with only a small share (some 10% by EPA estimates) recycled.
The result is we are literally swimming in plastic waste. The Ocean Conservancy states “Every year, eight million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans where it joins an estimated 150 million metric tons that already circulates there.” Not to mention the 26 million tons of plastic that ends up in U.S. landfills.
It’s not that the other fashion leaders aren’t making strides toward greater sustainability. Inditex, Zara’s parent company with $30.7 billion in revenues, has promised that by 2025 all of its collections will be made from 100% organic, sustainable or recycled fabrics.
Fashion industry leader LVMH has reached an agreement with Stella McCartney to bring her brand into its family of Maisons. McCartney is arguably the industry’s leading advocate of responsible, environmentally sound and sustainable fashion and upon joining LVMH will also assume the role of special sustainability advisor within the company. (Full details of the agreement to follow in September.)
And Nike continues to “do it” in regards to sustainable fabric choices, but is not nearly as aggressive as Adidas’ just-announced plans. “As of FY18, 19% of the polyester used in our products was recycled,” Nike shared in its FY18 Nike Impact Report. And it claims Nike Air soles have been composed from 50% recycled waste since 2008.
But with Adidas’ 2024 commitment, it is challenging Nike and the rest of the fashion industry to move faster toward a sustainable future.
Fashion industry stands accused
Despite these high-profile steps toward sustainability, a new assessment of the fashion industry’s environmental performance finds it is not doing near enough. The study, entitled Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update, conducted by Boston Consulting Group, the Global Fashion Agenda and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, reports to date the industry has taken baby steps when giant steps are needed and fast.
“Projections suggest that by 2030 the global apparel and footwear industry will have grown by 81%, to 102 million tons, exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources,” the report states. “Fashion companies are not implementing sustainable solutions fast enough to counterbalance negative environmental and social impacts of the rapidly growing fashion industry.”
The study measures the industry’s social and environmental performance objectively using a yardstick called the Pulse Index. It found the fashion industry has improved since 2017, rising from 32 points on the 100 point index to 42 points in 2019, but also concludes, “Despite this improvement, the fashion industry is still far from sustainable.”
The report assigned Pulse Index scores to companies within three industry segments, including premium, mid-price, and entry-price. It found that, except for the major players ($10 billion in revenues and above) in mid-priced and entry-priced segments, and to a lesser extent premium players, many of the rest of the companies (some 40%) have failed to reach even the first level in the needed steps toward meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or those of the Paris Agreement.
“Companies must push harder, with more focused and coordinated efforts, to overcome technological and economic limitations that hinder progress,” the report concludes.
Building an economically sustainable business through environmental sustainability
Reflecting on the current state of the fashion industry in regards to sustainability, Ann Cantrell, assistant professor of fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says, “Economic sustainability for fashion companies is going to hinge on environmental sustainability.”
Cantrell, who joined the faculty in 2010, knows what she is talking about, having developed a class on sustainability for students at FIT. She also recently updated the third edition of a fashion management textbook entitled Fashion Entrepreneurship: Retail Business Planning.
“We basically grow our clothes,” she continues, adding that virgin cotton is one of the most toxic crops on the planet.
“The biggest cost of goods in clothing is the material. If a company can turn billions of recycled clothes and plastic bottles into material for new clothing that is going to save a lot of money throughout the supply chain and help save the planet,” she says.
This ultimately defines the circular fashion market. “The end of one product lifecycle becomes the beginning of another product lifecycle. Whether it is recycled plastic or other forms of sustainability, the ultimate goal is to divert so much waste,” Cantrell concludes.
It is time now for companies in the fashion industry to build economically-sustainable businesses through sustainability, one plastic bottle at a time.