Limitations for change: the complexity of the sustainable fashion system

Fashion is a global industry, focused mainly on low-cost products, distributed production sites, high production volumes and short development lead times, making it a complex supply chain. Most of the products have been designed for short and medium lifecycles.

By 2030, garment production is expected to reach 102 million tons in volume if it continues growing as it is.

Millions of people rely on this sector for living, as it contributes up to $2.4 trillion to the global manufacturing industry. According to the UN Fashion Alliance, it is responsible for 8–10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, 20% of industrial wastewater pollution and has $ 500 billion loss every year for underutilization and low rates of recycling.

“When is comes to the environment, the fashion industry record is well documented. Fashion accounts for 20 to 35% of microplastics flows into the ocean and outweights the carbon footprint of international flights and shopping combined.”

This impact is huge for society and for the environment, due to the high amount of chemicals, pollution from materials and production facilities, low wages as well as work environments risky for people. In addition to that, with the high demand for products that are cheap and trendy, the overproduction results in large amounts being sent to landfills and incineration.

The growing awareness on this topic made companies to find ways to make changes in ways of producing, designing and choosing materials. The new ways of working are already becoming a reality, and it is great to see companies as PatagoniaTimberland and Veja, for example, taking the lead: making use of innovative materials, regenerative agriculture for fiber production and making whole supply chain studies to develop products that will be 100% sustainable and hopefully biodegradable.

Limitations for change: the challenge of sourcing the right materials

Although the initiatives are promising, the results don’t come easy. The limitations for this change can hold back promising and incredible ideas. The main limitations recognized by brands, innovators and intitutes working in this area are related especially to:

  • Lack of suppliers and partners: it gets difficult to make changes if the supply chain is not prepared to deliver the materials necessary or scale sustainable solutions. This can be in several areas since raw materials, fibers, to washing techniques and recycling technologies.
  • High prices of materials: the materials, specially bio-based man made materials, are still expensive in comparison to what the fashion industry is used to. The change is starting with luxury or big retailers and brands that have the power to invest both in innovation and communication.
  • Insecurity regarding the market response: communicating sustainability is as important as implementing it. As materials can be more expensive, it can be difficult to sense how the market will respond. Sustinability and sustainable fashion research on the web has grown, but 70% of the consumers say they will give more value to sustainable brands, there is still little evidence that sustainability alone changes consumers spending priorities.

“Some 66% of respondents to a McKinsey US cohord survey (with 75% of millenical respondents) say they consider sustainability when making a luxury purchase. Still, consumers do not always back words with actions. Only a minority are willing to pay more for sustainable products — only 31% of Gen-Z and just 12% of baby boomers”.

  • Aligment between the brand strategy and the current demand for sustainability: aligning new sustainability practices with the brand original purpose and communication strategy can be challenging, and be perceived by the market as greenwashing. This transition needs to be authentic and real, specially because the customers have more voice than ever. The challenge is to align the goals settled by the CSR department, with the design of new collections, as well as with the marketing strategy — and here it is important to map all stakeholders and come up with a good engagement plan.

“There remains a pervasive lack of consumer trust, amid accusations in some quarters of fashion industry greenwashing using sustainability as marketing strategy without a significant positive impact on the environment.”

Sustainability: what does it really mean for fashion?

Questions regarding the sustainable products are serious subject. It can be confusing what sustainability really means: is it being vegan, natural, regenerative, organic? In paralel, we see a lot of different definitions and terms, and brands relate to it differently — making consumers even more confused and, in a certain way, insecure about the information.

Altough the fashion system is changing, it has to be clear for the consumer the value of what is being created. That is why providing as much information as possible is important. If the future of a brand is sustainability-driven, the important thing to consider now is that consumers are curious and asking about where the products came from, who participated in the production process, what were the inputs and the certifications. A movement specially driven by Fashion Revolution worldwide.

Next to that, it is extremely important to be aware of certification labels, and who are the main organizations and institutes working to create an unique language for all the industry in terms of material quality and availability, goals and banned practices.

There are initiatives as the Textile ExchangeSACGFA, and the Cradle 2 Cradle Institute that work on unifying the sector with credited labels and scaling targets, building transparency and collaborations between different players. It helps to avoid greenwashing campaigns, today found in a lot of products and brands, making it difficult to distinguish what are the real organic, recycled, sustainable, bio-based or circular labels. Understanding this topic avoids purchasing items that are not regulated by trusted audits.


Common Objective Resources (2020).

McKinsey & BoF — The State of Fashion 2020.

UN Fashion Alliance

Luciana Haubrich

Production Engineer specialized in Strategy and Sustainable Innovation Management, with extensive knowledge and experience within the fashion and design industries since product development, innovation, materials, production and recycling. Owner and founder of the brand Amendoa, operational assistant and consultant at FARFARM, and ambassador at Preza/ERA in Europe.

Cover Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

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