Build a resilient fashion brand company using sustainable fashion

Sustainable fashion has come to save the fashion industry.

Today, the fashion industry is widely regarded as the second most polluting industry in the world, releasing 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. This means fashion accounts for 10% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, using more energy than both air travel and shipping combined.

Hence, to be future leaders, fashion brands must consider the impacts business has on the environment, to set the standard for the new wave of sustainable fashion.

And doing so is not only good for the planet, but it’s also good for business. According to McKinsey and Company, 67% of surveyed consumers consider the use of sustainable materials as an important purchasing factor. Hence, sustainable development will elevate your brand reputation, capturing the ever-growing eco-conscious market.

With this in mind, in this Green Business Bureau article, we present eight ways you, as a fashion manufacturer, can work to be more sustainable.

Sustainable fashion definition

Sustainable fashion is a strategic business approach that aims to make garments in a way that meets business economic needs, without compromising the needs of the environment or social systems.

Sustainable fashion is more than simply addressing the sustainability of textiles and products. It’s also about providing equal and fair working conditions to employees while adopting a slow-fashion strategy over resource-hungry fast-fashion business models.

What sustainability challenges do fashion brands face?

Fashion brands today can have a major impact on the environment around them. Below we’ve highlighted six main environmental sins committed by major fashion brands:

  • Sourcing environmentally damaging raw materials which are then imported over long distances;
  • Excessive freshwater consumption;
  • Fast product turnover which produces extravagant amounts of textile waste;
  • Poor treatment of workers and unsupportive supplier and vendor relationships;
  • Unsustainable and excessive packaging;
  • Inaccurate green marketing that results in corporate greenwash.

Below we’ve detailed eight tips on how to reduce the negative environmental and social impact of your fashion brand company. Each tip targets the specific sustainability sins mentioned above. This sustainability guide is a great primer for those just getting started with becoming a sustainable fashion brand.

8 sustainable fashion brand initiatives

Fashion brand owners and managers must understand the impacts their business practices have on the environment and social systems and the ways they can mitigate these impacts. The following tips serve as a guide for fashion brands, to bolster sustainable fashion in an industry that desperately needs green brands to prosper for the sake of the planet.

Tip#1: Choose organic sustainable fabrics

Synthetic fabrics such as polyester – which accounted for 52% of global fiber production in 2018 – take hundreds of years to biodegrade. For instance, a polyester t-shirt can take up to 200 years to break down (depending on the material blend). Plus synthetic fibers are fossil-fuel-derived. One polyester shirt releases 5.5kg CO2e, compared to just 2.1kg CO2e for a cotton shirt (cotton is a natural fiber).

With this in mind, to support our environment, fashion brands need to use textiles derived from natural fibers such as recycled cotton, organic hemp, and organic linen. Natural fibers take very little time to biodegrade relative to their synthetic counterparts, making them the more environmentally friendly textile choice. Pure linen, for example, can fully decompose in as little as two weeks.

Tip #2: Reduce textile waste

The fashion industry produces 92 million tons of textile waste annually. And the fast fashion industry is a major contributor to this waste problem, as garments are overproduced by excessively releasing new designs during each micro season to keep up with the constantly changing trends. Fast-fashion brands can have as many as 52 micro seasons in a year, meaning they’re constantly throwing out mountains of unsold merchandise. This continual drive for fast fashion contributes ~10,000 items of clothing being sent to landfill sites every five minutes.

As a fashion brand, it’s important to limit how much waste you’re producing (you should not feel like you need to be producing brand new garments every week). Slow fashion is a business model that prioritizes quality over quantity. This movement encourages slower production and invites the consumer to invest in well-made, life-long products. By practicing slow fashion, and being thoughtful and intentional with production, you can manage your waste responsibly.

For example, Tonlé is a sustainable fashion brand leader that uses a zero-waste process to create their clothes, using reclaimed material from other manufacturers and practicing slow fashion.

Tip #3: Conserve water

The fashion industry uses over 20 trillion gallons of water annually to produce garments. To put this number into perspective, it takes ~712 gallons of water to produce a basic cotton t-shirt, which is enough drinking water one person needs for 900 days!

The biggest way fashion brands can conserve water is by producing garments out of organically grown cotton which uses ~88% less water than conventional cotton.

Fashion Brands can also recycle old textiles that may have been over-produced or under-sold to create new garments. This supports a circular economic model whereby fewer resources are demanded reducing water demand.

Tip #4: Get to Know Your Suppliers and Vendors

While a company can be doing everything in their power to make their brand sustainable, they often forget to look at the initial steps of production. A key tip for creating a sustainable fashion brand is to make sure you’re working with suppliers and vendors that align with your environmental goals. This also includes their social responsibility values, making sure they practice ethical labor and do not utilize slave or child labor. By building a good relationship with your suppliers, you will get a fully transparent view of how your goods are being produced, which you can report back to consumers to build your reputation as a sustainable brand.

When manufacturers fail to consider their potential harm to the environment and those working in their factories, there are serious consequences.

The Rana Plaza 2013 disaster is a prime example, showing the importance of working with suppliers that share your values. The Rana Plaza was a building in Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories for popular fast-fashion brands such as Primark and Zara. The building owners did not value the safety of the workforce and did not inspect the safety of the building’s structure – leading to the building’s collapse which killed about 1,132 workers. To avoid supporting factories at risk of similar disasters, fashion brands should know how their suppliers and vendors operate, to avoid those with non-sustainable and unjust practices.

Tip #5: Switch to sustainable shipping and packaging

It’s great to be producing your garments out of sustainable materials, but it’s counter-intuitive to wrap those same eco-friendly goods in layers of non-biodegradable plastic. To ensure all aspects of your brand is sustainable, switch to biodegradable packagings like paper, cellulose, hemp, and other plant materials. Your customers will appreciate the fact that they can sustainably dispose of packaging materials.

A great example of brands that are putting this tip into action is Lush Cosmetics. Although a beauty brand, Lush Cosmetic solutions offer innovative ideas which you can easily apply to your fashion brand. For instance, Lush uses plant-based packaging made out of peanuts, which, as you’d probably guess, is 100% biodegradable. This packaging can simply be thrown into your compost bin or dissolved in water. Lush Cosmetics also packs their soaps and other solid items in 100% biodegradable cellophane. Get inspired by their other green-packaging methods here.

Another example is UK-based fashion provider Weird Fish. Weird Fish has jumped on the sustainable packaging train, announcing that eco grass paper bags will replace plastic bags in their 17 store locations. Grass paper is made from wood pulp and a minimum of 30% grass fibers. These bags emit 75% less CO2e than standard paper bags, meaning the switch will significantly reduce the company’s carbon footprint.

Tip #6: Reduce fossil fuel demand

There are three main ways you can reduce fossil-fuel demand and hence the carbon footprint of your fashion business. This includes:

  1. Conserving energy,
  2. Being more energy efficient,
  3. Switching to renewable energy sources.

The most cost-effective way of conserving energy is by encouraging an internal behavioral shift. That is, you want your employees to be thinking about the energy they use at work, and to use less. This means turning off lights in rooms that are not in use, and switching off and unplugging devices. Smart technology can support this behavioral change, such as motion sensors on lights, and controllable thermostats. Look to install such technology onsite to conserve energy.

Thinking about efficiency, below we’ve listed some innovative green technology solutions that work to reduce the energy demand of the textile manufacturing process:

  • Automation: The rise of e-commerce over the last decade has created an entirely different business model for fashion retailers. The ease of searching for fashion items online has brought consumers into the driving seat. On-demand design and manufacturing are likely to play a significant role in the future, and this presents brands with a fantastic opportunity. Instead of producing clothes and then selling them, fashion brands can use a produce-to-order business model, providing consumers with the products they want based on the new e-commerce orders coming through. This method reduces waste during the production process.
  • Virtual dressing: Supporting this e-commerce shift is 3D body scanning technology, which consumers can use on their phones. Mobile 3D body scanners allow consumers to immediately determine whether clothes fit them. This reduces product return rates, improving the efficiency of the supply process.
  • Eco-machines: Newer machines generally have improved functionality, and benefit from modern advances in technology to ease production, improving quality output while reducing energy demand. Be sure to invest in more efficient machinery. Look for machinery that’s certified to be energy-efficient and green. For instance, Juki Eco launched their Eco Product Certification to deliver environmentally friendly machines – including sowing machines – to the global market. Machines are evaluated using 38 assessment criteria, awarding certification to the most efficient products holding the highest environmental standards. In addition, periodic maintenance of operating machinery will reduce power consumption considerably. Old machinery should be replaced with new machinery for improved efficiency.

And finally, another way of reducing fossil fuel demand is by switching to a Green Energy Tariff, or purchasing an Off-Site Power Purchase Agreement or Green Energy Certification. You could also consider installing renewable energy systems on-site, such as solar panels or wind turbines to generate your renewable energy.

Tip #7: Offer buybacks and resale of used goods (circular fashion)

Incentivising customers to return their worn clothes to your company ensures that your clothing products are recycled properly. Encourage this return by offering discounts or coupon codes that can be applied to their purchase.

Brands such as REI and Patagonia utilize this strategy very well, having their customers return their used gear for discounted new gear. Not only does this build customer loyalty, but it also gives your brand an opportunity to reuse materials to make something new, or recycle old garments properly; both of which help diverge old goods from landfills.

Tip #8: Avoid greenwashing

Greenwashing describes inaccurate marketing whereby a brand is presented to be more green than it is. This is harmful because you’re manipulating your consumers into buying something that’s not as environmentally sound as it claims to be. This risks your brand’s reputation, while also hindering sustainable progress. That is, regardless of how green you market your product to be, you’re taking attention away from the environmental damage your processes are causing. This stifles collaboration and can alienate your consumers as they’re left feeling exploited. To learn more about how to promote your green business without greenwashing, read: Promoting Your Green Business Without Greenwashing.

Another great way to ensure that you’re not guilty of greenwashing is by looking to certify your business with green business certification. Use a verified 3rd party like the Green Business Bureau to validate your efforts and audit your sustainability program. Certification will show consumers that you’re practicing sustainable business, and are serious about giving your consumers the transparency they deserve.

The next generation of fashion is sustainable fashion

The business landscape is changing. Consumers are beginning to realize the detrimental impacts of fast fashion. As such, the ethical fashion marketplace is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.7%, increasing from $6,349.9 million in 2020 to $10,109.9 million in 2025.

In this article, we’ve given you eight top tips on how you can create a sustainable fashion brand. The benefits of doing so are immense, from reducing operational costs to elevating your brand’s image. Yet, when defining a reason for being sustainable, this business case is dwarfed when we consider the positive impacts a sustainable fashion brand has on our environment and communities across the planet.

If the fashion industry cannot step up and take responsibility for its environmental and social destruction, then this industry is doomed as governments, NGOs, consumers, employees, and investors seek legislation change, with stakeholders collaborating to preserve the rich and wonderful world we’ve inherited. The sustainable fashion brand aims to maintain a comfortable way of life for the next generation. One dressed in natural fibers designed to last a lifetime.

Grace is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. She is passionate about environmentalism and sustainability, especially in regard to the fashion industry. In her free time, she loves to be with her friends, family, and dog, Leo. She also enjoys reading, cooking, and creating art!

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