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Fashion industry players turn sustainability talk into action

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Fashion industry players turn sustainability talk into action

Environmental responsibility pledges are being realized across the fashion industry, with major brands and startups alike actively working on initiatives and innovations to reduce waste, S&P Global Market Intelligence learned during the Fashion Summit 2018 event held Sept. 6 and 7 in Hong Kong.

Now is the time for such action, as the industry has developed some dire statistics, according to Brenda Koekkoek, program officer of the U.N.'s Secretariat of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management.

"Recent shifts in how we make and consume clothing are stretching planetary resources," Koekkoek said during a keynote at the event. "Clothing production has doubled, while the average consumer's apparel purchases increased 60% and the average usage of apparel halved between 2000 to 2014."

More than US$500 billion in value is lost each year due to underutilization of clothing and a lack of recycling, with about 85% of the total fiber input for clothing ending up in landfills or incineration, according to Koekkoek. In addition, nearly 20% of wastewater worldwide is produced by the fashion industry, while sectors such as cotton farming exacerbate pesticide use.

"We must acknowledge that fast fashion is a US$2.5 trillion industry," the U.N. officer said. "It is a significant economic sector and has a substantial role to play in sustainable development goals."

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB, agreed that fashion players need to take responsibility and reinvent the industry together. "My grandfather founded H&M in 1947, and his mission was to make fashion available for everyone," the executive said in another speech at the Fashion Summit. "Today, the mission is the same, but we want to do it in a sustainable way."

The Swedish fast-fashion giant has already started leading the charge. The company's nonprofit arm, H&M Foundation, partnered with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel in 2016 to find a solution for recycling common blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns without loss of quality.

"Within two years of the partnership, we have found groundbreaking solutions," Persson said. The collaboration recently scaled up from lab experiments to launching a textile recycling factory in Hong Kong, with a 2020 goal of making its technologies available for any business to use in order to significantly reduce the industry's reliance on virgin materials.

H&M has also pledged to use 100% recyclable or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, according to Joel Ankarberg, head of business development for production at H&M. "Today, that goal cannot be achieved. We need innovation to make that happen," the executive said during a panel discussion at the event, adding that the company managed to reach about 35% of the target in 2017 and is on its way to passing 50% this year.

In addition, the retailer is making venture capital investments into companies and entrepreneurs to spur the innovations and solutions needed to reach that goal, according to Ankarberg.

Walmart Inc. is another industry heavyweight focused on waste reduction. Ronnie Tham, director of global sourcing for the U.S. retail giant, unveiled one major program in the pipeline, which will sell T-shirts made from recycled polyester at an entry-level price point of about US$3 to US$4 each.

That would follow Walmart's 2017 launch of a project aimed at cutting 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain by 2030. "So far, we have over 600 suppliers participating in the initiative," Tham said during a panel discussion, adding that greenhouse gas reduction plans and results have become part of Walmart's supplier assessment.

Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at Future Tech Lab, an investment firm focused on technologically advanced and sustainable fashion, highlighted new innovations by industry startups during another panel session at the event.

They include San Francisco-based MycoWorks' development of vegan leather derived from mushroom root that is fully compostable and grown to organic food standards. Bolt Threads, another Bay Area startup that focuses on biotechnology, has produced synthetic spider-silk fibers through DNA manipulation of the metabolic processes of yeast cells.

Meanwhile, Italian company Orange Fiber has become the first fashion house to transform citrus juice byproducts into sustainable fabric and partnered with Italian luxury goods company Salvatore Ferragamo SpA to make scarves. France's Pili created bio-based inks made by the metabolic processes of bacteria to serve as a nontoxic alternative to petrochemical dyes.

Across the fashion industry right now, the most important goal is not turning consumers into environmentally conscious individuals, but rather creating better sustainable products, Parkes said.