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With Fashion at a Crossroads, Sustainability is a Guiding Light

“It should just be the standard,” Yael Afalo, CEO of Reformation, a sustainable women’s clothing line based in Los Angeles said in a blog post for Time. “I hope that, moving forward, sustainability isn’t seen as an added bonus for companies.”

By every measure, the global fashion industry is a goliath. Valued at nearly $2.4 trillion dollars in 2017, its scope is monstrous — and it isn’t slowing down. It’s projected to grow 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent in 2018 to 2019, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Fashion Index. But the costs associated with an industry on the fast-track go far beyond labor and capital payments.

Since the adoption of so-called “fast-fashion”— a catwalk-to-consumer model that streamlines trends into store products on a rapid time scale — the global fashion industry has come under heat for its sustainability issues and environmental impact. What once was two fashion seasons a year has turned into upwards of 50 micro seasons since the early 2000s. Consumers now purchase around 80 billion garments a year; many of these garments end up in landfills and waste depositories.

Reformation is on a mission to combat “waste culture” and redefine fast-fashion. Since its conception in 2009, the brand has grown enormously, it did over $100 million in sales in 2017. The company has had a clear sustainability focus from the beginning.

“The number one biggest issue right now is climate change,” Afalo said, “Climate change is directly affected by how many greenhouse gas emissions are in the atmosphere, so we’re very, very focused on projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, specifically.”

Reformation is unique when it comes to retail. The majority of its products — over 80 percent — are cut and sewn in Reformation’s very own factory in Los Angeles, and sourcing domestic materials is a major priority. It also publishes quarterly sustainability reports and invests in offset programs, including the Brazilian Rosewood Amazon Conservation Project.

Though a retail anomaly, Reformation still manages to operate on the trend-to-store model. Real-time feedback from in-store and online customers allows Reformation to adjust its production and assortment of garments on a four week time frame. The ability to track consumer demand with data-driven solutions and react at high speed are the principles underlying fast fashion’s rapid retail turnover. Reformation has been able to integrate these time scales without losing focus on environmental impact and social benefits.

“Fast-fashion does not mean that it’s worse for the environment,” Alfalo said in a 2017 interview with Refinery29. “The only examples that we have of fast-fashion are cheap companies that make clothing out of very bad materials, so we equate fast-fashion with bad for the environment or low quality, that people buy more of and throw away, creating this disposable culture.”

But brands prioritizing retail sustainability remain outliers in a heavily saturated, carbon-intensive industry. The fact is, we are not changing fast enough. Fashion brands are in a race against time, both to address climate change and stay relevant in a time of increased consumer consciousness.

According to a 2018 Nielsen study, 81 percent of global respondents feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment. The sentiment is even higher among millennials, with 85 percent agreeing that companies ought to be doing more in regards to addressing their environmental impact. If brands have any hope of capturing a greater share of millennial and Gen Z’s wallets, they’d better get on the sustainable track.

This consumer shift is evident in the recent initiatives put forth by retail giants H&M and UNIQLO. Both have launched in-store recycling programs where consumers can drop-off unwanted clothing in collection bins. In 2018, H&M Group released its sustainability report, with goals to ramp up usage of recycled and sustainably sourced materials by 2030. It’s also working towards being 100 percent climate positive by 2040 — eliminating reliance on fossil fuels and phasing in renewable energy.

But these recent efforts are not as fast-moving as some would like, and the complexities of mass supply chains and integration are considerable. Traditional, more established powerhouses like H&M use a vast web of suppliers and other middlemen. But brands like Reformation follow a direct-to-consumer model, and have a tighter grasp on their own supply chains. These smaller companies are therefore able to adjust their operations with relative ease.

“The future of fashion is fast,” Afalo said. But the challenges of incorporating sustainability that confront larger fashion brands and mass retailers are significant. Many supply chains require a complete redesign. Executives must facilitate a strategic plan, one that makes environmental impact a transparent issue.

As it stands, fashion talks a big game, with many of its prominent leaders condemning the industry for its lack of environmental vigor. Just a small fraction of brands are beginning to incorporate sustainability into their operations, so only time will tell if these goals are met, and if other fashion industry actors will begin to follow suit.

May 2, 2019

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