More than 150 billion garments are manufactured worldwide each year, often ending up far across the globe from where they were created.
Before reaching the consumer, they pass through countless other hands—from growers, processors, mills and finished goods manufacturers, to distributors, warehouses and retail shops. They are sold, worn, washed, repaired, donated—and most end as waste. The scale of this problem becomes apparent when you consider that the annual global spend on fashion equates to the GDP of the world’s 126 poorest countries.
The carbon footprint of any garment’s journey, the environmental impact of its creation, and the pay and conditions within the factory where it was assembled have created a perfect storm of unsustainability—and all this from an industry that consumes more energy than aviation and shipping combined.
We conducted research into how technology can be leveraged to transform transparency and traceability across the apparel value chain, in support of fashion as a sustainable industry.
The 21 companies we spoke to included brands, retailers, manufacturers, suppliers, assurance providers, and advisory and standards bodies with a combined global revenue of more than US$140 billion.
Our research reveals progress in several areas. Consumer awareness and communication are improving, standardizing bodies are aiming to bring clarity and guidance, brands have begun experimenting with new materials and suppliers are improving their production practices. But, given the complexity and scale of the production process, these incremental steps do not go far enough.
We have to think bigger and be realistic.
If we are to transform the industry for the better, by promoting sustainable and ethical practices in apparel manufacturing by improving transparency and traceability, we need strategic thinking, visibility, trust, guidance and clear communication at a systemic level.
In this era of responsible retail, sustainability is certainly high on the CEO agenda, with 48 percent of CEOs implementing sustainability within their operations in 2019. To be successful, organizations need a holistic approach driven from the top that brings together strategy, design and execution, plus a genuine desire to collaborate with other parties across the supply chain and an understanding that sustainability requires realignment as a pre-competitive consideration.
Technology as an enabler of change
Technology is often seen as a panacea for all industrial issues, and it certainly helps, but our research highlights a recognition among suppliers, manufacturers and brands that technology alone cannot solve key issues relating to sustainability and transparency.
While it may mitigate some pitfalls across the full life cycle of a garment, concerns will remain around trust and industry alignment, as well as the motivation to adopt sustainable and transparent practices. If we are to forge genuine, systemic change, a broader program of pre-competitive collaboration is required, where different parties agree on transformation—and technology is simply the enabler to make it happen.
Improving the value chain for responsible growth
To promote responsible growth for the whole industry we need to focus on our north star vision of a fully traceable and transparent value chain. Informed by our primary research, we have defined six recommendations that are all inextricably linked to one another. They reflect the complex, interwoven and interdependent network of the apparel industry ecosystem.
An industry ready for change
A traceable, transparent value chain is a significant challenge for any apparel manufacturer. But there has never been more international momentum behind sustainable initiatives, and their economic value is now more clearly understood.
Our research has detailed the technology opportunities and the industry is ready to change. Now it’s up to companies to cut from a different cloth.