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Incremental Shift to More Sustainable Business

By Joshua Williams

16 Feb 2021

Sustainable fashion is now front and center in customer’s minds and purchase behaviors, as well as business logistics and planning. It’s been a precipitous philosophical shift over the past 20 years, as the impact of the industry on the environment and the people it employs has become more visible to the public. Talk has turned to practice, as both a means to ensure long-term viability and meet customer demand. And yet this shift can be daunting to companies—as sustainability encompasses so many different moving parts in a complex supply chain.

Sustainability expert and founder of The Knew Purpose, Sydney Price recommends that companies adopt a circular economy model. “This model is quite literally a supply chain that operates like a circle and is based on three core principles.”

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The first principle Sydney says is designing out waste and pollution points. “The focus here is on transitioning to more effective and efficient waste elimination processes that require fewer resource inputs such as fossil fuels, chemicals and even water. It also seeks to adopt more energy efficient resources such as renewable energy.”

The second principle is keeping products and materials in use. “The idea here is to transform the way clothes are designed, sold and used to break free from their disposable nature. Companies can start by creating more durable clothes. They can also change their business models to short-term rental subscriptions, resale and on-demand purchasing. Brands can also offer repair services.”

Sydney points out that focusing on this principle can add to overall brand / consumer engagement, and augment the perceived quality of product, experience and convenience, or what creative strategist AJ Lacouette refers to as the “new trinity.”

The third and final principle is regenerating natural systems. “A circular economy avoids the use of non-renewable resources and preserves or enhances renewable ones, for instance by returning valuable nutrients to the soil to support regeneration, or using renewable energy as opposed to relying on fossil fuels.”

Applying these three principles requires a systemic shift in a fashion company’s structure and operations, but has the potential to generate new opportunities while providing environmental and societal benefits. Sydney states, “The best way for a fashion brand or retailer to begin the process of creating a more circular economy within their own business is to align its sustainability strategy to their company’s vision, mission & values.” And she recommends that companies take advantage of initiatives developed by the United Nations, the CEO Agenda and the Paris Agreement. And then, she says, it is essential to connect mission, vision and values to quantifiable goals. For example, she suggests the Higg Index, created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “It offers a suite of tools that enable brands, retailers, and facilities of all sizes, at every stage in their sustainability journey, to accurately measure and score a company or product’s sustainability performance.”

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, a crisis that has forced brands to reset and rethink their efforts around sustainability, Sydney points out three positive trends related to circular economies: “First, we are seeing a movement towards more sustainable materials; innovations in leather alternatives such as pineapple leaf. Second, we are seeing luxury brands like Burberry partner with resale companies like The RealReal and ThreadUp. And third, we’re seeing more repair and recycle initiatives, with Eileen Fisher and Patagonia leading the way.”

Sydney highlights Stella McCartney as a sustainable leader in the luxury fashion space. “The company is part of the Make Fashion Circular Initiative, which aims to stimulate a level of collaboration and innovation necessary to create a new textile economy, aligned with the principles of the circular economy. The brand is also creating innovative ways to reuse materials, including recycled nylon and polyester, and regenerate cashmere.” She continues, “The brand also supports restorative farming practices to ensure the regeneration of natural sources, including sourcing viscose from sustainably managed forests in Sweden and the use of GOTS certified organic cotton.” When it comes to customer-facing strategies, she says, “The company co-launched Clevercare, an initiative aimed to educate consumers on how to take care of their garments, so they last longer.”

Creating a circular economy doesn’t happen overnight. It takes incremental change driven by thoughtful and knowledgeable leadership. Sydney concludes, “In a business like fashion, it’s easy to focus on the here and now and the year-to-year profitability. But to remain viable, fashion executives need to think and plan for the long term. After all, the very resources they require are limited.”