Accelerating Sustainability in Fashion, Clothing, Sportswear & Accessories

23rd International Conference
Online Conference: 15th-21st March 2021
Business School
University for the Creative Arts
KT18 5BE

Sustainable Innovation 2021 is a partner event of the United Nations International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, 2021

Sustainable Innovation 2021: Key Lessons

20 Lessons from Sustainable Innovation 2021: Accelerating Sustainability in Fashion, Clothing & Apparel

Professor Martin Charter, Director, The Centre for Sustainable Design ®, Business School for the Creative Industries, UCA

  1. Wicked Problem: tackling sustainability in fashion, clothing & the apparel system (the sector) is a Wicked Problem of significant scale; the complexity needs to be broken down into chunks &/or sub-systems to help increase understanding & determine inter-relationships; there is a lack of a systems perspective to determine where there are hotspots, gaps & the need for innovation in infrastructure, processes & materials; change is needed throughout the whole system (and with the support of major brands and producers), but pivot points are likely to be in sub-systems.
  2. Reality: the sector is a global economic powerhouse driven by many major brands but there are also many micro small enterprises (MSEs) with craft-based design & making skills that produce small volume job/batch garments & apparel; many of the outsourced factories contracted by the major brands are based in Asia & employ large numbers of people who use manual labour to operate machines rather than use robotics &/or Industry 4.0 technologies.
  3. Waste plus: the sector is a very linear system with high volumes of waste produced (production waste, overproduction, returns & stored, ‘end of 1st use’ waste); this includes significant waste resulting from the manufacturing process, which represents a major cost to the business that often seems to be unrecognised; in Bangladesh, some of these production off-cuts are distributed to brokers for materials recycling; however, there is an urgent need to implement more circular solutions that initially aim to extend the life of garments, components and materials, prior to recycling; waste sits alongside other major environmental impacts in the sector e.g. high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, water pollution & chemical use; measuring the extent of the environmental impacts still lacks definitive data with significant variations in figures for global CO2 emissions, for example.
  4. Social, ethics & equality: to date, most indices & tools have focused on environmental impacts of the sector; however, during the CV19 pandemic, health, social & community concerns have risen up the agenda significantly; presently, there appears to be a lack of consensus over the agreed definitions & terminology related to social issues in the sector which, for example, makes consistent social impact assessment, assurance, measurement & auditing a complex & difficult exercise; perhaps a social profit & loss tool &/or an integrated tool that covers environmental, social & economic aspects related to sustainability in the sector should be developed; social components of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might provide a useful starting point for framework development in the sector; ethical issues – what is right or wrong – alongside equity issues – fairness (e.g. fair wages, decent working conditions, etc) & access (for all) also need to be included in social discussions; further complexity is added as supply networks & outsourced manufacturing span many countries in Asia, where some issues become more nuanced due to cultural considerations.
  5. Policy, market transformation & collaboration: there is growing policy focus on the sector in Europe; but, for example, discussions over extended producer responsibility (EPR) are new to the sector compared to other market sectors which started in the mid-nineties e.g. packaging, electronics & vehicles; there are numerous, fragmented environmental initiatives in the sector: how does one self-regulate the various codes of conduct related to water, emissions, chemicals, etc within global supply networks?; market transformation policies need to be developed based on learning from other sectors that reward the leaders but also improve the performance of the laggards or remove them from the market; to increase awareness & understanding of product sustainability issues practical, action-oriented information needs to be disseminated through all tiers of global supply networks in relevant languages particularly in Asia; there is a need for leadership through multi-stakeholder collaboration amongst the numerous fragmented initiatives.
  6. Demand, consumers, social influencers & users: the shift to fast fashion started in the eighties driven by a few major brands & is now increasingly coming under the European policy & NGO spotlights; what are the role of retailers, e-retailers & platforms in “choice editing” e.g. just placing the most sustainable garments & apparel on the market?; there is a lack of comprehensive data in the public domain on unit sales of fashion, clothing and apparel at a country level & there are indications that a lack of funding is preventing the development of robust information collection systems; forecasting seems to be mainly qualitative & not quantitative, which appears to be contributing to high levels of over-production & waste; in practice, despite the sector appearing to be very customer oriented, the sector is very consumer (consumption) & product (production) oriented; social influencers have a powerful role in creating trends &, in effect, selling new products & contributing to fast fashion; at present, few social influencers are taking the lead on sustainable & more specifically circular fashion; the wardrobes of the future will include new, repaired, swapped, rented & perhaps virtual clothes; educating users in the care of their clothes through online videos &, by providing more data & information on strategies to extend the life of garments through repair, modification or upcycling using QR tags may be a future option for brands.
  7. Culture, indigenous & ethnic communities: the importance of local culture, indigenous & ethic communities is important to recognise in the sector; for example, in Bahrain, Western ‘mall’ culture (with strong links to social media) co-exists alongside many traditional tailoring businesses (1:1 engagement with tailors is important related to ‘fit’ & repairs), with garments & other accessories often shared within families & higher value items shared more widely within communities for special events; the connectedness of indigenous people to localities & regions in relation to clothing & apparel seems to have somewhat ‘gone under the radar’; in indigenous cultures there is often a slower, localised consumption & production model with clothing made, modified & repaired, & passed onto future generations with garments being high quality, well made & designed for longevity; there is a need to engage the “unrepresented voices” of indigenous cultures in the sustainability discussions in clothing & apparel sector, & indigenous knowledge – e.g. the inter-relationship between local cultures & local ecosystems – needs to be documented & learnt from; there needs to be further discussion over how to protect indigenous intellectual property (past/present/future)?; to be acceptable to various ethnic groups in the diaspora, sustainable fashion needs to be culturally sensitive, sized for all, more colourful & visually less boring!
  8. Regions & localism: the development of more circular fashion will require more focus on the development regional awareness, markets & infrastructure that enable the extension of the lifecycles of fashion, clothing & apparel items, components & materials, as well as enabling recycling (mechanical & chemical) at the ‘end of life’ e.g. Dutch Circular Textile Valley; there are legal systems in Europe that use Geographical Indicators to protect & promote regional strengths of companies e.g. ‘Made in’ XYZ (e.g. Harris Tweed); this may be of increasing interest in relation to the growing of fibres for the sector (products for the biological system), however land-use issues related to food & non-food systems need to be ‘factored in’ to discussions; some regions use regional eco-labels protected by trademarks & these are used to promote the local economy that’s often linked to tourism & agriculture, with labelling highlighting the origin of garments, craft & produce from a region or locality.
  9. Reincarnation & upcycling: there is a need to explore opportunities to bring garments back to life & move inactive ‘end of 1st use’ clothing into active 2nd or nth life clothing through, for example, upcycling (existing/new uses) by adding value e.g. through visible mending, etc; upcycled garments are perceived differently in Northern & Southern countries, & amongst younger & older age groups; a market has been identified in the West for a new upcycled jacket brand – that uses off-cuts (waste) from the production of jeans in Bangladesh – in Bangladesh there is for the garment due to negative market perceptions of upcycling; there is a need for visual processes e.g. online videos, exhibitions & demonstrations, simple tools & information (written/graphic) to increase user awareness & understanding of practical strategies to extend the life of fashion, clothing & apparel through improved care, repair & modification in the ‘use’ phase of the lifecycle.
  10. Innovation, smartness & digital: directors of business units of some brands within the sector are being incentivised to drive sustainable innovation by aligning bonuses to tangible results e.g. launching more sustainable garments & apparel, & might drive more (radical) sustainable innovation through new, unusual & novel external collaborations; it will take time to bring new Industry 4.0 technologies to the market, but digitalisation will continue to grow fast in the sector; there is increasing recognition of the level of energy consumption (& CO2 emissions) that are needed to make the significant number of calculations that are required by Industry 4.0 technologies.
  11. Online, virtual fashion & immersive technologies: there is the rise of new (re-use) exchange platforms in the sector e.g. Depop; specialist online videos, communities & blogs – related to making, modifying & repairing of garments & apparel e.g. bras (partially related to sizing issues & customisation) – are emerging; virtual fashion has the potential to reduce waste by lessening the phenomenon of one-off wearing of garments for social media that are then returned to retailers &/or e-platforms; an example is the production of a virtual fashion show in Ghana that showcased circular fashion garments which indicated the ‘world is levelling up’ in technology use & the emergence of strong sprit of techno-entrepreneurship in some countries; however, as indicated above, there is relatively high energy consumption (& CO2 emissions) from the rendering process that enables virtual fashion due to intensive nature data processing completed in the algorithms; in the future, consumers might want to explore the “world behind the brand” through immersive technologies e.g. virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), etc to enable them to interact with different people in different tiers of global supply networks, as well as, experience the ‘making process’; as we move to more novel combinations of physical & virtual fashion, clothing & apparel Products (P) & Services (S) that are distributed &/or consumed through e-platforms, the sector will need to ‘factor in’ the energy consumption (& CO2 emissions) associated Systems (S) related to the delivery of those product-services (P-S).
  12. Data, transparency & traceability: there is a growing challenge of accessing ‘good’ quality social & environmental data in complex global supply networks which includes issues over exchange of data amongst multiple stakeholders e.g. different data formats, power of suppliers, etc; developing the algorithms to extract more value from datasets – technical, financial, social & environmental attributes – will be increasingly needed; at present, however, there is a lack of ‘good’ quality datasets for the widespread use of Industry 4.0 technologies in the sector, but the number of datasets is growing; critical consumers will increasingly demand more transparency & therefore technologies & processes to enable traceability will need to grow; the increasing demand for transparency will drive the need for traceability, & blockchain & other digital ledger technologies may be increasingly useful tools but are complex; however, there are no codes &/or standards related traceability in the sector; what lessons can the sector learn from the ‘horse meat’ scandal in Europe that was driven by concerns over misrepresentation, fraud & health?
  13. Fibres: the biggest environmental impact of fibres is at the raw material stage of the lifecycle, with 60% of fibres being petroleum-based (products from the technical system) and 40% being non-petroleum which includes natural fibres (products from the biological system); therefore issues related to extending the life of technical fibres through chemical & mechanical recycling are key; chemical recycling has an important potential role, but there needs to be a better understanding of the wider environmental impact of chemical recycling e.g. energy use, chemical use, water pollution, etc; however, many garments & apparel include mixed technical & biomaterials materials, & this will be exacerbated as we increase the use of wearable technologies; vegan leathers are emerging that include both plant-based fibres & polymer binders that can be described as ‘vegan’, as they are not made from animal hides, but can’t presently be described as circular; the implementation of design strategies & new technologies that enable separability & disassembly will be increasingly required if we are to extend the life of garments, components & materials.
  14. Bio-materials: a series of questions are now emerging that include: what can be learnt from nature in terms of bio-material development? what lessons can be learnt from biomimicry? how can R&D be accelerated to produce more market-ready bio-materials? how can the outputs of R&D labs be scaled to produce volume production? how do we develop new forms of bio-fabrication labs, bio-refineries, and bio-factories to produce new bio-materials? where is funding going to come from for R&D & commercialisation? how can food waste be used for bio-materials development?; bio-material development through biotechnology is not a ‘magic bullet’ as there wider environmental impacts associated to land-use & waste issues related to disposal of micro-organisms used in processes; the environmental impact of bio-polymer fibre substitutes for petroleum-based polyester needs further research as recent LCA study that compared bio-polymers to petroleum-based polyester indicated that the environmental impact of bio-polymer fibres is not necessarily better because, for example, land-use issues associated with bio-polymers are much more significant compared to petroleum-based polyester.
  15. Standards, greenwashing & the new ugly: there is a need for new guidance & testing standards related to sustainability, textiles, clothing & apparel e.g. decommissioning of clothes, composting of fabrics, etc; to reduce market confusion, there is a growing need to tighten up on product-related environmental claims across all sectors, including fashion, clothing & apparel; brands that do not address sustainability issues in the “world behind the brand” may increasingly be considered to be ‘ugly’, & concerns are likely grow with more demand for transparency & traceability; the availability of ‘better’ quality data arising from increased data processing power will be a key factor in making global supply networks more transparent.
  16. Sustainable entrepreneurs: B-Corporations are starting to emerge in the sector with growth & expansion not necessarily the goals of sustainable entrepreneurs in the sector, but sustainability, purpose & good work are central to the mission of these businesses; a number of these companies are opening up more active two-way communications channels with customers through social media e.g. Instagram; authenticity & the stories about the personal journeys of the setting up & establishing start-ups & SMEs are of growing interest to younger consumers; there are lessons to be learnt for sustainable entrepreneurs from indigenous native American communities that include: a) physically re-connect with nature; b) slow down, focus on the making process; c) build strong relationships & cohesive communities through sharing information, knowledge & stories.
  17. Tools & processes: many product sustainability tools aimed at companies that are at the early stages of their sustainability journey are often too complex & not designed for basic levels of awareness & understanding; the use tools should be thought of as part of a wider engagement process that might include active ‘play’ & working ‘hands on’ with biological and technical waste materials; involvement from different disciplines in such processes can bring in different perspectives; setting up a process with companies can take time as trust needs to be built & results may not be immediate – therefore it should be about a longer-term relationship.
  18. Confusion, education & upskilling: students who are interested in entering the sector are confused over how to balance their personal concerns over sustainability with the challenges of getting a job in the industry, and often lack access to up-to-date information & new sustainable materials to experiment with; what is the role of university educators in leading the integration of sustainability into the fashion, clothing & apparel curriculum?; what is the role of educators to help students define their personal responsibility & ethics in relation to fashion, clothing & apparel i.e.. what is good? & bad?, & what are the grey areas?; there is perhaps also a gap for educators in the sector to provide commercial training to help to upskill artisans/artisan designers: a project in India was designed to support female entrepreneurs to increase their technical understanding of Instagram to improve brand communications & to connect with online marketplaces e.g. Etsy, to enable the expansion of sales from local to international markets.
  19. Present & Future: 2030 is fast approaching & there is a need start to identify, initiate, choose & fund the sustainable innovations for the next decade, now; in tandem, the ‘quick wins’ in the system need to identified & solutions implemented quickly; 2021 marks the start of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration & the sector needs to decide what role it needs to play in helping to tackle the loss of biodiversity.
  20. The Journey: the path to a more sustainable fashion, clothing & apparel sector is complex & evolving; there is a growing need for multi-disciplinary skills & knowledge, & multi-stakeholder co-operation to develop lower carbon, circular & socially inclusive solutions in the sector; to engage in new discussions, networking & collaborations it is recommended to join the LinkedIn Group: Accelerating Sustainability in Fashion, Clothing & Apparel

© Martin Charter 2021


For more information on Sustainable Innovation 2021   please contact:

Professor Martin Charter
The Centre for Sustainable Design ®
University for the Creative Arts
Tel: + 44 (0) 1252 892772
Fax: + 44 (0) 1252 892747

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Sustainable Innovation 2021 is a partner event of the United Nations International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, 2021