By Gemma Taylor -
In recent years public attention has been drawn to the need to minimise the negative effect of human impact on the environment. Many retailers have looked to increase sustainability and improve environmental standards, and the fashion industry has been particularly vocal on the issue.
A number of fashion retailers have focused on sustainable fashion, using sustainable or recycled materials, as well as working to improve supply chain methods and ethical standards. This is a key issue, as garments account for five per cent of consumer expenditure in this country and it is estimated that Britain spends £46 billion per year on imported clothing.
The subject of sustainability was highlighted in Parliament earlier this year, when Baroness Young of Hornsey, an Ambassador for Ethical Fashion Forum, spoke to the House of Lords in March. Lord Sheikh responded to the Baroness’s call for a greater focus on UK-based fashion in a way that highlighted environmental concerns.
“With our prestige in this industry comes social responsibility,” he claimed.
Lord Sheikh added that the rising price of cotton, which has soared by 150 per cent since the beginning of 2010, will affect UK fashion retailers and that this development ought to serve as a catalyst for using British-based suppliers.
A number of well-known high-street fashion retailers commit to specific, individual environmental policies, and many employ directors who are involved in making these policies successful.
New Look, the high-street fashion retailer, has an Ethical Trading Initiative Director, in charge of its environmental policies and ensuring that the focus on sustainability remains paramount during the tough economic climate.
Mark Bannister, Ethical and Environment Manager at the retailer, said that in spite of squeezed margins and disappointing sales figures, green solutions are critical to their strategy.
“With difficult challenges in commodity cost increases being driven by rapidly increasing global demand and decreasing sales as a result of lower consumer spending, the long-term economic trend in the retail sector is inevitably towards sustainability,” Bannister added.
“At present, we are finding the need to prioritise greener solutions as they offer a greater overall product potential, looking beyond the traditional metric of margins.
Ultimately the transition towards sustainable fashion will be a lengthy process but we are beginning to find that sustainable choices are the most cost effective choice from a holistic product perspective.”
New Look has been a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative since 2003 and ensures that all its suppliers adhere to the code to guarantee eco-friendly and ethical standards are reached.
The initiative shapes the ethical goals of many retailers, and a number of other well-known shops aim to achieve these standards. Asos.com, the online fashion house, aims to continue to achieve and promote environmental standards through its work as a member of the programme.
Asos recently launched an online fashion recycling source, allowing customers to trade in unwanted clothes and Christian Smith, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Manager at the company, claims that “it has been received very well”.
He added: “We have over 20,000 items listed on the site, with hundreds of new products being listed each day and selling each day.”
An annual review of environmental policy is conducted by the e-tailer and, despite fears that such projects can be steeped in bureaucracy and slow down the trading process, Smith claims that the move raises awareness among staff.
Smith told Retail Gazette: “It helps our staff to be more aware of impacts and how they can help reduce it. Reducing impact on the environment has either lead to us saving money or an increase in efficiency. Furthermore, developments in sustainable fashion have inspired our designers as new innovations bring new possibilities.”
The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF), which has the target of developing collaborations between all members of the fashion industry, says that recycling is a positive and easy way for factories and mills to save money during the tough economic climate.
As the leading body in sustainable fashion, the EFF holds regular events for members, including many high-street brands. This week, the ‘Sustainable Fashion Goes Global’ event discussed a number of trends within the fashion industry relating to green interests.
Emily Pearce, Senior Manager for the group, said: “The event covered an introduction to the latest global market and supply trends for sustainable fashion, including the latest global market developments and opportunities, the designers at the cutting edge of the sustainable design movement, and global sustainable supply innovation.”
Hundreds of requests for information are made to the EFF per week from people working in the fashion industry all over the world. The majority of these requests relate to sourcing and the organisation reports seeing innovations in supply chains and CSR throughout the industry.
On a wider industry level, sustainability is high on the list of priorities for all retailers, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Richard Dodd, a spokesperson for the representative group, said: “Members selling apparel and textiles make up a considerable proportion of our membership so we address issues that affect our members - social and environmental sustainability of the industry being high up on the list of priorities.”
Members focus on a number of different areas, including sustainable sourcing of raw material like cotton and wool, the environmental impact of production, transportation and manufacturing as part of the supply chain, and the impact with regard to consumers.
In spite of economic pressures and the ongoing downturn affecting retailers, the BRC has not noticed an impact on green focus.
Dodd explained: “Implementation of some ‘green issues’ down the supply chain have been affected but those that result in more efficient supply and result in cost saving will always win over to be a priority for the more profit-oriented business.”
In the long-term, retailers of all sectors will need to develop their environmental agendas to fit growing consumer demand for ethical and eco-friendly options.
Dodd said: “There is no alternative but to ‘go green’. If your business still exists in 2050 it will look completely different. This change is influenced by the need to radically reduce carbon emissions, increasing resource costs and resource scarcity. These are core business continuity issues.”