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Garment industry

Sustainability a long way off

by Katja Dombrowski

In brief

Filippa K fashion show in Berlin. The Swedish brand is a sustainability pioneer.

Filippa K fashion show in Berlin. The Swedish brand is a sustainability pioneer.

The ecological footprint of the global garment industry is huge, and so are its growth rates. According to experts, a comprehensive transformation to sustainability is needed along the entire value chain. So far, however, only few fashion companies have been working towards that goal.

The garment industry emits 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the study “Pulse of the fashion industry”. It was recently published by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in cooperation with the Global Fashion Agenda. Moreover, the industry uses immense amounts of water – for growing cotton, for instance – and is responsible for major pollution due to the use of toxic chemicals. According to the study, the industry produces 2.1 billion tons of waste per year.

Sustainability is a long way off (see our briefing on the garment industry). The industry’s high growth rates are set to aggravate the problems even further. The world population is growing, and so are the middle classes and thus the number of fashion consumers. In September, the environmental non-governmental organisation WWF published the report “Changing Fashion”, according to which global clothing consumption has doubled between 2000 and 2014. On average, each person buys five kilogrammes of clothes per year. In Europe and the USA, the amount is even 16 kilogrammes. Experts forecast an increase from 62 million tons in 2015 to 102 million tons in 2030. At the same time, resources are getting scarcer. The BCG report predicts that profits are going to shrink because of rising material, labour and energy costs.

The authors of both studies agree that a comprehensive transformation is needed for the garment industry to achieve ecological, social and economic sustainability. The WWF proposes innovations on three levels:

  • business model innovation according to the principles of reducing, repairing, sharing, reusing and recycling,
  • product innovation based on recycled and sustainable raw materials and
  • process innovation leading to manufacturing processes with a reduced environmental footprint, particularly regarding energy, greenhouse gas emissions, water and chemicals.

The study includes a sustainability ranking of 12 leading fashion companies. H&M, the Swedish multinational, scores best. It aims to be a global leader in energy efficiency, as Vanessa Rothschild of H&M said at the world climate conference in Bonn in November. Targets include to achieve climate neutrality along the entire value chain by 2030 and climate positivity by 2040. By 2025, she promised, every piece of clothes will be produced using 30 % less carbon dioxide, and by 2030, H&M wants to use only recycled or otherwise sustainable materials. The company is working on fabrics that absorb carbon dioxide as well as on recycling mixed fabrics. Regarding the latter, “there was recently a breakthrough,” according to the H&M manager.

Filippa K, another Swedish fashion company, aims at a closing resources cycle too. According to Elin Larsson, who belongs to the company’s management, Filippa K wants to reach that goal by following the principles of reducing, repairing, reusing and recycling. As Larsson points out, resources are not only wasted in the production process, but also by consumers. Filippa K supports its customers to act more sustainably. For instance, it provides services for renting and repairing clothes. In Stockholm, the company runs a second-hand shop that buys back – and resells – used Filippa K garments. “Today we can only guarantee full recycling for our so-called frontrunner products,” Larsson says. The goal, however, is to recycle everything. Moreover, the campaign “7 Pieces Is All You Need” encourages customers to buy less clothes.

The two Swedish companies are pioneers. The BCG report stresses that only very few fashion companies are working towards sustainability so far. More than half of the market is made up of companies – mainly small and medium enterprises – that show no efforts at all. But even if the entire industry caught up to the best-practice frontrunners, it would not be enough. According to the authors, new approaches are needed that go beyond the existing ones.


WWF Switzerland, 2017: Changing fashion. The clothing and textile industry at the brink of radical transformation.

The Boston Consulting Group and Global Fashion Agenda, 2017: Pulse of the fashion industry.

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