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The newest challenges for the sustainable apparel industry

July 5, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC
The Nike Air Zoom SuperRep 2 Next Nature shoes for circuit training were made with at least 20% recycled materials by weight, implementing Nike Grind in the outsole and old manufacturing scraps, recycled polyester, and plastic bottles throughout the upper and midsole.
Courtesy of Nike

If there’s anything connecting fashion and apparel brands big and small, it’s a host of ambitious promises when it comes to sustainability. And with good reason: In addition to recent controversies around forced labor, there’s the urgency of environmental impact. A 2021 report by The World Economic Forum posits that the fashion industry at large generates 5% of global emissions, on par with FMCG. That makes it potentially the third most polluting industry

These aren’t merely thorny roadblocks in an otherwise stellar business but rather part of a veritable crisis that has awakened the world’s collective consciousness. Now, it’s not a question of when apparel brands will act but how they are addressing their role in damaging the environment, generating waste, and enabling unethical labor conditions-—and the challenges they face in doing so. 

As assiduous environmental activists point out, however, the gulfs in apparel brands’ steps to transform their businesses are stark. Some have implemented radical changes to the way they operate or have built their brands on an ecologically-sound foundation while many more release “ethical” lines while still producing their standard high-volume collections released once or multiple times a season. They put up splashy websites detailing their commitments, some with greater transparency than others, produce annual sustainability reports, and launch social media campaigns to reach consumers who know they should care about the environmental and human impact of their choices but aren’t necessarily well-versed. Taken at face value, these brand efforts might appear compelling. But is the dial really moving? That depends on who you ask. 

Dana Thomas, journalist and bestselling author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, says there is a big difference between sustainability as a true credo, as with Patagonia and Stella McCartney, and a veil of sustainability. “Any company that bases its entire business model on moving huge amounts of volume—think Zara, H&M, and their ilk—can never be truly sustainable. They may put out “Green” or “Conscious” collections, but those lines make up single digits of production and sales,” says Thomas. “They may say they are sourcing “sustainable cotton,” but sustainable still uses copious amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals, and it’s GMO; it’s a long, long way from organic, and significantly impacts the planet.” 

Still, transforming a business from top to bottom, particularly established brands, won’t happen overnight. It’s a long-term endeavor, says Vanessa von Bismarck, the co-founding partner of the fashion public relations firm BPCM. “Brands need to balance it with other business imperatives. For companies engaging in this transformation, the first step is usually to set clear and ambitious targets. This allows them to create clarity and rally all stakeholders behind shared goals,” she says. Then, it’s about operating on multiple timelines to make progress. “Long-term transformative projects can take a few years to yield results, such as supply chain transparency or waste elimination. Those projects can be complemented with shorter-term projects that demonstrate results faster.”

A smattering of materials used by Nike Grind.
Courtesy of Nike

The multi-pronged approach to overhauling business has been Nike’s strategy, for example, for many years. The brand’s Move to Zero platform not only outlines its environmental targets for 2025 but its goals for hiring and representation, community building, labor health and safety, as well as obligations for its extended supply chain to match the same standards. Executive-level compensation, the brand says, will be tied to this 2025 target performance. 

Noel Kinder, Nike’s chief sustainability officer, insists that part of the path to getting there, particularly when it comes to waste, is in scaling a circular business model and designing products with their end in mind. “In fiscal year 2020 alone, something as small as single digit and centimeter adjustments (switching packaging materials to reusable cartons and a multi-year process of deploying hundreds of modernized cutting machines that cut pieces of garments and footwear with narrower gaps and less wasted material between them) prevented more than 3.5 million kilograms of waste from ever being created. At scale, these adjustments and innovations are our path to achieving 100% waste diverted from landfills from our extended supply chain and recycling at least 80% of product manufacturing scraps back into Nike products and other goods.” 

Nike Grind, an initiative the brand launched in 1992 to transform rubber, foam, and textile fluff from worn out or unsellable athletic shoes into playground surfaces, basketball courts, and bike-share stations, is an example of how the company can blend sustainability efforts with business considerations. Using new machinery acquired in 2020, the brand was able to repurpose 131 metric tons of rubber, among other materials, which is enough to equip 1 million square feet of playground surfaces. Meanwhile, Nike Refurbished, another recent program from the brand, refurbishes returned product and puts it back on the market. 

“The last phase of a product’s life is one of the most challenging pieces of the sustainability puzzle. What to do with well-loved products is something we’re still piloting and working to drive broader scale,” explains Kinder. By 2025, the brand aims to have donated, refurbished, or recycled ten times more used or defective products than it does today. 

The Nike Crater Impact shoes for men and women was made from at least 25% recycled materials by weight.
Courtesy of Nike

Of course, there may be strong examples of circularity from a handful of brands but it remains a rather elusive ambition for the broader industry. According to BoF, as much as 12% of fibers are still discarded on the factory floor, 25% of garments remain unsold, and less than 1% are recycled into new goods. It’s as much an issue of consumer adoption in purchasing refurbished products as it is a question of a company’s reverse logistical readiness and, as Kinder described, designing for the end-of-life cycle. 

Smaller brands, particularly those which were conceived at the start to be low-waste and circular, can be more nimble and make incremental improvements as they evolve. The French sneaker brand Veja, considered one of the world’s most sustainable shoes, produces their collections in Brazil from bio based and recycled materials (wild rubber, fair-trade cotton, recycled plastic bottles, and even upcycled tilapia hides) and have recently launched a test hub in Bordeaux (called VEJA x Darwin) for cleaning, repairing, and recycling old sneakers. On the human side of things, the brand has been leading the charge. Since 2004, the company has worked to support and employ marginalized individuals—including those previously incarcerated and recovering from addiction. Logistics are handled by Ateliers Sans Frontières, a non-profit that helps vulnerable individuals find jobs and regain social stability.

Inside the Veja x Darwin facility in Bordeaux, France.
Courtesy of Veja

For August Bard Bringéus and Jakob Dworsky, founders of the Swedish direct to consumer apparel brand Asket, their mission is not only to produce durable essentials, ethically and sustainably, but to do so as transparently as possible to empower their customers. In 2018, the duo launched a full traceability charter, allowing them to track every step of their garments’ journey from start to finish. In the following year, they took it further by partnering with RiSE (Research Institute Sweden) to calculate the true cost and impact of their clothing, producing an Impact Receipt detailing CO2 equivalent, energy and water consumption, and minimum lifespan. Customers receive the receipt with their order. 

“You can’t offset your way out of the climate crisis, you can’t shop your way to sustainability. I don’t think it’s the way forward—to tell consumers they can keep consuming while we do all these offsets,” says August Bard Bringéus. Aware of the paradox of making clothing when overconsumption and overproduction are among the industry’s biggest issues, Bard Bringéus and Dworsky say their goal is to get more people to buy less, to have their pieces last longer, and to encourage them to take better care of them. “We still think it makes sound business sense to sell people what they actually need and are actually going to use and love long term.”

As rational as the sentiment is, it isn’t the strategy for most brands. “Going sustainable in the short term costs brands money, which reduces their quarterly and annual profits,” Thomas reminds. “Despite what they tell you, and what you believe, fashion brands are in the business of making beautiful profits, not beautiful clothes.” 

Moving forward, the challenge for Asket is further reducing the impact of their garments reviewed in conjunction with RiSE and improving across all metrics — durability, energy consumption, and traceability — for the pieces they produced when they launched in 2015. 

As for the wider apparel industry? “It’s cheaper to pollute, plain and simple,” Thomas says. “The only solution is regulation.” 

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