Susanne LeBlanc, Analyst, Advisory Services, BSR

Slowly but surely the fashion industry is catching on to corporate social responsibility and sustainability. First came the anti-fur campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. Many brands and retailers have since eliminated the use of fur in their products or taken measures to ensure animal welfare conditions in their fur supply chains. Then, beginning in the late 1990s, numerous sweatshop scandals pressured fashion brands and retailers to implement factory compliance monitoring programs. Many now do so either independently or through collaborative initiatives such as Better Work or the Fair Labor Association.

In the past several years, the fashion industry has faced intensifying criticism about its environmental footprint and has once again reacted both on a brand level, with many brands establishing their own sustainability commitments and strategies, as well as on an industry-wide scale with initiatives such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition or the NRDC’s Clean by Design campaign. More recently, however, sustainability leaders in the fashion industry have begun moving beyond their initial reactive response towards proactively addressing environmental concerns right from square one of the value chain: design.

Sustainable design in fashion has so far been largely focused on materials selection. Several brands have developed, or are in the process of developing, indices that will help their designers and product development teams choose materials based on environmental impacts throughout the clothing lifecycle. Examples of such indices include NIKE, Inc.’s Materials Sustainability Index and Timberland’s Green Index, which inspired the broader-reaching Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Index. Both NIKE's index and the Eco Index have also been incorporated into the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, which is currently endorsed by almost 50 industry-leading brands, retailers, and suppliers.

This initial progress should be commended and further fostered, but with one caveat. While materials selection can influence environmental impacts throughout the clothing lifecycle and is therefore a priority concern, brands and retailers should be careful not to equate sustainable design with simply plugging materials information into a computerized tool. Sustainable design requires a more holistic perspective that takes into account not only how fashion is produced, but also how it is consumed. After all, sustainable materials will have limited impact if low quality or poorly designed garments are worn only a few times before ending up in a landfill.

A few examples of this broader approach to sustainable design already exist. Modular design by Polish-based brand Blessus uses panels and zippers to create garments that can be reconfigured into multiple outfits, thus increasing product longevity. Timberland’s Design for Disassembly shoes have been created with only a few simple components in order to facilitate end-of-life disassembly and recycling. Other brands, such as or Goodone, From Somewhere, or Junky Styling close the loop by up-cycling pre-consumer waste or end-of-life cast-offs into new garments.

Sustainable fashion design is a nascent concept and at the very forefront of a decades-long progression towards sustainability. As the fashion industry continues to evolve over the coming years, however, let us hope that designers harness their creativity to think outside the index.

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