Few industries tout their sustainability credentials more forcefully than the fashion industry. Products ranging from swimsuits to wedding dresses are marketed as carbon positive, organic, or vegan while yoga mats made from mushrooms and sneakers from sugar cane dot retail shelves. New business models including recycling, resale, rental, reuse, and repair are sold as environmental life savers.
The sad truth however is that all this experimentation and supposed “innovation” in the fashion industry over the past 25 years have failed to lessen its planetary impact — a loud wake up call for those who hope that voluntary efforts can successfully address climate change and other major challenges facing society.
Take the production of shirts and shoes, which has more than doubled in the past quarter century — three quarters end up burned or buried in landfills. This feels like a personal failure of sorts. For many years, I was the COO of Timberland, a footwear and apparel brand that aspired to lead the industry toward a more sustainable future. The reasons for the industry’s sustainability letdown are complicated. Pressure for unrelating growth summed with consumer demand for cheap, fast fashion have been a major contributors. So too are the related facts that real prices for footwear and apparel have halved since 1990 with most new items made from non-biodegradable petroleum-based synthetics.
To fully understand just how drastically the market has failed the planet in the fashion industry, let’s look more closely at why sustainable fashion is anything but sustainable.
The precise negative environmental impact of the fashion industry remains unknown, but it is sizeable. The industry’s boundaries spread globally and its multitiered supply chain remains complex and opaque. Thanks to trade liberalization, globalization, and enduring cost pressures, very few brands own the assets of their upstream factories, and most companies outsource final production. “There are still very, very few brands who know where their stuff comes from in the supply chain, and even fewer of them have entered into active relationships with those suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint,” says environmental scientist Linda Greer. This complexity and lack of transparency means estimates of the industry’s carbon impact range from 4% (McKinsey and the Global Fashion Agenda) to 10% (U.N.) of overall global carbon emissions.
Like all industries, fashion is nested in a broader system. It is a system premised on growth. While serving as an executive in the industry, never once did a CFO ask me if the business could contract to yield a more durable customer base. Nor did I ever hear from a Wall Street analyst making a pitch for Timberland to prioritize resilience ahead of revenue growth. This unyielding pursuit of growth, of “more,” drives strategies that are specific to the fashion industry. Because it is hard to make a better performing or more efficient blouse, handbag, or pair of socks, to motivate consumption, the industry pushes change. Not better — just different, cheaper, or faster.
Combine the imperative of growth with accelerating product drops, long lead times, and global supply chains, and the result is inevitable overproduction. Notwithstanding improvements in technology and communications, predicting demand across tens of styles that are launched seasonally is much easier than doing the same for thousands of …….