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LENZING – The world of apparel and textile industry, no matter the segment, has often been hammered by the negative effects of production towards the environment. In terms of production processes, according to a report published by Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the fashion industry generates 1.26 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year, which is more than the amount created by international flights and shipping combined. Textile mills also contribute to about one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution, and thousands of toxic chemicals, some being carcinogenic, are often used during production.

Labelled as one of the biggest polluters on the planet by non-governmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, the negative impact of the apparel industry doesn’t end with the manufacturing process. Globally, less than one per cent of material used in the apparel industry is recycled and a truckload of clothes are wasted every second, being burned or dumped in landfills. Such practice affects both common consumer brands and luxury brands alike. For instance, in the past five years, over £90m worth of unsold clothes, accessories and perfume has been destroyed by Burberry to protect its brand, which is common practice among premier fashion brands.

With the revelations of such “common” practice, brands and labels have been trying to strive for the moral high ground in the fashion industry. Many have started ensuring better treatment of workers in manufacturing plants, increased their usage of natural or organic raw materials and dyes, as well as adopting sustainable production methods for raw materials and products. Some brands have also dived into the world of circular economy, to keep safe materials in use via upcycling or re-use in the value chain. Given most brands have already been taking such counter-practices seriously, what else can luxury brands do to ensure that consumers can indulge in the guilt-free pleasure of their products?

According to the Disrupting Luxury Report issued by BSR, a global non-profit organization, luxury brands have been facing multiple challenges posed by climate change, technology and social inequalities. To enable luxury brands to steer ahead and garner growth, it is essential to not only drive the conversation of social and environmental sustainability, but also enhance technology innovation and act proactively.

To ensure sustainability, one key step is to adopt natural and sustainable raw materials. Organic cotton, soy cashmere, wool and lyocell fibre or filament derived from natural renewable wood sources are some of the eco-friendly and eco-responsible alternatives. Choosing natural cellulosic fibres can substantially reduce the amount of carbon emission during production process and lessen the burden on the environment. These eco-friendly materials can also produce fabric with high comfort level and supreme functionality. The proven quality of garments and products produced by such materials, coupled with their biodegradability feature, make them the optimal choice for driving eco-couture.

Nowadays, technology is key to success in various industries, and the luxury fashion segment is no exception. Brands and raw material suppliers can capture greater opportunities by investing in the research and development of eco-responsible fibre technologies and embrace the idea of upcycling, reduce and reuse, to achieve circular economy. One recent example of such innovation is Refibra technology that involves upcycling leftover cotton scraps from garment production, and adding them to wood pulp to produce new Lyocell fibres via a solvent-spinning process that recycles and reuses 99 per cent of processed water and solvent. Currently, cellulose fibre enabled by Refibra technology has been produced on a commercial scale and has been a successful example of contributing to a circular economy in the textile industry. Developing circular business models is a long-term sustainable solution for the textile industry, not only among raw material manufacturers, but also product brands to ensure sustainable production processes.

Enhancing supply chain transparency is inevitable for the industry ecosystem. Given consumers and stakeholders expect greater transparency along the industry value chain, luxury brands are not immune to this trend. With recent news around the “common practice” to destroy unsold merchandise to protect brands, luxury brands will need to proactively step up and communicate their environmental and social practices with stakeholders and consumers. It could also lead to luxury brands to redefining the standard of transparency practices across the industry value chain, from the disclosure of raw material sourcing, production and manufacturing process, to carbon footprint, packaging materials and product afterlife properties. With greater transparency, a push-and-pull effect among manufacturers, suppliers and consumers would be developed, forging a closer relationship along the value chain.

Embracing natural raw materials, innovative technology and enhanced supply chain transparency is just the beginning. It takes a village to raise a child, and likewise for building a brand. It is imperative for the industry value chain to work together to drive the adoption of eco-responsible practices and to ensure an improved, sustainable development of the textile and fashion industry in the long run.

Amit Gautam is global vice president business management textiles with Austrian speciality fibre maker, Lenzing AG

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