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Fashion’s sustainability focus – The new normal
During the past couple of years, the topic of sustainability has very much moved from the fringe of the fashion industry to the mainstream. The issue is here to stay – and fashion brands are increasingly examining the environmental and social impacts of where they source their fibre and fabric.
- In response to significant pressure from global consumers and governments, brands throughout the fashion industry are putting real effort into improving the environmental and social impacts of their products.
- Australian wool has a great story to tell, and the wool industry is on the front foot in evidencing and promoting the fibre’s credentials.
- Australian woolgrowers should continue to ensure that their on-farm practices align with the sustainability expectations of consumers.
- ‘Regenerative agriculture’ is on the radar of the global fashion industry and is receiving a positive reception.
Anyone working in fashion and textiles will tell you that ‘sustainability’ has not only become the hot topic for the industry (aside from COVID), but that the topic is now firmly embedded in the industry. Although (and perhaps because) fast fashion is still dominant in the wider industry, there has been a real focus by many brands to discuss, address and improve the environmental and social impacts of their sourcing, manufacturing and distribution.
Take a look at the websites and marketing collateral of the brands that the Australian wool industry is working with or targeting, and you will more than likely see the brand showcasing its eco-credentials and making a public commitment to sustainability.
“Sustainability and natural resource management are of course not new to Australian woolgrowers. For generations, Australian woolgrowers have managed their rural businesses effectively while also undertaking initiatives to protect the natural environment,” said AWI CEO Stuart McCullough.
“However, evidence of sustainable wool production is becoming critical to meeting the needs of increasingly environmentally-aware customers, and thereby ensure continued demand for wool in global markets. Indeed, the more proactive brands are seeking evidence that woolgrowers are actively improving (or regenerating) the land, rather than just sustaining or maintaining the status quo. This is not about income from carbon credits; it goes beyond that.”
Furthermore, rather than simply working to maintain current demand and prices for Australian wool, the embracing of sustainability by brands provides the Australian wool industry with a massive opportunity to capture further demand and increase the price of Australian wool. Woolgrowers themselves can use communication platforms (such as WoolQ) to tell their story of continuous improvement and connect with customers. Premiums will come to those woolgrowers who can market their eco and sustainability credentials.
Consumer and regulatory pressure
With issues such as climate change and plastic pollution now rarely out of the mainstream news, there has recently been a considerable shift in global consumer sentiment on matters of sustainability. More than ever, customers want to be confident that the fibre and fabric they purchase has been produced responsibly.
According to the latest Pulse of Fashion report (Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and Sustainable Apparel Coalition), 75% of consumers surveyed (in China, US, UK, France, Brazil) view sustainability as extremely or very important. Furthermore, 38% of consumers report actively switching from their preferred brand to another because it credibly stands for positive environmental and/or social practices.
“Most consumers include sustainability considerations in their decision-making framework.”
Pulse of Fashion report
Consumers are becoming attuned to greenwashing and want brands to make genuine change. The State of Fashion report (BOF and McKinsey & Co) states that nine out of ten Gen Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues. The report states: “Fashion players need to swap platitudes and promotional noise for meaningful action and regulatory compliance while facing up to consumer demand for transformational change.”
Brands must respond not only to pressure from consumers but also from governments and regulatory authorities. For instance, the European Union is now considering policy to have environmental labelling on consumer products, including apparel products, as soon as 2022, in an effort to guide consumers towards choosing the most sustainable products.
Brands take sustainability seriously
Fashion brands, especially luxury fashion brands, are increasingly responding to these consumer and regulatory pressures for increased sustainability. It is not only small, niche brands that are embracing a commitment to sustainability, it is the larger brands too.
For example, a global coalition of companies in the fashion and textile industry along with suppliers and distributors, that together represent more than 200 brands and a third of the fashion industry, are signatories to the Fashion Pact. This is a CEO-led commitment to a common core of key environmental goals in three areas: mitigating climate change, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans. The number of signatories has doubled since the Fashion Pact’s launch in 2019, and include companies such as Adidas, Armani, Burberry, Ermenegildo Zegna, Gap, Karl Lagerfeld, Kering, Nike, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Salvatore Ferragamo and Selfridges. 80% of members have reported that joining the Fashion Pact triggered an acceleration of the sustainability journey within their organisations.
“Now is the moment for fashion to commence a new era of sustainability.”
Fashion Pact, Progress Report 2020
Another body driven by the fashion industry is the Global Fashion Agenda that advocates for policy changes and supportive measures that reinforce sustainability targets and establish circular systems. Ninety brands and retailers, representing about an eighth of the global fashion industry by sales volume have signed the Global Fashion Agenda’s current 2020 Commitment for a Circular Fashion System.
Brands are not only adopting sustainability initiatives, they are also increasingly disclosing their practices publicly. The not-for-profit global movement Fashion Revolution publishes a Fashion Transparency Index annually that ranks 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers according to how much they disclose about their environmental and social policies, practices and impacts. The fifth Index (2020) reports that 42% publish a time-bound, measurable ‘sustainable materials’ strategy while 36% disclose progress on achieving sustainable material targets (up from 29% in 2019). Furthermore, 32% publish supplier policies on ‘biodiversity and conservation’ and 57% disclose procedures that address this topic. Participation in the Fashion Transparency Index is influencing brands to disclose more environmental and social information.
Brands are increasingly wanting to source fibre through certification schemes because it reduces their risk of exposure to supply chain issues and allows them to confidently be able to continue using the fibre knowing that they have some protection.
An opportunity and a threat
This increasing demand for sustainably produced fibres and fabrics is both an opportunity and a threat to the Australian wool industry. On the one hand, and in stark contrast to synthetic man-made fibres, wool is a natural, renewable and biodegradable fibre and does not contribute to microplastic pollution. So wool is therefore well placed to take advantage of the increasing focus for more earth-friendly products.
On the other hand, animal welfare, emissions from agriculture, chemical usage throughout the wool supply chain and some processing treatments are a cause of concern for the fashion industry. Furthermore, there is fresh competition from new fibres on the market, such as TENCEL™ (cellulose fibre made from wood pulp) and ECONYL® (recycled nylon), that tout themselves as being sustainable and which have been receiving a lot of attention.
For its part, AWI continues to undertake and publish comprehensive scientific evidence of wool’s true environmental credentials (which you will have read about in previous editions of Beyond the Bale). This helps enable AWI’s marketing arm The Woolmark Company and the wool industry to market Australian wool to the fashion and textile trade – and consumers – as the ‘planet-friendly’ fibre of choice.
“It is vital that the whole Australian wool industry, including woolgrowers, understand the predominance of sustainability issues for its downstream customers – and act on it. Tackling these issues on-farm (and along the supply chain) and marketing evidence of progress are critical to not just securing a ‘clean, green’ reputation for the Australian wool industry and maintaining ‘social licence’, but also grasping new opportunities for increasing demand and higher premiums for Australian wool,” said Stuart McCullough.
“Consumer behaviour, especially among the younger generation, calls for more and more attention to sustainability and therefore to breeding and manufacturing methods that protect animals and the environment. Consumers are also willing to pay a higher price if the values underpinning production of the raw materials are compatible in this regard.”
Paolo Zegna, Chairman of Ermenegildo Zegna Group
Many Australian woolgrowers, of course, already undertake initiatives to protect, preserve and improve the natural resources on their properties for future generations and are constantly adapting their animal husbandry to reflect consumer demands. Possessing a natural affinity with the land, these farmers are rightly proud of ensuring their innovative farming practices are applied in harmony with the Australian landscape and environment. But more can always be done.
The Australian wool industry recently developed a 10-year plan and it is entirely appropriate that sustainability is the underlying principle of the plan, specifically that Australian wool be regarded as the world’s premium sustainable fibre. Additionally, the Australian sheep meat and wool industry have together been working to develop a Sheep Sustainability Framework (scheduled for release next month) that will help enable the industry to demonstrate its sustainable practices, identify areas of production for improvement, and better communicate with trade customers and consumers.
WHAT ABOUT REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE?
Although there are several Australian woolgrowers who are recognised pioneers in regenerative agriculture and there is growing interest in it, and although Australian woolgrowers do take good care of the land on their properties, there is considered to be only a relatively small percentage of Australian woolgrowers that would regard themselves as “doing regenerative agriculture”.
However, in a recent AWI survey (May 2020) of more than 1,000 woolgrowers, 89% of growers reported using more than one practice to encourage soil health (which is the key aspect of regenerative agriculture). Specifically, 83% preserve groundcover, 74% undertake soil tests, 72% undertake rotation grazing, 65% no-till cropping and 50% sow deep rooted perennials.
So perhaps regenerative agricultural practices are more prevalent than has been supposed. And once those woolgrowers note that their customers in the fashion industry are talking positively about regenerative agriculture, then they might be prepared to use that terminology as an aid to the marketing of their fibre.
So, is the global fashion industry aware of regenerative agriculture?
Yes. Just as regenerative agriculture as a term has been getting more and more attention from farmers in the past few years, the fashion industry has also started taking notice of the practice, and it is receiving a positive reception.
“Sourcing from regenerative agricultural systems is the future for fashion,” said Marco Bizzarri, president and CEO of Italian luxury brand Gucci, in an interview in November with Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion industry trade journal sometimes called ‘the bible of fashion’.
Meanwhile that other ‘bible of fashion’, for style conscious consumers, Vogue, in October stated: “Everyone’s talking about regenerative agriculture. Brands large and small – from Allbirds and Patagonia to Maggie Marilyn and [last year’s International Woolmark Prize winner] Richard Malone – are … peppering words like ‘soil health’ and ‘carbon sequestration’ into fashion week chats.”
The Vogue article continues: “Maybe fashion is rallying around regenerative ag, as it’s come to be known, because it’s so different from the other sustainability trends and buzzwords we’ve encountered. It has virtually no downsides or compromises, and it isn’t just ‘less bad’ than conventional farming. It’s
categorically good, and it’s good for every living thing involved: the farmers, the plants, the animals, the soil, the micro-organisms in the soil, and, eventually, the consumer.”
“Regenerative agriculture harbors considerable promise for the future.”
Is regenerative agriculture just a shiny new buzzword in the fashion industry’s sustainability conversation or are brands taking action? It is a bit early to know for sure – remember, even a brand’s regular product development and manufacture usually takes more than 12 months before it is delivered to retailers. However, there are companies that have already launched products sourced from properties on which regenerative agriculture is practiced – and those products are being marketed as such.
These companies include large brands such as outdoor apparel brand The North Face, which has a ‘Cali Wool Collection’ made using wool that it says is “produced through regenerative agriculture methods”, and US womenswear brand Eileen Fisher which uses wool from farmers that it says “regenerate depleted grasslands through holistic farming methods”.
UK brand Burberry has created a ‘Regeneration Fund’ to implement regenerative agriculture practices with Australian woolgrowers within its own supply chain. According to Burberry, the project works at farm level to improve carbon capture in soils, improve watershed and soil health, reduce dryland salinity and promote biodiverse habitats.
Global Luxury group Kering, which owns brands including Gucci and Saint Laurent, is collaborating with The Savory Institute’s Land to Market™ program to advocate verified regenerative sourcing solutions and expand the regenerative agriculture framework in fashion’s global supply chains.
Furthermore, Kering and Conservation International has created a €5 million (AU$7.9 million) Regenerative Fund for Nature which over the next five years will support promising and innovative regenerative agriculture projects across the world. As the fund grows, it will provide proof of concept for further investments in regenerative agriculture. Australian woolgrowers are eligible to apply; applications will be accepted annually, between 28 January and 30 April – see www.conservation.org/projects/regenerative-fund-for-nature for details.
“Regenerative agriculture is a multi-benefit solution which supports Kering’s sustainability ambitions to mitigate our environmental impacts and deliver positive outcomes along our supply chain.”
Marie-Claire Daveu, Chief Sustainability Officer, Kering
In January, Gucci presented its new Natural Climate Solutions Portfolio in which it says it will “champion regenerative agriculture”. As the first step in a broader, long-term strategy for regenerative agriculture, Gucci said it is identifying and scaling up regenerative agriculture projects within its sourcing regions, with the aim to source regenerative raw materials (including wool) for its collections. Going beyond its own supply chain, Gucci is also incentivizing farmers to switch to regenerative agriculture through ‘carbon farming’.
Last month, global brands Icebreaker, Allbirds and Smartwool announced a partnership with The New Zealand Merino Company on a new regenerative wool supply platform, ZQRX, which aims to help woolgrowers to better understand their environmental footprint and move to regenerative agriculture practices.
It appears that one of the major reasons why brands are attracted to regenerative agriculture is so that they can reduce the carbon footprint of their supply chain through carbon sequestration (to combat climate change). The 2020 Fashion Transparency Index reports that 16% of brands publish annual carbon emissions produced within their supply chains, however it anticipates that there will be more disclosure on brands’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions this year as more brands join the Fashion Pact and the UN Fashion Industry Charter.
This article appeared in the March 2021 edition of AWI’s Beyond the Bale magazine. Reproduction of the article is encouraged, however prior permission must be obtained from the Editor.