Fashion’s impact on the environment has remained a hot topic over the last five years, and brands across categories have made plans, commitments and goals outlining all the ways in which they will be more sustainable in the future. At a 2017 fashion summit in Copenhagen, 90 brands made commitments with Global Fashion Agenda to hit certain sustainability milestones by 2020.
But no matter how ambitious a plan, pledge or pact is, it’s nothing if the brands don’t back it up. And some experts in the sustainable fashion space are not confident brands can follow through on their plans based on what they’ve seen.
“It’s hard to answer this without sounding negative, but I’m not sure that [most 2020 goals will be met],” said Diana Verde Nieto, co-founder and CEO of Positive Luxury, an organization promoting sustainability within luxury fashion. “As of July 2019, all of the signatories to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit’s Circular Fashion System Commitment had only reached 21% of their targets set in 2017. It is encouraging to see industry leaders taking on these commitments, but speed is a must.”
Despite being the poster child for what many consider to be the harmful effects of fast fashion, H&M has actually done quite well in meeting or nearly meeting its 2020 goals. The company has already reached a goal set in 2017 to have 40% to 60% of all recollected clothes in-store either resold or recycled into new clothes before the stated deadline of 2020, but some other goals are still in the works.
Another goal was to have 100% of all cotton used by the company be sourced sustainably. It’s close to achieving the goal.
“We are almost there,” an H&M spokesperson said when asked about the company’s 2020 sustainability goals. “In 2018, H&M Group sourced 95% of cotton in a more sustainable way, and we are confident that by 2020, all of our cotton will be sourced in a more sustainable way.”
Adidas stood out among sneaker brands this year for the concrete progress it made in sustainability. In addition to the introduction of the Futurecraft Loop, a sneaker made to be recycled and reworked into an infinite amount of new sneakers with the same materials, the company has also already partially accomplished one of its 2020 goals.
In 2017, Adidas pledged that by 2020 it would have a “digitally-supported reclaim initiative” rolled out in key markets around the world. That program, which is now called Infinite Play, was indeed launched this year, but so far it’s only in the U.K. Adidas has far larger and more influential markets around the world to which it will have to expand Infinite Play to truly achieve that goal.
Still, the program is in place, and Adidas is pleased with its progress so far.
“We take the product and repair it and resell it, or recycle it if we can’t,” said Alexis Haass, Adidas’ head of sustainability. “It’s about training the customer to understand that their product’s life does not have to end when they’re done with it. It can live on, in some way.“
Asos has released an impressive amount of data around its corporate practices and has been open about its carbon emissions and the percentage of materials its sources sustainably (currently 34%). One of the company’s 2020 goals was to report this information every year, in 2020 and beyond, which the brand has so far accomplished.
And while the company has also done quite a bit around sustainability in some areas, like reducing carbon emissions, other areas have seen no movement yet. Another of Asos’ 2020 goals was to launch a garment collection program in the U.K. and Germany, but so far, this program has not materialized.
When asked for comment on the brand’s 2020 goals, a representative from Asos pointed to the brand’s corporate responsibility page where much of the information around its yearly progress on these goals is listed.
Zara’s parent company Inditex had four main goals set for 2020: train 100% of designers in circular design principles, introduce a garment collection program, partner with 40 local non-profit sustainability organizations and invest $3.5 million in textile recycling technology.
Of those four, only two have concretely been met. In late 2018, a garment recycling program was put in place where customers could return clothes to the store or have them picked up by Zara, and in mid-2019, Zara began a partnership with MIT that will total $3.5 million in recycling tech investment by 2020.
Training its designers in circular design philosophy is a bit hard to quantify, and there’s no readily available information on how many non-profit organizations Zara has partnered with.
Inditex did not respond to requests for comment.
Gap has not quite yet met one of its main 2020 goals – identifying the most promising recycling technologies and scaling them up in its supply chain – but the company has made significant progress in that area, mainly by developing the necessary technologies that don’t already exist.
Just last month, Gap began working with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel to develop new technologies, with a particular focus on sustainably removing color from clothing so it can be recycled and separating mixed blends of spandex.
“We are doing work on using recycled fabric and starting up some take-back programs,” said Melissa Fifield, senior director of global sustainable innovation at Gap. “All of these issues are so interrelated. Some of the challenges are around what’s available and what can be scaled. Some solutions don’t exist yet, which is a problem but also an opportunity.”
Ultimately, fashion is chock full of pacts and alliances and pledges, many with long-term goals several years in the future. But as those deadline years quickly approach, brands actually need to start walking the walk if they don’t want to be accused of greenwashing. While many goals are on track to being met, the brands that haven’t gotten anywhere close to their goals are quickly running out of time.
“There are a lot of coalitions and collaborations; however, businesses are not taking the necessary steps to change fast enough,” Nieto said. “Sustainability is about more than fur-free, eliminating single-use plastic and investing in carbon offsetting schemes. It has to be integrated holistically and run throughout the entire business, including supply chain, marketing, events and retail. It’s about time that in 2020, sustainability moves from being just a marketing tool to becoming an integral part of company culture and strategy.”