Innovation Forum has published the Sustainable Apparel Barometer 2021, this year’s state of innovation report informing and driving effective action towards ethical and climate-positive fashion and apparel. The 2021 report looks in-depth into how transparency in the cotton sector is evolving, the challenges and opportunities in viscose production and what needs to be done to drive greater social compliance within apparel supply chains.
This year’s research into the cotton sector finds that brands and NGOs are working hard to create a genuinely sustainable cotton supply chain. Many sector companies are engaging with growers and developing better training programmes. Brands are committing to using organic cotton. And there is a move towards fully traceable cotton and away from the mass balance supply chain approach.
The report finds the cotton sector’s greatest challenge is the on-going forced labour in Chinese supply chains, most notably in the province of Xinjiang. Given China produces 30% of the world’s cotton and Xinjiang 85% of the nation’s crop, the report concludes that any brand with Chinese cotton in its supply chain is affected by this scandal.
The viscose sector is another with significant challenges and opportunities, as this year’s research finds. Derived from wood pulp, there is a direct link between viscose and deforestation risks, and the sector has been linked with sourcing from threatened areas such as the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the Amazon basin and the boreal forests of Canada. A further challenge is that viscose production can be chemically intensive and potentially polluting, with chemicals used at all stages of fibre production. A number of environmental activist groups have put pressure on the sector to work harder to address these sourcing and manufacturing risks.
The 2021 report highlights that there remains a knowledge gap in the viscose industry on what sustainable management of viscose entails, particularly regarding avoiding deforestation. Certification has a useful role to play in developing sustainably sourced wood pulp, and there are a number of initiatives that are working hard on controlled and responsible use of chemicals in the sector. The report concludes that the approach of apparel brands and retailers to forest fibres is evolving, and there is a need for more industry wide discussion to drive greater engagement on this.
Social compliance questions
The apparel sector has been characterised by a lack of social compliance over the past two decades, the 2021 report finds, during which there have been a number of instances of child labour, low wages, labour rights abuses and discrimination. And these are ongoing despite the emergence of many social performance standards and a large auditing and certification industry. Governments are frustrated at the lack of progress and there is a growing trend towards mandatory due diligence standards governing supply chains.
The report set out to find what a credible strategy could look like and concluded that a three-way approach, focused on significant more collaboration, is necessary. Firstly, the current morass of standards and approaches should be simplified and harmonised. Secondly, apparel sector brands should commit to reform and work with each other and others in the value chain to achieve this. And, thirdly, there is work to do to understand properly the societal context of apparel supply chain challenges.
2021’s emerging themes
The Sustainable Apparel Barometer 2021 has five recommendations.
- Don’t assume there is a magic bullet solution for a particular challenge. This is unhelpful and takes attention away from the wider issues that must be addressed to truly develop a systemic sustainable strategy.
- Brands and retailers should be franker about the complexity of the challenges facing them. Trying to pretend that sustainability is more advanced than the actual fact is unhelpful. There is an urgent need for greater honesty about complexity and the fact that broad-brush solutions do not work.
- To develop a more honest approach, some analytical heavy lifting is necessary. Problems can only be addressed effectively if they are properly understood – so that analysis must be done.
- Actors in the apparel sector must truly work together. Properly focused collaboration where it is needed remains weak.
- Business models need to be reassessed by apparel sector companies if sustainability is to be truly achieved. It must be core part of business strategy. In addition, brands and retailers need to re-orient their business models to develop longer-term relationships with suppliers.