“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,” proclaimed author, socialite and dandy Oscar Wilde, decrying a constant quest for renewal that, even to this day, entails grave issues of sustainability.
During the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the world’s largest event on sustainable fashion, the halls of the lavish Copenhagen Opera House bustled with in-vogue guests: managers and sustainability experts of leading enterprises, sustainable fashion advocates and over a hundred young designers from all over the world. In the spirit of the annual Fashion Revolution Day, an event that highlights the need for greater transparency in the industry as a means of sustainability, a question was raised: “How are my clothes made?”
In many cases, there is no easy answer. “We have complex supply chains,” says Marie-Claire Daveau, chief sustainability officer at the Kering Group, owner of global apparel and accessories brands like Gucci, Stella McCartney, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Puma. The company sources materials like cotton, cashmere and even crocodile and python skins from suppliers that often have thousands of under-suppliers. This results in a situation where “suppliers are out of control.”
One industrywide solution mechanism elucidating the supply chains is the Higg Index. Similar to its namesake, the Higgs particle, which helps us understand the origins of matter on Earth, the Higg Index serves to broaden our understanding of our clothes’ origins. As a set of assessment tools developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a trade organization representing more than one-third of the global apparel and footwear market, the Higg Index measures the environmental and social impact of products along the value chain.
Launched as an industry tool, it could serve as the basis for a consumer labeling system that tells buyers how their clothes rank in terms of sustainability. In this respect, Jason Kibbey, executive director of SAC, says that “the focus is on the supply chain. I am not sure it will ever be a consumer label. We still don’t know what the consumer wants in terms of information.”
The Higg Index is still in its initial stages of implementation. “We’re currently working with a pilot [program],” says Catarina Midby, head of sustainable fashion at Swedish retailer H&M, which is at least two years away from implementing the index.
Nikhil Hirdaramani, director of the Hirdaramani Group, which owns the Mihila factory in Sri Lanka, Asia’s first carbon-neutral apparel factory, notes that “the Higg Index hasn’t really moved forward in Europe,” adding, however, that it has been applied in eight factories across Sri Lanka.
With the current lack of a uniform and comprehensive standardization system, the industry is somewhat fragmented when it comes to sustainability measures, standards and labels. Hence, companies are finding their own ways to signal their sustainability impact, both to the industry and to consumers.
During the summit, Bottega Veneta, the fashion luxury brand, presented its SA8000 and ISO14001 certificates for social responsibility and proper environmental management. Kering Group was awarded the Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel for its Environmental Profit and Loss Account, a natural capital accounting system, implemented at Puma, that puts a monetary value on greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use, air pollution and waste throughout the supply chain. Gucci’s GCC Handbag collection was highlighted as being made of completely traceable, certified leather. Marco Lucietti, marketing director at ISKO, the global denim manufacturer, took pride in being “able to deliver a certified product.” H&M showcased certified, sustainable attire from its new Conscious Collection, as worn by clothing mannequins in the opera lobby.
A quest toward transparency is enveloping the industry. But why now?
“Often there is a trigger,” says Justin Keeble, managing director of Accenture’s Sustainability Services across Europe, Africa and Latin America. In the case of the fashion industry, he identifies the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, which took the lives of more than a thousand factory workers in Bangladesh, as one such trigger.
Still, many global brands had been working on labor rights and health and safety measures across their supply chains long before the Rana Plaza collapse, and “there have been high-profile incidents in the past which have driven much greater scrutiny,” Keeble notes. He says one big change in recent years is the role played by digital technologies. These have increased transparency in the supply chains of major brands. There have also been other, smaller incidents in the industry that have not received the same media attention. These make industry players uneasy. Keeble says one fashion retailer recently delisted nine of its suppliers.
Many companies are also recognizing the future profit potential of showcasing their sustainability impact. “Today, if you have two garments for the same price, you will always choose the sustainable one. Tomorrow, people will be willing to pay a premium,” says Marco Bizzarri, president and CEO of Bottega Veneta. Keeble notes that the market for certified or traceable products and services has been growing 14 percent annually. But he maintains that more work needs to be done in terms of consumer value proposition, to make sustainability more compelling.
In this regard, Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion editor at the Financial Times, identifies consumer labels as a language, “a visual language,” that can aid consumers in making decisions based on sustainability concerns. The quest for transparency may then continue to disentangle the minute threads and origins of our fashion garments, in near scientific detail, all the way down to the smallest particle.