Sustainability in Apparel Industry – Commitments and Strategies undertaken to become Sustainable

Contributor: Bhawna Sharma

I have been developing my interest in sustainability after observing the sustainability measures undertaken by the apparel industry. The same environmental sensibilities that have swept the foodie world (farm-to-table, organic produce) are making inroads in the fashion universe. Slowly but surely the apparel industry is catching on to sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

In the past several years, the apparel industry has faced intensifying criticism about its environmental footprint and has once again reacted both on a brand level, with many brands establishing their own sustainability commitments and strategies, as well as on an industry-wide scale with initiatives such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Moreover, in the Apparel industry, the length of the supply chain (from natural fibre, polymer resin or other material, all the way to finished clothing) is quite long. Because of the numerous processing steps involved in garment production, often conducted by different suppliers, the major environmental impacts of production usually occur before the Tier 1 (cut and sew) suppliers of brands and retailers.

Key issues to be considered are:

  • Consumer behaviour change – especially cleaning and disposal of clothes.
  • Making sustainable development desirable.
  • Climate change adaptation – as the planet's temperature changes, consumer needs for clothes will change.
Brands and retailers need to work with their suppliers to understand what the problems are and how they can be improved.

An initial step would be to adopt a few fabrics that are more sustainable but that may cost 5-10% more in the base price. This would cause a chain reaction in the rest of the industry. As big brands source more responsible textiles for their collections, there will be a bigger volume of orders which will lower the overall manufacturing cost (and therefore retail price), making the product more accessible to the mainstream market.

An example of good practice is H&M which is considering bringing a new high-tech, recycled polyester that is made in a closed-loop system, into its range. This is a commercially viable option at a cost-effective price.

The fabric is engineered from post-consumer bottles sourced and processed solely in Italy and boasts a unique local supply chain. It is a good example of how standard polyesters can be slowly removed from the marketplace for a more sustainable option.

It’s truly fascinating to see how businesses are finding new ways of tackling sustainability challenges to create a bright future for people on Earth.

For example:

Puma are well known for its Clever Little Bag campaign i.e. getting rid of shoe boxes and using a reusable bag instead. The sports company is also working on product development with eco scorecards and converting more of their range to sustainable materials, including cotton made in Africa.

Moreover, M&S is also considered as a leader in getting the message of its sustainability strategy out to the public

There are also other big brands doing some really interesting things like:


The Swedish Brand is not only trying to reduce the environmental impact of its operations, but is making commendable efforts into putting sustainability at the heart of the entire business. The fashion brand has obviously realised that continuing with ‘business as usual’, focusing only on short-term profits, inefficiently utilising raw materials, disregarding human rights and taking, but not giving back, is not the way to a firm of the future.

To achieve its goals and stay intact with its vision, H&M has developed seven ambitious commitments as part of their sustainability strategy that everyone in the company has to work towards to offer both fashion and sustainability and those are:
  1. Provide fashion for conscious customers
  2. Choose and reward responsible partners
  3. Be ethical
  4. Be climate smart
  5. Reduce, reuse, recycle
  6. Use natural resources responsibly
  7. Strengthen communities
H&M is part of a number of communities globally including where their stores are located as well as throughout their supply chain. The business has an impact on society and is responsible for more than one million jobs around the world.

For example, together with UNICEF the clothing giant is working on a project called ‘All for children’ aimed at protecting the rights of poor children around the world. Another initiative is the collaboration with Water Aid since 2002 to enable the world’s poorest people gain access to safe water, sanitation and improved hygiene.

And here are some of H&M’s achievements so far:
  • 300,000,000 litres of water saved in denim production
  • Use of organic cotton worldwide
  • 500,000 quality tests each year
  • 440,000 garment workers in Bangladesh educated on their rights
  • 3,600 hours of sustainability training delivered to H&M buyers and designers
  • 100% of plastic bags are made from recycled material
  • 90% of the paper used for making mail order packages is recycled
  • 100% of cosmetic products made without animal testing
  • 38,347 people provided with access to clean drinking water
H&M still has a way ahead to go to become a 100% sustainable company, but what matters is that it is making fundamental efforts into becoming a truly economically, socially and environmentally conscious business.

H&M Case study source: (page accessed on August 10, 2014). Currently this document is not available at this link.

ZARA Spanish retailer ZARA is considered amongst the most sustainable brands in the world. Importantly, sustainability and environmental management been amongst Inditex’s strategic variables since 1995, out of which building environmental friendly stores equipped with cutting edge technology for energy saving aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, has brought the retailer at the helm of being amid the top global brands working towards a sustainable future.

In addition, the clothing label has promised to eradicate discharge of hazardous chemicals from its supply chain and product by 2020 following public pressure, in response to the Greenpeace’s Detox campaign.

ZARA uses ecological fabrics and supports organic farming by making some of its garments out of organic cotton (100% cotton, completely free of pesticides, chemicals and bleach. Through implementation of an eco-friendly management model in all the ZARA stores, the clothing label aims to reduce energy consumption by 20 per cent, including the design itself, the lighting, heating, cooling systems and the possibility of recycling furniture and decoration. Globally, the company is leaving no stone unturned to maintain its position as one of the sustainable brands.


GAP Inc. was recently recognized by Ethisphere Institute, the American Management Consulting Firm, as one of the world’s most ethical companies for eight years in a row.

Amongst its various sustainable initiatives, GAP is the first American retailer to set its minimum hourly rate for the US employees at US $ 9, which will be further raised to US $ 10 in 2015 affecting 65,000 US employees.

One of GAP’s largest vendors in India, Shahi has further pledged to provide P.A.C.E. training to all its 60,000 workers by the end of 2020. The American retailer is also amongst the first three US companies along with Walmart and Children’s Place to contribute US $ 40 million worth of funds for victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last April, in which more than 1100 workers died.

In terms of environmental responsibility, the retailer very closely monitors the manufacturing of clothes at various destinations and also how they are packaged and shipped to the design of the stores. GAP stores and distribution centres incorporate the use of renewable energy, waste reduction and also lowering power usage. Further the company has set an ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20 per cent in the US by 2015.

At the end, it is observed that sustainability is becoming an emerging requirement to become a sustainable icon in apparel industry with the satisfaction of consumers as it is observed that nowadays, consumers also do care about sustainability. A new study by BBMG, GlobeScan and Sustainability finds that two- thirds of consumers globally believe they “have a responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society.”

So to sustain in the fashion industry sustainable development should be a continuous process as it is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

About the Author:

Bhawna Sharma currently working as an Associate Consultant at Technopak Advisors Pvt. Ltd., Gurgoan. She is a post-graduate (MF-Tech) from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi, and a graduate in Chemical Engineering ( from DCRUST, Murthal, Haryana. 

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