The fashion and luxury industry is slowly but surely moving towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly approach. However, the pace of change is hindered by the current geopolitical climate. The recent Venice Sustainable Fashion Forum held in Italy aimed to shed light on both the positive advancements and the challenges faced by the industry in implementing sustainable practices.

Organized by Sistema Moda Italia (SMI), The European House – Ambrosetti, and Confindustria Veneto Est, the forum stressed the urgent need for the fashion sector to catch up with other industries that embarked on their sustainability journey two decades ago. The event featured discussions on various topics including best practices, sustainability in the supply chain, consumer behavior and awareness, and political and industrial obstacles.

A comprehensive study conducted by The European House – Ambrosetti provided valuable insights into the industry’s environmental impact. The study involved 2,800 manufacturers in the supply chain and 100 major European fashion companies. It revealed that in 2020, the EU alone produced 6.9 million tonnes of finished textile products, resulting in 121 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and extensive consumption of land, raw materials, and water. Despite technological advancements leading to a gradual reduction in environmental impact, the demand for fashion products is projected to double by 2025, further exacerbating the industry’s ecological footprint.

Textile waste is another significant concern, with European consumers generating between 5.2 and 7.5 million tonnes of textile waste annually. This is equivalent to almost 26 billion clothing items, with an estimated 20% increase by 2030. Shockingly, only 4 out of every 35 discarded clothing items are recycled in Europe. The majority of textile waste ends up in landfills, especially in non-OECD regions. The dominance of synthetic fibers, which are difficult to reuse, adds to the industry’s sustainability challenges.

The social impact of the fashion industry has seen limited improvement over the past decade. Despite increased controls and awareness following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, where textile workers in Bangladesh were exposed to exploitation and poor working conditions, less than 2% of the industry’s workers globally receive fair pay and proper employment contracts.

During the Venice Sustainable Fashion Forum, one of the main issues raised was the stark contrast between Western companies’ claims of responsible and ethical actions and the realities faced in the Global South. Western brands often prioritize profit over environmental and social concerns, leading to compromises and ecological damage. As long as economic survival remains the primary concern in these countries, the fashion industry will continue to exploit resources and human capital without considering the ecological consequences.

The slow pace of legislation and inconsistent political choices further impede the industry’s transition to sustainability. While the United States adopted the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 and Europe introduced its Green Deal industrial plan in January, key measures are yet to be agreed upon. Discrepancies and debates over new regulations, such as the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, which includes a ban on destroying unsold clothing items and mandatory recycling, create challenges for companies trying to plan and implement sustainable practices.

However, despite these challenges, significant progress has been made within the fashion industry. The number of companies certified by the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) has doubled in a year, with twelve major fashion chains demonstrating significant commitment to sustainability. Companies that publish balance sheets focusing on ESG (environmental, social, and governance) criteria have seen an average increase of 17% in their oversight in this area.

To expedite the transition to sustainability, it is crucial to standardize the measurement of sustainability performance across the industry. This will allow for better comparisons and clarity of direction. Additionally, collaborations and alliances between fashion brands, suppliers, financial institutions, and other stakeholders are essential to drive change. The successful collaboration between Prada, nylon yarn manufacturer Aquafil, and weaver Limonta for the “Re-Nylon” project exemplifies the significant ecological and commercial benefits that can arise from such partnerships.

To truly achieve a sustainable and ecological model, the fashion industry must create a new narrative and emphasize the value of sustainable products. Similar to the Slow Food movement, sustainability should become ingrained in the brand DNA and storytelling of the fashion industry to effectively communicate with consumers.

Although there is still a long way to go, the progress made within the fashion and luxury industry, along with the ongoing discussions and initiatives, provide hope for a more responsible and ethical future.

Useful links:
1. CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project)
2. Greenpeace – Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up