Having worked in the fashion industry, I am the first to admit that it can be extremely frivolous. However, in the context of climate change and the global economy, it’s anything but inconsequential. The apparel industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions and remains the second largest industrial polluter after oil . The production of apparel is highly dependent on weather patterns (for agriculture), water use (for dyeing, finishing, and washing), and energy consumption (for industrial activity, transportation, and retail operations). So, not only has the industry played a significant role in the progression of climate change, but it will also face many of the consequences.
Take a brand like H&M for example. Started as a single store in 1947, the H&M Group has grown to be the world’s second-largest fashion retailer, bringing in $24 billion in 2015. The H&M Group is comprised of six fashion brands, with more than 4,200 stores in 64 markets . H&M’s value proposition is to offer consumers fashionable clothing at affordable prices. The consequence of this has been the proliferation of fast fashion and unprecedented levels of clothing consumption and disposal. Americans throw away 14 million tons of clothing per year, totaling to 80 pounds per person . H&M may be the root of the problem, but because of its scale, influence, and dedication to environmental sustainability, it may also be an integral part of the solution.
I believe change and innovation in the apparel industry will be largely driven by brands. The apparel supply chain is long and rarely vertically integrated. At the top of the supply chain, brands hold much of the power. Brands create demand for products from farmers, textile mills, and factories, and brands with scale have the leverage to drive change throughout the entire value chain.
Roughly two thirds of the 500+ suppliers that make clothes for H&M and use wet processes, are located in areas suffering from water scarcity. In 2013, H&M formed a three-year partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Together they set a three-year water strategy focused on improving H&M’s use of water, building water awareness, collective action, and measuring water impact and risk. In 2016 this partnership was renewed for another five years, with an increased focus on climate action .
Upon measuring their water usage, H&M discovered that 87% of the water footprint in their supply chain occurred in raw material production. H&M has taken two major steps to decrease their reliance on water for raw material production. The first step is a commitment to use cotton solely from sustainable sources by 2020, which they define as recycled, organic, or Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) certified fiber . On average, organic cotton requires less water—an estimated 75-80% is rain fed. The average water consumption of organic cotton is 182 liters/kg lint, versus conventional cotton at 2,120 liters/kg lint . H&M’s second step towards reducing the water footprint of its raw materials is a sizeable investment in research on textile recycling . Investing in sustainability can drive innovation, in addition to helping manage risk . Innovation in recycling technology would reduce H&M’s reliance on virgin materials.
In addition to water scarcity, increasingly ambitious greenhouse gas emissions policies will affect H&M and their supply chain partners’ operations. In 2015, H&M reduced carbon emissions from internal operations by 56% by heavily increasing use of renewable electricity. However, only 10% of carbon emissions associated with H&M occur within their retail operations. 17% of emissions are attributed to raw materials and packaging, and the remaining 73% are attributed to fabric production, garment manufacturing, transportation, and consumer care. H&M plans to collect climate impact data from suppliers, and create an incentive system that rewards strong sustainability performance. H&M has partnered with Clevercare to educate and encourage customers to make washing decisions that are more energy efficient .
I have only scratched the surface—H&M is doing a lot. However, I would argue that it’s time for H&M to shift their focus to designing for disassembly. In 2013, H&M launched a used garment collection program. So far they have collected over 32 tons of garments. Some garments are re-sold, and some are downcycled into cleaning cloths or insulation materials. Only 0.1% of the collected clothing is recycled into new textile fiber . With a business model that requires the constant creation of new products, and that is faced with constrained resources, H&M will need to figure out how to close the loop in order to create a truly sustainable business.
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 James Conca, “Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming,” Forbes, December 3, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/#6ba24d36778a, accessed November 2016.
 H&M, “Group at a Glance,” http://about.hm.com/en/about-us/h-m-group-at-a-glance.html, accessed November 2016.
 H&M, 2015 Water Engagement Report, http://sustainability.hm.com/content/dam/hm/about/documents/masterlanguage/CSR/WWF/HM%20Water%20engagement%202015.pdf, accessed November 2016.
 H&M, “Cotton,” http://about.hm.com/en/sustainability/sustainable-fashion/materials/cotton.html, accessed November 2016.
 Textile Exchange, “Material Snapshot Organic Cotton,” 2016, http://textileexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/TE-Material-Snapshot_Organic-Cotton.pdf, accessed November 2016.
 Whelan, Tensie and Fink, Carly, “The Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability,” Harvard Business Review, October 21, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-comprehensive-business-case-for-sustainability, accessed November 2016.
 H&M, 2015 Emissions Report, http://sustainability.hm.com/content/dam/hm/about/documents/masterlanguage/CSR/2015%Sustainability%20resport/HM_SustainabilityReport_2015_final_com_4.pdf, accessed November 2016.
 Wicker, Alden, “Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis,” Newsweek, September 1, 2016, http://www.newsweek.com/2016/09/09/old-clothes-fashion-waste-crisis-494824.html, accessed November 2016.