From fast fashion to luxury goods, apparel companies are getting serious—and seriously creative—about sustainability. Here are some of the most important innovations and initiatives greening the fashion industry.
For many consumers, the biggest contributor to their environmental footprint may not be their daily commutes or cross-country flights—it’s their wardrobe.
In fact, the apparel industry uses enough fresh water to quench the thirst of 5 million people a year, produces 20% of global wastewater and has a carbon intensity that exceeds aviation and shipping combined. It’s also a major contributor to microplastic pollution in soil and water.
Fashion’s social impact isn’t lost on consumers—particularly younger buyers representing a key demographic. Many are consciously buying fewer items of new clothing and embracing “thrifting” as a more sustainable alternative. At the same time, investors focused on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors are also taking a closer look at the industry’s impact and, whether through engagement or exclusion, further incentivizing apparel makers to rethink how they make, market and dispose of their wares.
This puts the fashion industry in an interesting predicament: How to stay relevant to consumers clamoring for the latest styles while reducing the environmental and social impacts of clothing’s life cycle.
Then again, the apparel industry is no stranger to reinvention—and now it’s applying that same ingenuity to a wide range of ESG innovations and initiatives. Here are sustainable fashion trends
Investing in Alternative Materials
Materials are the largest contributor to the environmental footprint of the fashion industry. Between 60% and 70% of all items of clothing are made using synthetic petroleum-based fabrics. When washed, these fabrics shed microplastics that make their way into soil, rivers and the ocean, where synthetic textiles account for more than a third of all microplastics.
To address the problem, fashion brands and material science companies are looking at using alternative materials, such as biodegradable polyester, and at scale and even making products, such as eyeglasses, out of captured carbon instead of plastic. Leather is another big area of focus, particularly among luxury apparel companies, which account for 30% to 50% of the $100 billion market for animal hides. Companies are researching and developing leather-like products grown in labs, or made from apple skins or mycelium, which is the vegetative part of a fungus, and actually offsets carbon as part of its growing process.
Entering the Re-sale Market
Sustainable materials are a big part of the solution, but so are circular business models, which make it viable for companies to refurbish and resell their own products. Many large retailers are encouraging customers to drop off or send in their old clothing and are investing in their own second-hand sales channels. Even luxury brands are increasingly finding value in refurbishing and reselling select pieces.
Integrating circular business models at scale isn’t without its challenges. Retailers need to coordinate the ‘reverse logistics’ of reselling, as well as managing transport cost and operations for second-hand items.
Taking the Lead on Recycling
While reselling or refurbishing apparel is often the most sustainable option, it often isn’t feasible. Here’s where recycling becomes a critical part of the sustainable playbook. Indeed, roughly 80% of all fibers end up in a landfill.
Recycling is still a very mechanical process, particularly for cotton, and few technological advancements have been achieved in recent history, In order for large retailers to achieve their ambitious recycling targets, the industry will need to find new ways to make recycling efficient and cost effective.
Designing and Debuting in the Metaverse
At first glance, the concept of brands designing and selling apparel exclusively for the metaverse—a virtual world that incorporates augmented and virtual reality—seems like a novelty with no positive real-world outcomes. However, digital-first technologies, such as digital rendering services, allow companies to design, present and review collections in a compelling and realistic way—reducing the environmental footprint of the design and marketing phases of clothing production.
Digital renderings could also significantly reduce waste associated with returns on ill-fitting products or those that were poorly represented onscreen. Theoretically, customers will be able to dress their digital twins before they buy, in which case they may be less likely to return products that don’t fit or look like what they expected.
Looking Beyond the Look Book
Alternative materials, circular business models, efficient recycling and digital design can go a long way in making the garments produced by the fashion industry more sustainable.
Still, as is the case in most industries, making meaningful changes will also require looking at the operational side of the apparel business—thinking about everything from energy use and hiring practices, to marketing and governance.
In the last 20 years, “fast fashion”—typically inexpensive clothing that wears out quickly—has fundamentally transformed the apparel industry with its frequent style drops, affordability and shipping convenience. Between 2000-2015, clothing production doubled, yet the time consumers spent wearing the garments actually fell by more than a third, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Redesigning Products with Plastic Alternatives
Some companies, like footwear and apparel company Allbirds, are redesigning wardrobe staples to be sustainable from the onset, choosing to make their sneakers from wool, sugarcane and other natural materials rather than plastic.
Beyond making sustainability a core part of its product lineup, Allbirds has also made it an explicit part of its value proposition to investors. When the company was preparing to go public in 2021, which Morgan Stanley helped lead, the company co-created the Sustainability Principles and Objectives Framework with Business for Social Responsibility to give late-stage private and early-stage public companies a credible and clear mechanism for demonstrating their ESG credentials. Many investors saw the framework as a step in the right direction and valuable tool for companies planning to go public.
Renting and Reselling to Increase Use and Reduce New Consumption
Other companies are finding ways to help consumers buy fewer new products to minimize unnecessary waste. Rent the Runway offers apparel and accessories from more than 750 brands that consumers can keep for a short time and return, extending the useful life of clothes. There’s also an option to buy through the company’s resale platform or even have clothes repaired.
In addition to rental business models, resale companies help prevent waste by facilitating the movement of products from user to user, yielding more wears per garment, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Secondhand marketplaces are growing around the world with estimates predicting that the market will grow 127% by 2026 to an estimated $218 billion,9 due in part to more consumers recognizing that their individual consumption habits can have significant impacts on the planet.
Recycled Materials for Creating New Products
While it’s important to keep garments in use for as long as possible, there will come a time when some clothes are ready to be retired. When that time does come, it’s important to divert as many garments away from landfill as possible.
One option is to use recycled materials for new products, effectively keeping the materials in use for as long as possible. It’s a strategy that VF Corporation, whose brands include The North Face and Timberland, says is key to reducing its environmental footprint.
Particularly relevant to its sustainable fashion ambitions was the company’s decision to allocate a portion of the green bond’s proceeds to procure recycled materials for both its products and packaging, including fabric containing at least 50% recycled-content nylon and polyester and materials containing at least 80% recycled-content paper and corrugate. Materials that likely would have sat in landfills are now back on shelves.
The fashion industry is using more water, creating more waste and emitting more greenhouse gases. Not only are fashion companies the major contributors of plastic microfibers in our environment today—they are also responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire economies of France, Germany and the U.K. combined.
Companies can ensure alignment with both consumers and investors seeking to scale sustainable fashion solutions.