Last week Tommy Hilfiger gave us a look at their sustainable fashion strategy, unveiling a set of new targets that will take the business in a more inclusive and circular direction. Vowing to become fully circular by 2030, the new ‘Make It Possible’ program is driven by an underlying mission to create fashion that ‘Wastes Nothing and Welcomes All’. Spread across four core pillars, the programme includes 24 targets centered around circularity and inclusivity. The overarching ambition is for fully circular products as part of a sustainable retail loop by 2030.
A few days later, Timberland
The intention behind both of these announcements is fully understood by both consumers and the industry. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries on the planet and, with consumers buying about 60% more clothing than we did 15 years ago, the impact on the environment is only growing.
“The environment today is in a degraded state. As a footwear and apparel brand, we are part of the problem,” said Colleen Vien, director of sustainability for Timberland. “For decades Timberland has worked to minimize our impact, but it’s time to do better than that. Imagine a boot that puts more carbon back into the land than was emitted during production. By following nature’s lead, and focusing on circular design and regenerative agriculture, we aim to tip the scales to have a net positive impact – to go beyond sustainability and help nature thrive. We are incredibly excited about this journey, and hope to inspire the industry as a whole to work together and change the trajectory of our collective future.”
These announcements may seem like big steps but the idea of circularity is nothing new. The same circular ambition has been publicly shared by fashion companies for years. At the 2017 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 90 brands and retailers, including the likes of Adidas, H&M, Inditex & Nike
Five years ago, Gucci also shared a sustainability plan to “reinforce a culture of purpose”. Underpinned by a series of targets to achieve by 2025, Gucci implemented a worldwide environmental and social sustainability programme across their supply chain. This included increasing the use of alternative materials in fashion collections, switching to renewable energy sources, supporting conservation efforts across the world and reducing waste.
Gucci’s parent company, Kering also rolled out a new Environmental Profit & Loss account across the business, to measure and quantify the environmental impact of its activities, Kering’s 2019 EP&L presented a 39% reduction in total footprint since 2015, relative to growth, and an 18% year-on-year decrease of greenhouse gas emissions compared to 2018.
Given that their footprint reduction target was 40% by 2025, Kering appear very close to achieving their 2015 initial goals, just as Tommy Hilfiger are starting on theirs. Is this a case of too little, too late for Tommy?
Turning targets into action
Timing aside, consumers are sure to welcome any positive change, so brands are keen to draw lines and take a proactive stance. But with emerging ESG scandals and allegations of ‘greenwashing’ being levelled at well-established brands, how can brands put circularity into practice in a meaningful and permanent way?
Given that circularity affects all stages of the fashion retail process, the subsequent strategies vary by company but tend to follow a similar set of key principles.
1) Design better, with cyclability in mind
Fully circular products help to decouple commercial success from the consumption of finite resources. Circular design is an opportunity to diversify from the traditional linear production and make waste obsolete, without sacrificing trade. In order for full circularity to work, new products need to be designed for both longevity and recyclability.
This means increasing the ability for repair, but also disassembly at end of use. Clothes need to be durable but full utilisation in its later life may require it to be taken apart. Designing for this functionality challenges both the current manufacturing model and also the entire ecosystem itself. A significant mindset shift is required in order to kickstart the change and recreate the new system. Who leads that change?
2) Increase usage of recycled or post-consumer textiles
Reutilising products at the end of use is crucial to reducing waste and can be done by extending the life of a product, or recycling it. However, according to the Ellen McArthur foundation, less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing.
Where the industry is seeing more traction, is with the use of alternative materials. Earlier this year, Tommy Hilfiger presented sneakers made from recycled apple peel fibres. To do this, they partnered with Italian start-up Frumat who have developed a raw material created from apple-industry waste. Available in various thicknesses and textures, the material is positioned as an alternative to leather
The options are out there, and they are not all new-fangled and uncharted. Lenzing, the international leader in wood-based cellulose fibres, has been well established for decades. Their TENCEL brand, which produces lyocell and modal fibres, is already in play across many well-known fashion brands included Patagonia and Reformation
3) Increase the volume of used garments and footwear collected
It’s not just about the production and raw materials. Circular models need to consider entire value-chains, right through from sourcing to end-of-life. Garment collection is a step that companies of any size can take to become circular. Unfortunately, a report by Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group showed that global collection rates of textiles are currently as low as 20%. As a result, valuable resources are ending up in landfills and incinerators. If the industry is to become circular, fashion brands and influencers need to use their role to engage and incentivise consumers to bring back their used garments
For example, the H&M Garment Collection Programme encourages shoppers to drop a bag of unwanted clothing into dedicated recycling boxes in-store. Textiles are then sent on for recycling and in exchange, shoppers receive a discount card for 15% off future purchases.
Even beyond repeat sales, the second-hand textile market provides opportunities for businesses to gain additional value from products. The used-textile market was worth close to €4 billion worldwide in 2015, however local policy and regulation vary in terms of what can be collected, how and by whom, which risks restricting growth in this space.
4) Increase the volume of used garments and footwear resold
Given that many discarded clothes are still in a useable condition, resale and reuse channels can provide both economic and environmental benefits. Extending the life cycle of a garment by just nine months through reselling reduces waste, water and carbon footprints by 20-30% each. Reselling also provides an opportunity to drive economic benefits multiple times on the same item. According to a ThredUp Resale report, the apparel resale market share is USD 20 billion and is expected to gain a market share of USD 41 billion by 2022, making it the biggest second-hand market compared to other industries, such as electronics or books.
There are several resale strategies in the industry, including second-hand retail, online resale platforms, resale for redistribution and rental services. Companies are assessing how the resale channel can fit into their overall business model in a way that draws synergies with their current online or offline sales channels.
For many, it may also be an extension to their existing customer base, as well as a sustainable solution. Last year, Ralph Lauren, the designer brand well known for its luxury, heritage roots partnered with Depop, the fashion marketplace app with the cult Gen-Z following. Together they launched “Re/Sourced”, a curated collection of vintage Ralph Lauren products, sourced by the Depop community, thus facilitating a commercial and sustainable loop for used clothing whilst also giving Ralph Lauren access to a new generation of digital consumers.
Despite initial positive steps being made, all four principles pose a complex challenge for the entire fashion industry. Even with the best intentions, there is currently very little established infrastructure to help companies really make this into a reality. For example, textile recycling is a clear solution to reduce textile waste and improve reuse, but infrastructure for this is still in a relatively early phase. There is no universal method for collecting and disassembling items, especially given that most garments are also made of mixed materials. A support system is vital in order to make recycling financially, technically and logistically possible.
Key barriers to change include a lack of technology, viable support systems and general difficulties to produce circular items without compromising on the quality that consumers are used to. That said, there is plenty of innovation that proves this mission is not impossible. Swedish sportswear brand Houdini creates garments that are compostable and can be used to fertilise the growth of new vegetation. LOPER shoes by Proef Designs are made without glue and use only three different types of materials which allow easy disassembly to facilitate their re-use. Worn Again has developed a textile-to-textile recycling technology that can separate and recapture polyester and cotton from discarded, low-value clothing to produce virgin-equivalent materials.
The actions of Tommy Hilfiger alone cannot move the needle, but these commitments are certainly the first step that will encourage more permanent change from peers and disruptors alike. Smaller brands have flourished with sustainability at the forefront of their agenda and still manage to make it work commercially. If fashion giants like PVH