To tackle the sustainability challenge, businesses must adopt a collaborative approach and be prepared to work with all stakeholders along the supply chain, and even with competitors, according to a report in issue 42 of Global Apparel Markets from the global business information company Textiles Intelligence.

Businesses also need to influence consumers to purchase conscientiously as consumer demand for newness in fashion continues to fuel overconsumption and “a throw away” culture. A number of companies, retailers and other organisations have responded to the challenge with a variety of actions which include using recycled materials in the manufacture of clothing, using more sustainably sourced cotton, and producing clothing which lasts longer. There are also some forward-looking brands and retailers who are operating initiatives such as take-back schemes, leasing schemes, resale schemes and repurposing schemes. However, the scope of these business models is relatively small.

Many of the actions taken by the industry to tackle the sustainability challenge do not provide long-term solutions, and in some cases they raise more issues than they solve. Many environmentalists want manufacturers to make clothing which “lasts a lifetime”. But this would effectively reduce the size of the global market in volume terms. To maintain revenues and profits, businesses would have to increase the unit values of their products and charge consumers “sustainability premiums”. This approach has the potential to hurt low income earners who feel empowered by being able to purchase clothes which are cheap but fashionable. In this respect, the value of retail therapy should not be underestimated.

Also, if the industry produces less, this would have major consequences for the economies of developing countries where most of the low cost products sold worldwide are manufactured. Ultimately, environmental sustainability must be “win-win” for all stakeholders. To make a real impact on the problem, businesses must collaborate at all stages of the supply chain, and even with competitors. Businesses which do this and endeavour to build sustainability into their DNA will reap the rewards of revenue and reputation.