The prevalence of fast fashion makes this industry largely unsustainable.
However, there are a rising number of brands committed to making fashion more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
So, is it possible to put the brakes on fast fashion and make it more sustainable?
As part of our Sustainability in Retail series of Disruption Talks, we invited Silvia Mazzanti, Product and Sustainability Manager at Save The Duck, and Laura Vicaria, CSR Manager at MUD Jeans International BV, to talk about their sustainable brands. Jinder Kang, Innovation Consultancy Lead at Netguru, also returned to the conversation.
Mud Jeans is a circular denim brand that produces high-quality, sustainable jeans. The company aims to recycle every single pair after use. Save the Duck’s mission is to create products that respect animals, the environment, and people. Save the Duck strives to create products that do not involve the exploitation of animals.
The brand achieves that goal through the use of technologies leveraging sustainable materials.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion refers to inexpensive clothing that’s produced for mass-market retailers. The problem with fast fashion is that it follows the latest fashion trends, which are always changing. It’s a business model that encourages overconsumption and lots of waste. This contributes to a huge environmental footprint, both in terms of the production of the clothing and its disposal.
Clothing as disposable goods
Fast fashion has changed the way we purchase, wear, and dispose of clothing. Years ago, we would buy clothes that would last for years to come. Now, clothing is considered disposable. We buy them, wear them for a few months, and then throw them away where they end up in landfills.
One solution to this is to embrace the circular economy where we repair, reuse, and recycle goods instead.
Before we get to that stage, brands need to manufacture long-lasting clothing with sustainable materials so that people don’t need to throw them out after a few months.
Even if you decide you no longer want the garment, the circular economy encourages you to recycle it to someone who does. This, Silvia explains, is a key part of the work that Save the Duck does with its own products.
“After customers are no longer in love with their clothes, we give suggestions on how to recover them, or we suggest giving them as presents to people around them or to people in need, or just to sell through sustainable tools.”
MUD Jeans has a unique approach to circularity in retail. It offers leasing, which lets you pay monthly for jeans with the option to recycle or get them repaired to improve a garment’s longevity.
“MUD Jeans was really founded on circularity. So that makes it slightly easier if you build the brand with that model already in mind.”
"This is to help shift the culture and behavior around ownership and fashion."
“The idea behind this model, whether you're leasing or buying, the message is the same. What we're trying to do is to shift the culture of fashion, this concept of ownership and make it the standard of businesses taking responsibility for their own products at all stages of life.”
The role of sustainable materials
To create long-lasting products, picking the right materials is key. Another factor in the supply chain is knowing where the materials come from and the working conditions on the production line.
Save the Duck manufactures products in China but keeps a close watch on the supply chain. They started by asking the raw material suppliers how they were developing their products and the manufacturers as well.
“We asked them not only to check physically how they were building our products but also to demonstrate through monitoring that they were treating their workers in the right way.”
Before COVID, they would visit every season to see the factories and suppliers to ensure the quality and working conditions were still of a high standard. There’s also an office in China with local people who visit the factories daily and report back.
The key to sustainability success is transparency and communication between suppliers, manufacturers, and the retailers themselves.
However, transparency and communication like this can be tricky. That’s why Save the Duck tries to work with a short and concentrated supply chain.
Like Save the Duck, MUD Jeans also works with a very short supply chain on purpose. This helps with transparency and traceability. Laura explains that the jeans are recycled in a facility in Spain where the yarn is blended with cotton to make new yarn. The fabric is then shipped over to Tunisia via land and sea because traveling by air results in more pollution.
Unlike many other brands, all the jeans are cut, stitched, and washed in one location in Tunisia.
The problem of water waste and pollution in clothes production
Water usage is an overlooked area of the fashion industry, but it’s also one of the biggest environmental problems. The fashion industry emits 10% of all humidity carbon emissions because it takes a lot of water to produce garments. To produce one kilogram of cotton, it takes 2,000 liters of water.
Laura explains that one industry-standard pair of jeans consumes an average of 7,000 to 10,000 liters of water during the production process. But at MUD Jeans, a pair of jeans consumes on average 477 liters of water in comparison, which is a 93% difference.
“The reason we have achieved that is because we moved away from conventional cotton and use GOTS-certified organic cotton, and between 23 and 40% post-consumer recycled cotton. By using that recycled cotton, it means that we are not extracting raw material from the planet, and that already saves a significant amount of water.”
Smart technologies in sustainable fashion
Another thing that’s making sustainability more achievable in fashion and retail, in general, is new technology. This is something that both Save the Duck and MUD Jeans are using successfully and plan to do more of.For MUD Jeans, new technology has enabled them to improve their washing facilities.
The company now recycles 95% of the water used and replaces the 5% that evaporates with rainwater.
Save the Duck uses various technologies to help manufacture garments to reduce emissions in the production process. They’re also approaching 3D modeling to save a lot of prototyping during development.
Transparency in the supply chain
With more and more retailers and suppliers moving towards a more sustainable business model, the way you approach it is crucial.
Transparency and commitment are needed at every step of the supply chain. Silvia believes this all starts with the head of the company, as they lead by example.
“If the head, so the leading roles, want these processes to become real and concrete, everything is possible. If the head of the company is just saying: 'Okay, do that, but you have to guarantee these kinds of revenues', it doesn't work so well.”
Laura also believes you need a genuine approach to sustainability and a full commitment. There’s no room for half measures.
“Don't start with 2% of your supply chain because that doesn't reflect a genuine intention."
- she says. "To become a truly sustainable brand and approach it in a genuine way, you have to truly commit your entire business to it.”
Knowledge sharing as a way to more sustainable retail
Transparency and knowledge shared between each step in the supply chain are what will help drive real change across the board. This is an idea that Jinder supports. He emphasizes that knowledge shared will help make things easier for other brands along the way.
If you can share your knowledge of good sustainable practices, everyone wins.
That is what sets apart those brands that are truly authentic in their mission towards sustainability.
“If we are authentic in the idea of using sustainability for good and not for profit, sharing that knowledge means that the next player won't necessarily have to start from zero. But the idea needs to be a group effort.” - Jinder concludes.
This discussion is part of our Disruption Talks recordings, where we invite experts to share their insights on winning innovation strategies, the next generation of disruptors, and scaling digital products. To get unlimited access to this interview and many more insights from industry experts, sign up here.