It is no great secret that fashion leaves a large environmental and societal footprint.
Some disasters, such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh which killed over 1,000 people, garner massive international outrage and create new activism movements. Others such as the constant pollution of water following the use of harsh dyes and bleaches receive less attention.
Fashion businesses have a responsibility to make ethical choices from the use of sustainable materials to the treatment of workers and good environmental conditions.
Making ethics an integral part of your supply chain makes business sense.
There are significant legal motivations ranging from laws about modern slavery to corporate manslaughter which are particularly prevalent at an EU Level.
An ethical approach to business also has an impact on the bottom line. In the short term, low prices may win out but longer term brand loyalty comes from people believing and investing in a brand. If your only differentiator is price, you will not have to wait long for a competitor to come along and undercut you with a new and nimbler business model. Taking an ethical approach is not only the right thing to do but has big business upsides too.
London-based international retailer, Marks & Spencer, has long led the way on these issues and famously integrated the standard into their company CSR policies, so that responsible sourcing, environmental and social sustainability form a key part of its supply chain.
In Europe generally, there has also been a move to local manufacturing which both gives more control over the factories and their associated working conditions and significantly reduces the environmental impact. A famous recent example of this in the UK is Hiut Denim which has revitalised the denim industry in Cardigan Bay, Wales.
In addition to the PR effect, these companies are able to supply robust evidence as part of their external reporting on ethical issues, which evidences transparency, avoids time consuming and distracting audits. This results in long term reputational benefits with current and potential customers.
The recyclability of fashion items (the “circular economy”) has become an important selling point. At the 5th Copenhagen Fashion Summit of 2017, 20 brands including Asos, Adidas, H&M and the Kering Group undertook to meet circular economy targets by 2020.
Concrete steps towards achieving these goals have already been taken by some retailers. For example, Adidas Sport’s Infinity Shoes are entirely recyclable, and in 2013, the H&M Group launched its Garment Collecting service, which has collected in excess of 40,000 tonnes of garments to date. The garments collected are re-worn as second hand clothing, reused to create new garments or other goods, or recycled into textile fibres for other uses, such as for insulation. This a drop in the ocean but they demonstrate how the fashion industry is changing its approach towards manufacturing as well as how fashion items are produced and consumed.
Although major developments have been made in recent years. The intense pressure of retail, particularly those larger businesses with many legacy stores and large pension commitments means that there is a risk of CSR falling down the priority list. For example, many large retailers delayed renewal of the Bangladesh Accord on fire and building safety which was set up in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster.