Recycling gets real: At last, we are seeing some decent financial support heading into pure textile-textile recycling initiatives from the likes of Re:newcell and Infinited Fiber Company. Both these solutions are set to scale, both have brand partners and both offer genuine game-changing opportunities to help shift from linear to circular in apparel supply chains.
Likewise, US textile recycling technology business, Evrnu, recently closed a US$9m round of Series A funding. The company has already debuted its first commercially available recycling technology, NuCycl, which converts old cotton garments into high-quality materials. We wish these and similar technologies well in 2020.
Investors step into sustainability space: On a related theme, more and more investors now appear to see sustainable textiles as a realistic proposition – and why wouldn’t they? For example, Spinnova recently received an €11m investment to support its tech which converts pulp into textile fibres without any harmful chemicals. Meanwhile, Fashion for Good has a launched a US$60m fund to back new technologies and other initiatives aimed at tackling environmental and social issues in garment supply chains (where they are most needed). The Good Fashion Fund will invest in the implementation of technologies in the likes of India, Bangladesh and Vietnam, focusing on R&D and innovative solutions where there is currently a lack of capital available.
Money talks: we’ve also seen further evidence in 2019 of investment groups publicly commenting on the apparel and textiles space, using their influence to press for more sustainable or ethical options. For example, a number of Nordic shareholders and investors in H&M recently publicly stated that the fast fashion giant’s progress on living wages was too slow. Earlier in the year, meanwhile, a group of 190 global investors representing over US$3 trillion in assets wrote to the Bangladeshi government urging it not to abandon the Bangladesh Accord until local agencies are fully capable of continuing its work to ensure the safety of the over 1,600 factories currently under its remit. We hope to see more of this kind of positive investor pressure in 2020. After all, money talks.
Recognising water challenges: brands – responsible ones anyway – led a number of far-reaching water-focused programmes in supply chains during 2019. Water-stress is a serious worry for brands moving forward given that so much apparel (and cotton) production takes place in water-stressed regions in the world. It was positive then to see Levi Strauss announce a new water strategy with a goal of reducing cumulative water use for denim manufacturing at its suppliers by 50 per cent in water-stressed areas by 2025 [Levi’s is easily our brand of the year where sustainability is concerned]. US casual brand Gap and its Indian supplier, Arvind, also announced plans to open a new innovation centre to promote the adoption of technology that reduces water use by the textile industry. There were other brand-led initiatives in this area but undoubtedly, we need more. This situation is now so pressing that such water saving and efficiency programmes will soon become a commercial imperative for brands to protect themselves from supply chain risk.
Drowning in initiatives: we lost count of the number of sustainability initiatives launched by the apparel industry in 2019 – and stopped reporting on them. There comes a point where one has to start asking why initiatives are being launched. Is it to try bring about genuine, positive and meaningful change on certain issues? Or is it about generating positive PR. The majority of those we saw during 2019 fall into the latter of these categories. This idea is reinforced due to the vague, unclear goals of most of these initiatives, the distant timelines and the fact that, in most cases, it is unclear how they will be policed. If 2019 was about talking about sustainability and brands telling us what they are planning to do, let’s hope brands make 2020 the year of actions. It’s time for the talking to stop.
Greenwash is back: in fairness, greenwash never really disappeared, but it appeared to hit depressing new highs (or lows?) during 2019. This is linked in part to the rise of sustainability initiatives which sees brands garnering fantastic positive PR and being called ‘sustainability leaders’ for doing very little apart from have a photoshoot in Paris or wherever. This is misleading to consumers. This greenwash also links to the ongoing march of PR generally in the apparel space. The language used by apparel brand PR departments gets more and more bland, opaque and misleading by the day; and this at a time when we need clarity of purpose and language more than ever. As consumers we all want to know exactly what brands are doing on climate issues instead of being tossed soundbites and buzzwords which are unhelpful and uninformative. Plain, easy to understand English is all we ask for. The bottom line here is this: you can’t market and PR your way out of a climate emergency.
Carbon copouts. we’re worried about all this talk of carbon neutrality and using carbon offsets as a way to achieve climate goals. Sure, brands say they will also tackle issues in supply chains, but can we really trust them to do that when they can ease their conscience by planting a few trees in a far-off land? The trouble with carbon offset schemes is that there is no proof that they work; indeed, most serious studies on such initiatives suggest they have negligible impact and may even be counter-productive.
Our other concern is that one of the most vocal people on this issue has been Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri who recently urged the global fashion industry to carbon offset its away out of the climate issue via an open letter to other brand CEOs. Since when did Gucci – a brand which has hardly set the world alight on sustainability issues up to now – get to dictate to others how we should tackle climate issues?
There’s no easy fix where climate is concerned, and we should be wary of brands which suggest there are (and brands which talk of climate neutrality, another highly dubious piece of marketing terminology).
If brands are serious about climate, they should forget about planting trees and instead focus on making massive investments to help their Asian suppliers to shift to renewables.
Xinjiang crisis: Xinjiang will be the story of 2020 in the global apparel industry, without doubt. A civil rights group recently likened the current situation in Xinjiang to a crime against humanity, and claims the Chinese government’s ongoing ‘re-education’ programme of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic and religious minorities represent the largest-scale detention of religious minorities since World War II.
Every expert we have spoken to on this issue has told us that, due to the massive scale of the Chinese governments re-education programme and the fact that authorities in China are so secretive, it is impossible to know whether cotton and cotton-apparel products which were produced in or which have been through Xinjiang are free of forced or even prison labour. This region has become an absolute hornet’s nest.
We expect an international boycott pertaining to Xinjiang in 2020, similar to the way many boycotted South Africa in the Apartheid era. It will be interesting to see which way apparel brands – and, indeed, organisations such as BCI – fall on this issue.
We rather suspect, however, that for the apparel industry, Xinjiang, due to its vast, long-staple cotton reserves, is a bit like the banks were back in 2008: too big to fail.
Cotton claims: now more than ever we need better environmental and social information relating to cotton and other fibres. What we don’t need is misleading sustainability claims which confuse the general public (and journalists, for that matter). Why, then, does the organic cotton lobby continue to put out the spurious claim that organic cotton growing uses 90 per cent less water? Why is the Soil Association distributing marketing literature to this effect? We really don’t care which type of cotton cultivation is proved to be best, as long as we are provided with better information and better data. Our research and associated enquires into this issue hopefully have kick-started a debate here. The overwhelming conclusion we drew is that talk of ‘sustainable’ cotton or even of ‘more sustainable’ cotton is misleading, confusing, deceitful and just plain wrong.
Road to nowhere: the global apparel industry remains in a race to the bottom, and Ethiopia is the latest entrant. Interviews with workers at Hawassa Industrial Park – Ethiopia’s flagship park for garment production, anchored by PVH and H&M – recently found wages for garment workers remain low, especially for sewing machine operators whose basic salary is 750 Ethiopian Birr. In addition, the workers are paid 300 Birr for accommodation and a further 100 Birr for reporting for work. The total, 1,150 Birr, equals around US$38 per month. Is it any wonder the industry there has a major issue with staff turnaround? And is it any wonder also that Bangladesh – a country with the next lowest wages after Bangladesh – saw a further spate of factory closures during 2019? As we have said repeatedly, apparel is a global industry which is awash with money. Surely those that make our clothing – factories and their workers – deserve better than this constant squeeze on their livelihoods.