Brands
10
min read
|
May 3, 2024

Towards Sustainable Retail: A Call to Standardize Practices for a Thriving Future

What might be the best path forward for sustainable fashion? Standardized sustainability guidelines could be a gamechanger, creating greater efficiency and transparency while growing consumer trust.

Towards Sustainable Retail: A Call to Standardize Practices for a Thriving Future
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Towards Sustainable Retail: A Call to Standardize Practices for a Thriving Future

It hasn’t been that long since sustainable fashion brands were few and far between. And while many companies have pivoted to implement a sustainability strategy, there’s still much more work to be done to significantly reduce the environmental impact of the retail industry. Many brands with established goals still have a long way to go to reach them—in fact, a recent McKinsey study reveals two-thirds of brands are late to hit their targets for decarbonization (reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions). The same study shows 40% of brands increased emissions after pledging to operate more sustainably.

That’s all to say, fashion has a long way to go. There can be shortcuts, misleading messaging, and a lack of transparency throughout the industry. What’s more, subjective standards can open the door to rampant greenwashing. So what might be the best path forward for fashion? Standardized sustainability guidelines could be a gamechanger, creating greater efficiency and transparency while growing consumer trust.

Today’s consumers, and the public at large, hold far higher expectations, including:

  • Sustainable materials 
  • Transparent supply chains
  • Sustainable manufacturing
  • Fair wages and conditions for workers
  • Environmentally-friendly packaging 

Learn more about the state of sustainability in retail, what some brands are doing to get it right and how the industry can come together to shape a significantly better future for all.

Understanding Sustainability in Retail 

Sustainability holds so many different meanings in retail, but there are a few universal considerations:

  • Products and packaging made with better, safer materials
  • Greener manufacturing processes with reduced environmental impact 
  • Workers given access to fair, livable wages and safe conditions 

Sustainable Materials 

To be considered sustainable, dyes, fabrics and components must be made from renewable resources. Their carbon footprints, how much greenhouse gasses they produce, also have to be nonexistent or minimal. The best materials also reduce or eliminate the industry’s reliance on petroleum products. 

Sustainable materials help reduce waste and offer innovative ways to reuse what has already been made. The cyclical nature of fashion and garments’ average lifecycles makes sustainable sourcing particularly essential in retail. 

Thanks to the latest innovations, brands have more sustainable options than ever.

Sustainable materials include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Natural dyes (such as vegetable dyes) 
  • Recycled, upcycled or deadstock fabrics 
  • Innovations like Orange Fiber and mushroom leather 
  • Fabrics made from regenerated fibers, including Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell
  • Organically grown or cultivated fibers, such as organic cotton, linen and silk

Amongst JOOR’s vast client base of brands are numerous examples of companies that have made great strides in their sustainability journeys and in fact, see digitalization of their wholesale operations, a step towards this objective. Here are two such commendable brands who are prioritizing their sustainability efforts.

Mara Hoffman 

The advanced contemporary womenswear brand, Mara Hoffman, offers an interesting case study. Mara’s label was already popular and well-established when she committed to sustainability in 2015. Her transition to sustainable materials and manufacturing illustrates that it’s both possible and realistic to successfully transition to a greener business.

Mara Hoffman transformed her brand by focusing on:

  • Research and development/continuous innovation 
  • Finding the right sustainable materials to replace existing fabrics and components
  • Connecting with other brands to exchange sourcing and manufacturing tips

Of course, her business didn’t change over night. But today, it’s a thriving, Climate Neutral-certified brand. And for other brands ready to make the transition, there are so many more resources available today to enjoy an even faster and easier transition. In 2023, Mara Hoffman was awarded the CFDA Fashion Award for Environmental Sustainability. 

Farm Rio

The globally-popular Brazilian contemporary womenswear brand, Farm Rio, offers another great example. They’re B Corp-certified, a famously difficult feat to achieve. The stringent certification also requires ongoing improvements for successful renewal every three years. 

Still, Farm Rio meets B Corp’s standards and more through five pillars — nature, people, circularity, culture and transparency. 

Farm Rio’s inspiring sourcing and production standards include:

  • Protecting Brazilian wildlife
  • Reforestation initiatives 
  • Offsetting all of their emissions
  • Reusing, recycling or donating leftover fabrics, trims, etc.
  • Using responsible, sustainable materials
    • Organic cotton 
    • Recycled polyester
    • LENZING™
    • ECOVERO™
    • and more…. 

Sustainable Manufacturing 

Brands are also encouraged to find ways to produce high-quality apparel and accessories with sustainable manufacturing processes. That might look like going circular, reducing waste, producing closer to home, offering supply chain transparency or a combination of these efforts.  

Shrinking The Fashion Industry’s Footprint

The Circular Economy 

Some brands have invested in partially-circular business models, including Danish label Ganni. They reuse, upcycle, or recycle 100% of excess materials and have set a goal of 5% of revenue derived from circular business models by 2025. Ganni also set a goal of designing 20% of styles for circularity by 2025 and is otherwise widely known for their environmental commitments. Others might want to initially offer consumers incentives to return their old, worn or damaged items to begin to build awareness. 

Greener Production Processes 

Some production processes create excessive waste and have a serious impact on the planet. Traditional denim manufacturing is one of them. It’s notorious for its use of noxious chemicals and excessive quantities of water. 

But it’s not all bad news. There’s been a lot of innovation in recent years:

  • Production processes that use less energy and water
  • Alternatives to harsh, dangerous chemicals 
  • Eco-friendly dyes
  • Organic fabrics and recycled materials 
  • New, water-free manufacturing techniques 

Gamifying Eco Impact 

Some brands use fun marketing techniques to share their energy and waste reduction stats with consumers. For example, the sustainable womenswear brand Reformation uses a system they call a RefScale. It calculates how much carbon dioxide and water shoppers save with every purchase. Shoppers can see brand stats as well as the impacts of their own orders. 

Local Production

Shifting to local production, if even only for some SKUs, can reduce a brand’s carbon footprint. Faraway production leads to greater emissions thanks to long-haul transport needs. The luxury knit brand Lingua Franca, for instance, prides themselves on offering collections of sustainably-sourced fair trade cashmere sweaters, hand stitched by women in New York.  

Supply Chain Transparency

After years of sourcing and production scandals, consumers want to know where their wardrobes come from. Where was the fabric sourced? Who did the beading? What was the product’s journey before it arrived in stores? Now some brands are sharing who makes their products, where their products are made and the conditions of their working environments. Supply chain transparency holds brands accountable, motivates them to do better and puts customers at ease. 

Fair Wage Practices 

Sustainable manufacturing begins with people.

  • Are factory workers treated with respect and dignity?
  • Are their working environments hazard-free or do they contain safety systems to safeguard their wellbeing? 
  • How are workers’ living conditions?
  • How long are their workweeks and days?
  • Do they have fair, straightforward contracts?

Worker wellbeing also extends to fair pay for time and efforts. Responsible brands ensure everyone throughout the supply chain earns livable wages. They’re also recognizing the impact they have on workers’ families and their local communities. It’s just another reason to improve the environmental impact of fashion manufacturing.

Some brands even go so far as to spotlight their manufacturing teams and producers. Garment workers’ names and faces might be featured on clothing labels, in advertising or on brand’s e-commerce sites. 

Packaging and Circularity

Since the start of the era of unboxing videos, consumers have been quick to scold brands using excessive packaging. The result has been a major shift throughout the industry. Brands are searching for greener packaging and other ways to ship items with less waste.

Great green packaging solutions include:

  • Packaging made from recycled materials 
  • Biodegradable plastic 
  • Compostable materials 
  • Materials made from organically-derived compounds (like seaweed)
  • Beautiful, reusable, long-lasting bags and boxes

Incorporating some of the principles of the circular economy can be useful too, such as:

  • Reusable boxes for returns and subscription-style orders
  • Refillable containers for beauty and wellness products
  • At-home pickups for returns (reverse logistics)
  • Convenient dropoff points for returns

The Case for Standardization

Since there are many ways for brands to become more sustainable, there are countless debates about which approaches work best. Brands have lost consumers’ trust time and time again. The best path forward — and an excellent antidote to greenwashing — is to standardize retail’s sustainability efforts. It would be an excellent way to become more efficient, improve transparency, leverage a common language to inform purchase decisions, and increase consumer trust. 

Fragmentation of Sustainability Efforts

The retail industry has a scalability problem. While brands are making efforts, the impact could be accelerated by creating a common language around what is considered sustainable. Standardization is key.

The Benefits of Standardization 

Greater Efficiency: There’s always power in having clear, established guidelines in place. Brands would no longer have to research and create sustainable solutions on their own. And when more brands use the same processes, everyone benefits from the incremental improvements that emerge over time.

Better Transparency: Thanks to smart consumers, transparency has become a major selling point in recent years. Unfortunately, many brands have received criticism for selective transparency, misleading information and even mislabeled materials. Standardized sustainability guidelines would solve this concern, offering brands a clear definition of transparency along with easy-to-understand criteria.

Earn More Trust from Consumers: When consumers understand there’s only one definition of transparency, one set of criteria for safe working conditions, one definition of sustainable fabric and so forth, they can put their fears aside. For example, the certification system has been very successful in growing consumer trust.

Certifications

Some brands have been striving to obtain highly-regarded certifications to confirm they really do operate sustainably. Not only do these guidelines help brands do better, but they reassure consumers with trustworthy, third-party verification of brands’ claims. 

Some of the leading certifications include: 

  • B Corp 
  • EcoCert
  • Fairtrade
  • FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)
  • GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)
  • OEKO-TEX
    • Eco Passport
    • Made in Green
    • Leather Standard
    • Responsible Business
    • Standard 100 
    • SteP (Sustainable Textile & Leather Production)

Each certification comes with its own benchmarks that might include strict standards for the following considerations: 

  • Sustainable materials
  • Sustainable manufacturing
  • Ethical employee care and fair wages
  • Supply chain transparency
  • Ethical business practices
  • Community development
  • Environmental initiatives 

Challenges and Obstacles

Resistance to Change: While fashion embodies newness and innovation, the industry can be slow to embrace change. Myths abound, such as that it’s prohibitively expensive or difficult to shift towards greater sustainability. 

Cost Considerations: While the shift to greener operations doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive, it does come with costs. This could lead some brands to postpone change through the foreseeable future. However, the economies of scale of widespread adoption can significantly reduce costs. Additionally, cost of adoption could potentially be offset by the ability to charge more for a sustainable product, as consumers increase the value and importance they place on this consideration.

Lack of Clear Guidelines: Not knowing where to start might be the biggest hurdle for many brands. And, unfortunately, inaction is a common response.

Building a Standardized Framework 

New, upcoming, and proposed environmental and transparency regulations abound. Collectively, they provide insights and clues as to how an industrywide, standardized framework for retail might appear.

There are many new initiatives, but this list of new or proposed regulations are getting plenty of attention:

  • (U.S.) The FABRIC Act (Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change) 
  • (U.S.) The Fashion Act (Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act)
  • (U.S.) The Fashion Worker’s Act
  • (EU) Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles
  • (EU) The Digital Product Passport 
  • (EU) Eco-Design for Sustainable Product Regulation (ESPR)

Industry Stakeholders: It’s a Collaborative Effort

In addition to following local, state, federal and international regulations, the best path forward would be a group effort by industry stakeholders. Imagine a major initiative dreamed up by sourcing experts, product developers, manufacturers, designers and experts from the fields of sustainability, recycling, logistics, tech and more.

Together, they could assess potential solutions to find cost-effective and realistic options for all. The result would be a set of clear guidelines and metrics. Brands would know exactly what to do, what to track and where to turn for more information.

Innovative Digitalization

New technology and digital tools could help brands grow their global businesses without increasing their carbon footprint, drive sales without producing wasteful physical samples, and stay compliant.

Digital Wholesale Platforms

A B2B digital wholesale platform like JOOR can significantly reduce carbon footprints in a variety of ways. For one, with the world’s largest global network of brands and retailers, JOOR stands at the intersection of the wholesale industry—the point at which buyers are deciding what to carry in their stores. With universally understood and respected guidelines in place, JOOR could provide these parameters to inform the purchase decision making process and assist retailers in fulfilling their commitments to carrying sustainable product offerings in their stores.

JOOR’s virtual showrooms make it possible for brands to:

  • Sell and collaborate with buyers from around the globe
    • Less business travel — saving money, reducing emissions
  • Share high-quality, realistic product images and videos
    • Produce fewer physical samples — saving money, reducing waste
  • Present virtual lookbooks and line sheets
    • Print only a few copies of each — saving money, reducing waste 
  • Access detailed analytics and insights
    • Improve forecasts to reduce overproduction  

Digital IDs

Brands now have the ability to turn any or all of their products into smart products. Technology like EON’s Digital IDs connect products to give every SKU a unique ecosystem and identity.

 

Brands can use Digital IDs to become more sustainable by:

  • Developing fully-traceable, transparent supply chains to stay compliant 
  • Embedding fabric and component identification to support recyclers
  • Shifting to circular business models to reduce waste 
  • Introducing resale or rental business models to extend the life of every product 

The right digital tools for retail will be focused on driving efficiency as well as the transfer of information to support sustainable business practices and growth.

The Path Forward: A Call to Action 

Retail has an urgent need to leave a gentler impact on the planet. This is certainly a pivotal time in the industry, as well as an opportunity for stakeholders to  collaborate in service of accelerating progress and affecting real, rapid change. 

Shifting to sustainable retail isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s also great for business. 

Greener brands earn more trust, paving the way to increase customer lifetime value. These brands will have an easier time staying compliant with upcoming regulations. And they’ll have many opportunities to reduce costs over time. 

Above all, becoming more sustainable means committing to continuous improvement and innovation. Teaming up with the right technology partners allows you to enhance your operations while furthering your mission for sustainability. The brands that do will be ready to capture more market share. They’ll also be ready to meet retailers’ and consumers’ evolving needs and desires. Because what could be more important than driving business growth while helping to save the planet?

Book a JOOR demo today and get an inside glimpse of what our leading B2B platform can do to future-proof your fashion business and help you achieve success in wholesale.

Tina Baxter
JOOR Fashion Consultant
Towards Sustainable Retail: A Call to Standardize Practices for a Thriving Future

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