Is Sustainable Fashion the New Normal?

It’s long been a hot-button topic in the industry, but sustainable fashion is no oxymoron.

In the recent years, an increasing number of brands have adopted more eco-friendly stances from eliminating toxic chemicals in the production process to using recycled materials to create apparel, footwear and accessories.

Some have even expanded that definition to include ethical labor conditions, such as providing workers with fair wages and respecting basic human rights — particularly after the tragic Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 that killed more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh and forced consumers to rethink the treatment of the very people who make the clothes they wear on a day-to-day basis.

While the scope itself is broad, sustainability is categorically centered on social responsibility and the impact of human activity on the environment. Whether it’s simply a trend or indicative of a bigger movement, a shift is certainly happening — and here are the brands proving so.

The Newbies and the Veterans

Chances are you’ve already heard of San Francisco-based startup Allbirds. Founded by Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown, the company that introduced “the world’s most comfortable shoes” quickly evolved from a Silicon Valley darling to a sustainable-footwear phenomenon. Among the materials used by the brand are recycled bottles for laces, castor bean oil for the insoles, recycled cardboard for packaging as well as its signature merino wool and tree fibers for the shoe uppers.

But it’s not just Allbirds riding the sustainable wave. On the newer front, Adidas Speedfactory in May unveiled its first high-performance running shoe made with Parley Ocean Plastic off the West Coast, and The North Face this month revealed the pilot phase of its green project, Renewed, a collection of refurbished clothes sourced from returned, defective or damaged apparel.

Stella McCartney launched her fashion house as the first vegetarian luxury brand and has built her business based on the practice, founding the “World of Sustainability” platform to document the start-to-finish process of operating a modern and responsible company. Other well-known brands that have established their sustainability credentials include Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and Reformation.

Even fast-fashion names — inherently associated with low costs and high volume production — are getting in on the action. H&M has pushed itself to the forefront with its 2017 Sustainability Report (the most recent to date) revealing that recycled or other sustainably sourced materials made up 35 percent of the company’s total material use.

“Every year we take new steps towards our bold goal to only use recycled or other sustainably sources materials by 2030,” said Mattias Bodin, sustainability business expert in materials and innovation at H&M. “This significantly reduces the use of natural resources and the negative impact our business has on the climate.”

High-street e-tailer Asos partnered with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion to launch a circular fashion training program to educate its designers on sustainability. (The news, which was announced this week, came shortly after it pledged a ban on cashmere, silk, down and feathers on its online platform by early 2019.) Nike, Under Armour and other mega footwear and apparel players have also joined the fray — publishing their own annual sustainability reports to keep track of their advancements in this arena.

While universal guidelines for sustainability have yet to be determined, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is perhaps the closest to a governing body for the industry, developing the Higg Index that enables brands and retailers to measure and score a company or product’s sustainability performance — thus empowering businesses to improve conditions for factory works, local communities and ultimately the environment.

The Future of Sustainable Fashion

Still — as with any new idea — the path to making sustainability a viable fashion business model is not without its challenges.

This week, sustainable fashion label Edun announced that it was ceasing operations following multinational luxury conglomerate LVMH’s decision to divest and sell its shares back to founders Ali Hewson and husband Bono (of rock band U2 fame). The 13-year-old brand was founded on a socially conscious platform with a made-in-Africa focus — and despite a cult status, Edun suffered a high turnover in its roster of creative directors and inevitably struggled to determine its brand identity.

Insiders have also suggested that although millennials overwhelmingly advocate for sustainable fashion and social change, the eco-friendly factor of a fashion product can often be trumped by other decisions, such as price and value. A LIM College survey this year determined that even though the generation favors sustainable apparel and accessories, “the industry is not providing them with sufficient choices that also meet their most important criteria for making a purchase.” Whether or not the industry is ready, the message is clear: It’s time for brands to go green — or go home.

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