Fashion retail’s sustainability challenge and how technology can help







Representatives from Arcadia, Burberry, Marks & Spencer and Primark were called to Parliament as witnesses at the end of November to detail the steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of the clothes and footwear they sell.

They were followed by Nick Beighton and Carol Kane, CEOs of ASOS and Boohoo respectively, and Paul Smith, head of product quality and supply at Missguided, which also faced up to an Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into fashion sustainability.

Led by committee chair Mary Creagh MP, the inquiry put the retailers’ supply chain transparency under the spotlight, while questioning the impact of cheap clothing on society and the environment.

It was an in-depth debate, covering the Modern Slavery Act, as well as treatment and pay conditions of third-party factory staff, but some retailer responses highlighted how technology helps, or might help, their sustainability practices.

The three online retailers described how they use their social media accounts to educate shoppers on the best ways to re-use or recycle fashion items.

Paul Lister, head of ethical trade & environmental sustainability team at Primark, revealed his business is set to launch a clothing returns scheme next year, while Leanne Wood, chief people, strategy & corporate affairs officer at Burberry, called for government support to boost investment in “innovation for recycling technology”.

Blockchain and big technology

Anusha Couttigane, principal analyst for fashion, EMEA, at Kantar Consulting, says technologies like RFID and blockchain “empower brands to monitor their operations better and build in the storyline of traceability”, while reassuring consumers.

In mainstream fashion, H&M Group has started working with Singaporean blockchain company VeChain, looking to secure product data traceability for certain products sold by its Arket brand. Shoppers download the VeChain app and scan an NFC chip on Arket products, enabling them to see where and how items were made.

“The fact brands and retailers are looking to adopt this technology with the consumers in mind, shows that commitment to sustainability is being driven from the top-down from a strategic level but also from the bottom-up in terms of the consumers engaging with policies,” says Couttigane.

Kantar Group research shows shoppers are increasingly driven by company values beyond brand name and product, suggesting it is a prudent path for brands to follow.

Some 57% of British consumers feel better when buying environmentally friendly brands and 47% feel better when buying a socially-conscious brand, according to Kantar Worldpanel data from September. Last year’s Kantar Futures (now part of Kantar Consulting) Global Monitor, showed 47% of 16-25-year-olds have made it a top priority to live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle.

Taking away consumer uncertainty online

A trend in recent years is for retailers to invest in technology to help consumers make better and more informed purchasing decisions, particularly when buying online. Whether its personalisation software, fit technology, 360-degree view imagery or increased product information or video content, there are multiple options available.

True Fit, which is increasing its global presence thanks to partnerships with the likes of Clarks, Levi’s and Next, says it can help make e-commerce more efficient for retailers thanks to its product recommendation engine based on extensive fashion data.

Co-founder Romney Evans says working with his business can also help brands reduce “the sea of cardboard” moving to and from consumers’ homes caused by size and style sampling, which contributes to rising return rates in fashion retail.

“One customer might buy three items in a year and one might buy 300 items in a year – we don’t want to start mandating how much an individual should buy,” says Evans.

“But we do need to make sure that the process is more efficient. What we don’t want is for the user who buys three items a year to ship back 12 items, and the one who buys 300 items to have to ship back and forth 1,200 items – we want to take waste out of the process and that is where there is ground to be made up by retailers.”

“The key to improving the process for the environment is by delighting consumers and helping them get their selection right first time, reducing the unnecessary by-product from size and style sampling,” says Evans.

True Fit worked with Walmart-owned outdoor fashion retailer Moosejaw, creating a digital script so that if a shopper added two different sizes of the same style to the shopping cart, a screen advising how they could narrow sizing selection would appear.

Moosejaw shoppers in this situation were encouraged to create True Fit profiles on the spot, and from there they reportedly gained the confidence about which size was best to buy based on the data-led recommendations it suggested.

“Most consumers don’t want to buy multiple sizes – it’s tedious for them like it is for brands – but they do it because what’s even more tedious is not getting it right the first time,” says Evans.

ASOS, one of the companies called before November’s inquiry, recently announced the introduction of fitting guidance technology to help consumers make their decisions at the point of purchase, as reported by Computer Weekly in November.

A different type of sustainability challenge

All retailers have different needs, of course. Burberry made national headlines earlier this year when it stated in its annual report that it had burned £28.6 million worth of unsold bags, clothes and perfume.

This move, which historically may have been seen as a move to protect brand image by avoiding the need for increased markdowns, can actually have the opposite effect in today’s socially conscious era.

Luca Tonello, director at Dedagroup Stealth, which specialises in providing the back-end technology and systems for high-end fashion brands, says the luxury fashion sector must gain transparency of their supply chains.

“Transparency means establishing an end-to-end view of where products sit in the supply chain, from the manufacturing facility to the shop floor, owned warehouse, or third-party distribution centre – and anywhere in between,” he says.

“Transparency in the supply chain means that luxury fashion retailers will be able to act on issues in real-time and ensure smooth running operations. But, increasingly importantly, transparency means sustainability success – and that will be a quick-fire way to build a respected brand in 2019.”

2020 vision

Couttigane argues it’s perhaps more relevant for fashion brands in all markets to be thinking one year on from that, especially with so many organisations working towards a “2020 vision” of sustainability. H&M wants to only use cotton fabric free of pesticides by 2020, while Zara is aiming for 10% of clothing to come from recycled or organic fabrics by then.

“On the grand spectrum of major industries, I do think fashion is ahead of the game when it comes to sustainability,” she says.

“There are a lot of brands which have made independent moves, which haven’t been legally mandated or strategically necessary, but they have made the commitment anyway because it speaks to the value of their consumers.”

With the government seemingly putting greater focus on business’s sustainability efforts, as highlighted by November’s Parliamentary inquiry, there could be more laws on the horizon. But because of its use of technology, general company culture, or as a result of consumer pressure, fashion in general is well positioned to adhere, says Couttigane.