At Fortune’s recent Brainstorm Green Conference, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh made headlines saying that one of his favorite pairs of jeans “have yet to see a washing machine.” And he wasn’t talking about his personal hygiene or questionable laundry habits. His main message, rather, is that companies like Levi’s are making great strides toward sustainable clothing — and it’s more than just a trend; it’s a movement that’s reshaping the fashion industry.
(image via www.levistrauss.com)
A Commitment to Eco Principles
Waste & Resources Action Programme states that “processes from raw material to garment supply contribute around one-third of the waste footprint, three-quarters of the carbon impact and most of the water footprint of clothing.” So it’s no wonder that fashion companies — from globally-recognized icons to emerging designers — are not just paying more attention to how their businesses affect Mother Nature, but taking action to become more accountable.
In 2013, Levi’s unveiled its Wellthread initiative — a line crafted from fabrics that require less energy and water. Nike’s “sustainable innovation” is proving to be not just environmentally conscious, but also profitable. The company’s latest announced earnings have exceeded Wall Street’s expectations for the seventh quarter in a row, in part due to the Flyknit Racer, which is manufactured using an eco-friendly process that could also reduce long-term production costs.
(image via www.stellamccartney.com)
For a sustainable design trailblazer such as Stella McCartney, an ethical focus is not only part of the creative process, but the driving force behind the business. The fact that her offices and studios operate on renewable energy is just one piece of a puzzle.
“It’s really the job of designers now to turn things on their head in a different way, and not just try to turn a dress on its head every season,” she writes on her website. “Try and ask questions about how you make that dress, where you make that dress, what materials you’re using. […] I think that the way to create sustainable fashion is to keep asking these questions while making sure to make desirable, luxurious, beautiful clothing and accessories that women want to buy.”
The Impact on the Workforce
On the labor front, designers and manufacturers are striving to escape the stigma of the sweatshop. Spurred by the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, some 150 companies that produce goods in the country — Abercrombie & Fitch, Benetton, Mango, and Marks & Spencer, to name a few — joined forces to improve the workplace, signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement to improve safety standards across the nation’s factories.
(image via www.ncwtv.com)
Walmart has Standards for Suppliers they use to evaluate employment practices and environmental compliance in facilities producing merchandise for sale by in their stores. And H&M’s Code of Conduct is based on the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
What About the Bottom Line?
Today, an eco-conscious approach is no longer a novel philosophy, but a necessity for growth. From using environmentally-friendly materials to hiring local labor, apparel and accessories labels have to either adopt sustainable business practices, or risk being overtaken by competitors.
As traditional production options become more expensive and natural resources more scarce, companies are facing pressure on their bottom line. On the other hand, by integrating earth-friendly processes, using organic fabrics, and implementing other environmentally conscious strategies, a brand can not just cut back on costs, but transform those savings into higher wages. Finally, an ethical approach can enhance one’s reputation as a globally accountable citizen, along with the added recognition as a brand that can successfully combine sustainability and style.