Is it possible to have a sustainable fashion supply chain?
More and more consumers are demanding sustainable products. For this reason, the textile and fashion industry must clearly show their commitment to sustainability in every aspect of their business. However, it is not easy to ensure sustainability throughout the supply chain.
Companies are usually transparent about some aspects of their production processes, such as the origin of raw materials or processing sites, but the supply chain includes many more elements.
Can we define as sustainable a green company that relies on a polluting packaging supplier? Can we define as ethical a company that does not use leather and fur but relies on a supplier that uses products of animal origin for other customers?
The concept of sustainability is more complex than one thinks.
Sustainability and the supply chain
The globalisation revolutionised the supply chain, leading to an increasing dependence on suppliers and subcontractors spread globally. These are mostly small or medium-sized enterprises.
In parallel, fashion itself has changed. The rise of Fast Fashion has led to the continuous production of new collections and an increase in clothing consumption.
The consequence is a huge environmental impact. However, most of the difficulties related to sustainability are not found in big brands but in those small or medium-sized companies that are part of the supply chain. In fact, scarce human and financial resources often prevent them from meeting the social and environmental demands, the need for flexibility of the big brands, and the achievement of a profit at the same time.
A T-shirt supply chain
It all starts with the procurement of raw materials for the production of fabrics. There are natural fibres, grown or obtained from animals (linen, cotton, wool, etc.), and synthetic fibres, produced in factories (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.). Both can have an environmental impact in terms of the use of water, pesticides, and other harmful substances.
Once ready, the fibres go from farmers to weaving factories for spinning, knitting, dyeing, stamping, and finishing. Here, too, the use of water and chemicals is relevant.
In the next step, the ready-made fabric is passed on to who actually produces the garment. The assembly includes cutting the fabric, sewing, possible prints, finishing, and adding labels and decorations (buttons, sequins, etc.).
But a t-shirt supply chain does not end there. Now it is time for logistics. T-shirts must be packed, stored, and distributed to the shops.
This phase deserves to be analyzed further, as it includes numerous steps and stakeholders. However, we want to be brief and give you a single data to understand the impact of this part of the supply chain on sustainability. About 90% of global trade is by ship. Ships carry around 11 billion tons of goods annually but produce around 2.5% of the world's total CO2 emissions. Moreover, Fast Fashion logistics exacerbate normal transport dynamics, as brands need fast deliveries to stay competitive.
As you can see, the parties are numerous and connected to each other: from suppliers to intermediaries, from manufacturers to logistics service providers, from vendors to sellers, and so on. Just for a simple t-shirt! Imagine what it can be for the luxury brands supply chain.
How can companies have a more sustainable supply chain
Even the luxury brands supply chain can be more sustainable if companies start making conscious choices.
First of all, they must know if their suppliers and partners use harmful products, have no safety standards, exploit labour, do not properly dispose of waste, rely on polluting transportation, and so on.
Only in this way can brands decide whether to continue the partnership. Alternatively, they can prepare their own policies and ask all the parties to adapt, building a system based on transparency and, where possible, on certifications. This allows companies to better track their production processes and ensure that everyone adheres to sustainable practices.
Then, fashion brands should invest in sustainable innovations. For example, they can choose virtual sampling to avoid the production of samples. Or, they can use AI to predict market trends and avoid unsold goods. They can also choose renewable energy to power their offices, or support the circular economy by activating reselling and recycling programs. There are so many possibilities!
And as more and more consumers demand sustainability from the fashion industry, these changes will become even more necessary.