Sustainability has finally gained traction within the apparel industry across the world in the last few years. What was once a sidelined consideration has now become a primary focus. However, with the pandemic, a lot of consideration and reconsideration are being done the world over and the industry is grappling with how to push forward against considerable headwinds. The few significant changes within the industry include sluggish cashflow, uncertain demand and the need to overhaul operations in order to accommodate the pandemic and its altering dimensions that the world has to accept. Amidst all this, will responsible sourcing and production become a thing of the past?
With reference to an industry-wide survey conducted by the Cotton Council International to reveal how COVID-19 has impacted sustainability priorities and how it could affect sourcing decisions, international apparel industry leaders tell us what awaits the industry and its sourcing potential in the times to come. This recent global survey shows that 54 per cent of sustainability leaders at apparel and textile brands say they’ve seen their customers’ demands for environmentally sustainable practices and products increase since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but 59 per cent said they believe customers will still continue to prioritise price when making purchases.
The survey found that 43 per cent of respondents believe COVID-19 has had a positive impact on investments in sustainability efforts during this period, while 40 per cent believe it has had a negative impact. “It’s clear that COVID-19 has caused economic challenges up and down the supply chain, but this survey shows that companies and their customers remain focused on sustainability,” said Dr. Gary Adams, President, U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.
“As we enter recovery in many countries, systems like the Trust Protocol will be more important than ever, so brands can have the data they need to show they are meeting their science-based targets,” said Dr. Adams.
Alice Hartley, Senior Manager, Sustainable Innovation at Gap Inc., mentioned, “Fashion business can become a relenting task, wherein we are stuck within the system of product creation day in, day out. The pandemic has somewhat helped us bring a pause to this and we were forced to rethink and realign varied aspects of business. Streamlining the e-commerce side of the business was one of the most important things we worked on just like many other brands. However, emerging in the post-pandemic world, I feel sustainability is a win-win situation for every brand. Just looking to manufacture sustainable clothing is not enough; we need to chalk out the economic prospect of the production too.”
“Verification and being able to deliver sustainable solutions to our customers through our product offering are very important for us as a brand. We don’t just claim that we are offering sustainable solutions. But traceability and raw material assurance are big things for us,” Liza Schillo, Senior Manager, Global Sustainability Integration, Levi Strauss & Co. and U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol consultant board member, echoed the concept of making sustainability a part and parcel of brand ethos.
Understanding the customer
“The customer in the post-COVID-19 world will be mindful of their purchases. They will be price-sensitive and will want to shop for meaningful clothing. This is where GAP’s commitment to deliver 100 per cent sustainable clothing becomes all the more relevant. In order to do this, of course, we need to be able to source the raw materials correctly, and therefore, when operating with third party vendors, our only requirement from the supply chain is to be able to tick two boxes – traceability and assurance. As a brand, we do not go out at the ground level sourcing for the raw material, so our only concern always is to be able to connect with a robust supply chain, who delivers as committed,” Alice commented.
“The demand for sustainable clothing and the cost for sustainable sourcing or the labour required to acquire sustainable raw materials have always been at loggerheads with each other. However, consumers are looking for brands that are leading with environmental sustainability messages and are relatable to their sustainability values. Moreover, the younger generation consumers, who have grown up with that consciousness of climate change and other sustainable principles, demand sustainable clothing. For us as a brand, our products speak for our sustainability values and we are delving further to let the consumers know about our sustainable sourcing through our responsible ethos and sustainability programmes,” Liza Schillo further mentioned.
“Brands now can’t just say that they are meeting their sustainability goals. More than before, they will now have to provide the customer with some data that shows they are actually implementing sustainable sourcing just as they claim. In this regard, the US Cotton Protocol can help brands. The moment brands enroll with us and answer a series of questions specifying how they are adapting to sustainable processes and the likes, we design a matrix tracing all the points of sourcing, this they can share with their customers, investors and the employees to indicate transparency in the process of sourcing and production,” Dr. Adams explained.
For sustainable sourcing, traceability is very important and in order to tick all the right boxes from water usage to environmental impact and raw materials, every aspect needs to be studied and made foolproof before a brand can actually claim that they are adapting to sustainable methods for production in order to lure customers.
The survey further indicated that the European brands continue to invest in sustainability efforts, despite COVID-19’s impact on companies’ investments in sustainability initiatives differs drastically by market – North American respondents are least likely to invest, where only 26 per cent of respondents believe COVID-19 has had a positive impact on sustainability investments at their company. While in Europe, six out of 10 (63 per cent) respondents said the pandemic has had a positive impact on their company’s sustainability efforts, and in Asia, 46 per cent of respondents said they believe there have been increases in proactive investments in sustainability initiatives. With Asian-European sustainability initiatives benefiting from the impacts of COVID-19, market-specific conditions may play a larger role in the future of sustainability than global factors.