What are fashion brands doing about sustainability

By Kev Boon


The fashion industry is one of the most destructive sectors of the economy both in terms of environmental footprint and social impact. Although initiatives have started in recent years to mitigate some of these impacts, increasing demand, especially in Asia, means that the situation is predicted to get worse.

The campaigning organisation Fashion Revolution publishes an annual Transparency Index which ranks 250 of the world’s largest brands and retailers according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts. 

In 2020, the best performers were H&M, C&A, Addidas / Reebok, Esprit, Patagonia and Marks & Spencer. 

In a 2019 report, Fashion Revolution found that only 55% of the industry’s top 200 brands published their annual carbon footprint on their websites and just 19.5% disclosed emissions in the supply chain.

Science based targets

However, in recent years, progress has been made. In 2015, the organisation Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi)  was set up to work with the corporate sector to facilitate them setting and meeting emission targets consistent with the Paris Agreement.

The SBTi guidance for the apparel and footwear sector gives a framework for reducing scope 3 GHG emissions. It proposes

  • Material efficiency: Reducing the amount of material for example fewer grams of cotton per T-shirt. 
  • Material substitution: Replacing a material with a lower GHG alternative for example virgin polyester with rPoly from bottles or textiles. A subset of this might be a target to collect pre- or post-consumer apparel waste and convert this to new material for example H&M’s commitment to use 100 percent recycled or sustainable materials by 2030.
  • Sourcing changes: Shifting material sourcing from higher carbon sources to lower ones For example polyester made with renewable energy, leather sourced from lower impact ranches and 
  • Supply chain investments: Seeking a discrete reduction opportunity, for example, footwear brands or leather suppliers might commit to reducing GHGs on a specific cattle ranch.

To date, 46 apparel and footwear companies have proposed targets. As of June 2019 five apparel and footwear companies and four multi-line retailers that sell apparel had approved targets. Patagonia is not included in the SBTi but has set a target of being carbon neutral by 2025.

Other initiatives

There are a number of collaborative initiatives in the fashion industry relating to sustainability. The Fashion Pact was launched in August 2019 and is a coalition of 32 major brands coming together with a specific focus on global warming, restoring biodiversity and protecting oceans. 

In 2018, UN Climate Change announced the launch of the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, a series of targets aiming for a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. There were 43 signatories including Adidas, Burberry and Hugo Boss. Goals established by the Charter include phasing out coal-fired boilers, selecting climate friendly and sustainable materials, prioritizing low-carbon transport and exploring circular business models.

Clean Clothes Campaign is also very active from the garment producers at the front line of their struggle. Textile Exchange is a global non-profit that works with members to drive industry transformation in preferred fibres, integrity and standards and responsible supply networks.

Reducing carbon emissions

Some brands including Gucci and Kering are investing in carbon offsetting. This involves compensating for emissions by making an equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere. 

There are a number of criticisms levelled at this approach. It is not actually reducing emissions and the benefit of planting trees, for example, is difficult to quantify. There is also the question of ethics – offset schemes, which are predominantly based in developing countries, often adversely affect local communities. A study by the European Commission found that 85% of offsetting projects were unlikely to deliver ‘real’ or ‘measurable’ benefits (Vogue).

Nike’s Energy and Carbon Program is active in more than 15 countries across Nike’s contracted manufacturing supply chain. Through the program, Nike employees coach and consult directly with contracted factories and their management on how to reduce energy use and carbon emissions. Since its inception in 2008, the program has delivered significant energy savings. Nike claims that there was a roughly 50% reduction in energy usage intensity between 2008 and 2015 for its manufacturing supply chain (SBTI guidance).

Since launching its Carbon 2020 strategy, ASOS has reduced carbon emissions by 30% through increasing energy efficiency, reducing delivery and packaging emissions and increasing the use of renewable energy (climate action). However increased production has meant that total emissions have gone up. 

The sector is still grappling with the uncomfortable truth that to be truly sustainable, brands have to consider producing less at a time when consumers want more. 


Circular Economy

Some brands are now focusing on circular principles. The Global Fashion Agenda launched a 2020 commitment in 2017 calling for companies to shift to a more circular model. Stella McCartney has introduced the Infinite Hoodie made using NuCycl technology that liquefies old cotton into new material. Adidas is committed to using 100% recycled polyester in all products by 2024 and Patagonia to only using renewable or recycled materials by 2025 (Vogue). However, an EU report published in January 2019 found that only half of used clothes are recycled, and only one per cent of these are turned into new clothes (Dezeen).


Water initiatives

Washing plastic-based fabrics means microplastics end up in the ocean causing devastation to marine wildlife.

During manufacture, there are several methods that can be applied to reduce microfibre shedding such as brushing the material, using laser and ultrasound cutting, coatings and pre-washing garments. The length of the yarn, type of weave, and method for finishing seams all seem to be factors affecting shedding rates. 

However, far more research from brands needs to occur in order to determine best practices in reducing microfibres and create industry-wide solutions. Comprehensive legislative action is needed to send a strong message and force brands to address the problem (Fashion Revolution).

Levis Strauss & Co. has been working on what they call Water reduce water consumption by an average of 28% and up to 96% for some new products. The company is also involved, with other brands and retailers, in the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) seeking more sustainable cotton around the world. The initiative aims to reduce the use of pesticides, address water use and soil health and improve labour standards and profits for farmers.  BCI doesn’t however go as far as Global Organic Textile Standards in delivering practice that is best practice in regenerative agriculture. 

Technical advances mean that more eco-friendly dyes are now being manufactured and there has been an increase in the use of natural dyes made from sources such as agricultural waste and plants. There has also been the development of more water-efficient dyeing processes. Anachroma’s Advanced Denim uses less than 10% of the amount of water required for conventional indigo dyeing processes (Vogue business).

Pangaia are investigating treatment of their clothes with peppermint oil, which has natural antibacterial and anti fungal properties. This allows customers to go up to 10 times longer between a clothes wash, which the brand estimates will save 3,000 litres of water in each garment’s lifetime.


Organic fabrics and soil health

A number of brands are moving to organic fibres. Eileen Fisher is aiming for 100% organic cotton and linen by 2020. Patagonia uses 100% organically grown cotton. H&M has a target of 100% organic, recycled or BCI materials by 2030. 

Kering has started integrating biodiversity conservation in both manufacturing and raw material sourcing, where much of the industry’s direct impacts have been identified. 

Stella McCartney and Inditex are among 200 companies to have joined forest protection organisation Canopy’s initiative to transform viscose and rayon production, a fabric which has helped fuel deforestation (Vogue).

In Brazil, Farfarm is experimenting with growing fibres in agroforestry systems, meaning farmers incorporate trees onto their farms. Aside from improving the health of the soil, trees provide opportunities for wildlife. Farfarm is testing jute, pineapple, banana, ramie and other fibres native to Brazil, and working on growing different varieties of cotton using agroforestry (Vogue).

To protect soil health, Patagonia has been working with researchers from the Rodale Institute on regenerative organic agriculture. This limits tillage (for example ploughing), has diverse crop rotations, uses “cover crops” (such as grasses and legumes) to improve soil health, integrates livestock (for manure) and doesn’t employ chemicals or GM.  In addition to helping biodiversity, the Rodale Institute claims  that, if the world moved to regenerative organic agriculture, 100% of carbon in the atmosphere that is contributing to global warming could be reabsorbed into the soil. 

Kering has launched a fashion industry standard capable of verifying raw materials and finished products as ‘regenerative’, after partnering with environmental charity The Savory Institute. The framework assesses the extent to which certain agricultural methods used to produce cotton, wool and leather “give back” to the environment – by, for example, restoring soil quality or sequestering carbon dioxide within carbon sinks. The company is to develop a new network of farms using “climate-positive” practices, enabling it to only source from “regenerative” certified suppliers.


Pressure from activist groups and the public has meant that some major brands have stopped the use of fur. These include Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss, Armani, Gucci and Burberry.  

Pangaia is set to launch items made with a new material called Flowerdown – a more sustainable and cruelty-free alternative to goose and duck feathers.

Modern Slavery

To highlight the issues around slavery, REAL’s Safia Minney launched an awareness and education campaign in 2016 called “Slave to Fashion” . The initiative acts as a direct response to the call to action instigated by the UK Modern Slavery Act (2015) and will provide an analysis of slavery in the garment industry in the UK, Europe as well as developing countries.

Labour Behind the Label is a campaign that works to improve conditions and empower workers in the global garment industry.

Leading UK fashion brands have teamed up with law enforcement bodies to help combat modern slavery in the textiles industry in this country. Marks and Spencer, New Look, Next, River Island and John Lewis have signed the agreement and will work closely alongside the likes of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and the Immigration Enforcement.  UK companies with a turnover of more than £36 million are legally required to publish annual Modern Slavery Statements. These are designed to give transparency on what brands are doing to combat modern slavery in their supply chains.


Fashion retailer ASOS has committed to tackling slavery. ASOS is asking all fashion brands to sign a five-point pledge to commit to: mapping and assessing modern slavery risks; working collaboratively with others to develop tools and resources to raise awareness of risks; training relevant employees about modern slavery risks within their businesses and supply chains; publishing and continuously building on their Modern Slavery statements; and participating in an annual session to demonstrate progress made.



Whilst significant progress has been made over the past decade, fashion brands now need to move further and faster on sustainability. It remains to be seen how the coronavirus pandemic will influence this progress. Forward thinking brands will use the economic fallout to prompt a complete reset of their business model – one that is more sustainable and resilient.

Further reading