The fashion industry is reconciling its massive environmental footprint. Each year the industry creates an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste while creating nearly 20% of the world’s water pollution. 60% of clothes products today aren’t recyclable, so most of them are dumped in landfills or burned. And it gets worse: Since so much apparel is made from polyester and other oil-based products, fashion now accounts for up to 10% of all global carbon dioxide output.
Consumers have stopped looking the other way. Gen Z in particular has been vocal about its demand for more sustainable brands. Three-fourths of Gen Z consumers say sustainability is more important to them than brand name, and their values are trickling up and shifting the attitudes of their Gen X parents, as well. 90% of Gen Xers now say they’d be willing to spend extra for more sustainable products, a number that’s more than doubled within just a couple of years.
Fashion brands and retailers haven’t been quick enough to respond to these seismic shifts. They need to begin preparing for not only more eco-conscious consumers but also better-educated ones. Within the next five years, for instance, we’re likely to see widespread implementation of fashion sustainability QR codes. Consumers will be able to simply scan a code on a tag and get a full account of not only the materials used and the country of origin, but also a product’s water usage and its carbon footprint. Companies that either hide or can’t provide that information will increasingly be left behind for ones that can.
This information was once considered a competitive advantage, but new supply chain due diligence laws are increasingly making it a prerequisite. To achieve the full transparency and traceability these laws require, businesses must map their supply chains. Supply chain mapping grants companies a fuller understanding of their environmental footprint, including where their yarns and fabrics come from, how much carbon they’re emitting, and whether they’re making progress toward reducing water and cotton consumption. That information is invaluable, not only for helping companies make the most responsible decisions but also for communicating their efforts to consumers and governments demanding fuller accounts of their business practices.
As brands and retailers scramble to implement long-overdue sustainability strategies, however, too many are neglecting some of the most important stakeholders in the product development process: the suppliers that manufacture their apparel. The success of fashion retailers’ responsible sourcing initiatives hinges on their ability to align with their suppliers.
Setting and Measuring Sustainability Goals
When sourcing offices are working with suppliers in countries like China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, they need to consider cultural barriers. For decades these factories have operated with one unwavering objective, to make products as cheaply as possible in order to remain competitive.
These suppliers don’t follow the same headlines about social and environmental responsibility and consumer trends as their buyers do. They’ve been hardwired to compete on price alone. That’s why fashion retailers need to communicate not only their objectives to their suppliers, but also their rationale for wanting to source responsibly and prioritize reducing waste while staying price competitive.
Brands and retailers need to commit to increasing business with responsible suppliers, but they also need to commit to setting clear goals for their suppliers and helping them meet them. This process takes time: It’s unrealistic to expect a supplier to upend decades-old business models overnight. Companies should share two- and three-year vision plans with their suppliers, and then plan check-ins every six months to see if they are meeting milestones.
That’s a big undertaking, especially for businesses that depend on hundreds or even thousands of suppliers. But as is often the case with matters of the supply chain, technology can make it a lot easier. Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) software can provide procurement and compliance teams the necessary communication and collaboration tools they need to manage all suppliers at once rather than individually.
SRM software creates a window into an enterprise’s entire supplier base, from vendors to factories to raw material providers. In addition to creating easily accessible chain of custody documentation for all materials used in products, it also saves retailers and brands time by automating the onboarding process for vendors and factories and ensuring that all new suppliers have read and consented to the company’s terms so from the very earliest stages of working with a supplier, they understand your ESG standards and expectations.
When used as part of a multi-enterprise platform, SRM software can enforce a company’s social and environmental standards by preventing merchandisers from booking orders with non-compliant suppliers and blocking shipping departments from booking shipments with these vendors.
Advanced systems can even integrate with sustainability databases from business associations and non-profits like amfori and Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), which monitor and certify the social sustainability of factories and suppliers, as well as Higg, which collects environmental data and allows retailers to measure and manage carbon emissions, water usage and waste. By making critical certification details from these partners available in real time, these integrations eliminate the need for supply chain managers and compliance teams to log in to multiple systems, speeding up a critical step in the sourcing process.
Digitalization with a multi-enterprise platform not only helps brands and retailers collect and manage the data they need to reduce their environmental footprint, but it enables them to back up their sustainability claims, which has become essential after so many years of rampant greenwashing. Now when a company says it's reducing waste, it will be able to prove it