Sustainability Conversations

The Greatest Challenges to Sustainable Fashion

Mentor

MeiLin Wan

VP, Textile Sales, Providing molecular business solutions for traceability, transparency and trust in supply chains

Perception versus Reality

We all know the famous Nike mantra “Just do it”..but in the world of sustainable fashion, I believe, what you “say” you are doing, and what you “are actually doing” can be two completely different things.

Fashion is about creating new trends, new products, and inspiring the consumer to connect with the brand’s values, with the goal to drive demand, and build a loyal customer base. While today’s millennial and gen-z consumers have been the beneficiaries of fast-fashion – a massive buffet of new colors, styles, fabrics – something remarkable has happened in the fashion industry – company CEOs of major fashion brands are issuing public statements that they are “aiming to eliminate plastic in all products by 2025”, or “only using organic cotton sourced from Africa” and so on.

While many of these stated “sustainability” goals may be well-intentioned, do these goals translate to sales and build the customer loyalty that the brands and retailers expect? I believe, it is easier said than done. Millennial consumers, as reported by a Deloitte 2019 survey, in fact tend to be “skeptical of business’s motives..they do not think highly of leaders’ impact on society, their commitment to improving the world, or their trustworthiness.” This “distrust” is what I believe is creating the gap between what consumers “say” they are doing, with regard to buying products that are sustainable, versus what they are actually doing. Only time will tell if these consumers will support companies that align with their values around the environment, ethical treatment of workers, human treatment of animals and so forth.

At the heart of all the “talk” about sustainable fashion is the basic question that I would like to pose is “can you prove it?” Can the brands and manufacturers prove that if they say they are using a sustainable fiber or material,that they can demonstrate, with transparency that fiber is in fact in the product that they are marketing and selling to the consumer?

The consumer hasn’t quite figured out that many of these claims are based on “paper based” certifications that can be circumvented, and materials used can be substituted by lesser quality items. Even the word “carbon footprint” is not necessarily understood by the consumer – not all consumers are the same and therefore the potential for misinterpretation can greatly vary. Does “reducing the carbon footprint” do anything to affect the consumer to buy more?

This idea of perception vs reality in the mind of the consumer is quite important, especially if companies are expecting quick returns when in fact, it is not clear if or when the alignment will happen. The question is whether brands and manufacturers are willing and committed enough to stay the course.

Traceability and Design

Over the past 10 years, the conversation around where products come from and where they are going has steadily increased. Most markedly in the past 3 years, we have seen significant marketing campaigns promoting sustainable fashion centered around new materials, fabric and innovative processes. The term “Radical” transparency is now part of the consumer experience. Brands like Everlane are sharing how much it costs to produce a product, and so doing, inform the consumer to make the “right” choice by buying from a brand that is open, transparent with their costs. While the method of communication and the type of information shared with the consumer appears novel, the basic premise is that in order to make a connection with the millennial or gen-z consumer, you must do everything to appear and provide transparency and that will win the heart and mind of the consumer that is naturally distrustful of more established brands. 

When I started with my company, Applied DNA Sciences, over 13 years ago, the notion of radical transparency had not happened, nor was there any stated needs to provide any form of traceability to fibers or materials to verify that those materials were actually used in the finished product. What we did know was that the typical method for product verification resided with fabric performance tests and not for fiber content. Authenticity of fiber rested solely on the paper trail and the certificates that are still very much the status quo. We realized that the disconnect between the raw material and the finished fabric resided in the fact that paper documents are easily manipulated, and fibers and yarns can be blended to achieve a specific performance (without using the intended fiber). Therefore, the only way to ensure the purity and integrity of the original starting material was to “tag it” with our unique molecular tracer and then follow the tag in yarn, fabric and finished goods. This platform was specifically designed to provide true end-to-end traceability on the product itself, and did not enable companies to substitute unknown fibers, or dilution of the label claim. Knowingly or unknowingly, if the label claim is questioned by the consumer, all parties in the supply chain are at risk.

Working steadily in textile traceability now for a decade, Applied DNA Sciences is a strong advocates for minimizing uncertainty in your supply chain, with our unique brand called “CertainTÒ”.  Companies now are starting to understand the value having traceability in their products, whether it be in fiber, yarn or even a coating that is applied onto a fabric, the assurance you gain from knowing it’s YOUR material with YOUR TAG, is everything.

People need to make a connection with the origin of the material, how it stays through its lifecycle. One of the obstacles to sustainable fashion will be how to prove the origin and demonstrate real traceability on the product itself.

Relative to making sustainable fashion claims, we would encourage brands and manufacturers to ensure that what they say they are doing is aligned with what they are actually doing. CertainT, as a true textile authentication platform, accomplishes this for them so elegantly and easily – starting with one molecule and one tag.

To be able incorporate our molecular platform, to tag, test and track to prove the claim of origin is consistent with what’s happening today. It’s why I believe that fashion designers should and can incorporate traceability into their designs so that they can tell an authentic story. When designers create new materials and new fabrics the source material and the processes to convert the source material can be unique in itself. Designers can use systems like CertainT, in complement with 3D printing, artificial intelligence and other technologies to tell a very compelling story about knowing about the original material and the origin of the design itself. Many designers are also concerned about protecting their intellectual property and their designs, so having a molecular tag that is unique to their body of work is invaluable. To bring a product to market that is innovative, and authentic is indeed a powerful combination to any designer.

Sustainability is about Finding the Right Balance and Being Consistent

As we continue with our onward journey toward more transparency in a more environmentally conscious and socially connected world, fashion brands that claim to be sustainable and responsible will be challenged to provide solutions that not only can be recycled, but also how they can reduce waste, repair or reuse products. Can they deliver a meaningful solution, even though they may not be able to demonstrate full circularity today?

There is much opinion and discussion about the waste that is generated by the textile industry, and whether companies can or should achieve full circularity is still to be debated. What is not clear is how companies achieve full circularity if the current processes and/or materials and technologies are still in flux.  Companies are still trying to figure out how to convert certain types of waste material into products that can be produced at large scale, without increasing the cost of the product to the consumer, and at an equivalent or better quality that a consumer would want to buy,

What we do know is that while consumers are stating they are willing to pay more for sustainable fashion, it is not clear if they are prepared to do this if the quality of the product is not equivalent to what they are already buying. Finding the right balance between the price, quality and performance of a product is a key part of the puzzle that many brands are exploring.

And of course, there are companies like IKEA that were founded on principles of sustainability and environmental conservation and continuously invest a considerable amount of resources, time and energy grappling with how to, where, what, where they should get the products from, who they should buy the products from, are the manufacturers treating the workers properly, are they paying them a fair wage, and so on. The business practices are a result of the ethos and organizational culture developed internally. The design choices that were made came from the source material (primarily wood), and this drove the ethic of the products that were made, and this translated to educating the consumer about the value of wood-based products and the craft needed to put products together at home. The key to IKEA’s continued success and progress is that they are consistent and they were able to find the right balance to “walk the talk” and not just “talk” about how they translate sustainable policies into action. While IKEA may seem “ahead” of its time, the company did not commit to sustainability because it appeared to be the right thing to do, they just did it and they still do it consistently today.

While the “fast-fashion” approach may appear to be losing steam if you read the newspapers, there are still many consumers that are purchasing products from fast-fashion retailers and brands. In some product categories, fast-fashion is doing better despite the increased publicity and news coverage on circularity. The expectation of achieving full circularity is a high bar and is not without complexity. It can be quite daunting for some companies with highly fragmented supply chains and diverse product lines, or ones operating primarily based on a fast-fashion model to change to a circular model. At the end of the day, companies can and should find a balance between social, environmental and economic considerations as they develop their path toward a more sustainable future.