In his latest piece for WhichPLM, Yotam Solomon (resident Expert) discusses how companies in the fashion industry have the ability to define their unique sustainability methodology. Yotam is a fashion designer & product developer focusing on cradle-to-cradle innovation in RFA; he is currently the Creative Director of Covalent.
As a creative director and designer focused on sustainability innovation and best practices, I have been able to witness major transformations in the industry throughout the last decade. Remarkably, the fashion industry is witnessing a consumer shift where, for the first time, we are finally seeing conscious consumers who are seeking eco-friendly education. The modern customer is slowly learning to demand certain eco standards based on their own exploration, journey, and personal passions. Consumers now desire information on how products are made, what materials are used to make them, who produces them, and where they are constructed. Some consumers expect meaningful data sharing by brands and corporations to better understand the well-being of the individuals who craft products, their families, their health, and their overall ability to earn a decent wage and thus, survive in our modern world. What does it mean to be sustainable today and what could it mean for the next decade? Our reality will continue to change but there are still issues we must face collectively.
To date, there are two major issues the fashion industry is facing. Firstly, how to determine which sustainability methodologies can support legislation for scalability, resulting in enforceable laws and regulations on a global scale. Secondly, complete technological integration, consisting of research and development, manufacturing automation, product development, scalability, along with widespread international distribution, and finally market adaptation. Currently, many brands and corporations find it difficult to evaluate how laws and regulations may benefit or negatively impact their own target sustainability methodologies. This task, combined with effectively marketing new technology innovation to end-consumers and the media, may negatively impact growth and revenue. For most companies, this presents a risk. The cost and challenge of consumer education is another barrier. This is why most corporations outsource innovation to third parties—supporting a complex network of overlapping long term technological pipelines, which is a significant expense. While these costs may be out of reach for small to mid-scale corporation, most large corporations have the ability to fund innovation, achieve technology integration, and own licensable assets.
The most common methodologies of achieving sustainability in fashion include, cradle-to-cradle, carbon negativity, regeneration, and upcycling. And they are not mutually exclusive.
Any product can be certified as cradle-to-cradle by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute if it has been assessed in the following five critical performance categories: Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy and Carbon Management, Water Stewardship, and Social Fairness.
Companies are moving away from carbon neutrality and shifting their goals to achieve Carbon negativity, which refers to the reduction of an entity’s carbon footprint to be less than neutral, so that the entity in question has a net effect of removing and sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon negativity can also be certified through the successful completion of third-party life cycle analysis.
The term regenerative is most commonly used when speaking about design or agriculture, which reflect different parts of the supply chain. The term “regenerative” describes processes that renew, restore, or revitalize their own original energy sources and even the materials used in the design. Regenerative design uses a “whole system” process to create resiliency and equitable systems that meld the needs of society with the ingenuity of nature.
Upcycling, which is also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless or unwanted products, into new materials or products perceived to be of equal or greater quality—such as artistic value or environmental value. Unfortunately, many synthetics cannot be fully upcycled, resulting in substantial waste that requires the continual manufacturing of virgin material, which pollutes our planet.
Depending on technological capability, a company may combine sustainability methodologies into a single framework for product creation. As one would expect, doing so drastically increases the complexity of the certification process. Each methodology consists of different standards with cradle-to-cradle tending to be the most rigorous. Any product can be certified as long as it passes industry-accepted tests, and in some cases, government regulated benchmarks. Underperforming products that fail to achieve certification, may negatively affect a company’s sustainability goals—an important factor to consider when planning strategically. The technology on which the products are built is rarely submitted for certification because each product has its own life cycle journey. Replacing even the smallest component or material used to create a product can completely alter the certification results of a product. And while the certification process for each methodology does require more thought, effort, and money when compared to unsustainable product development, as an industry, it is critical that we utilize third party certifications as an audit for our technologies so they can be properly scaled-up. This is the only way significant sustainable systematic advancements can be achieved.
Sustainable technology advancements are exciting as they provide new solutions and inspire us to believe in our greater potential. But the real work begins once a need has been identified. Material technology requires an immense amount of R&D, specifically for manufacturing and product development in the following areas: plug-and-play, optimization, scale-up, and logistics. Performance is a key factor in each of these elements. Machinery automation and labor has to perform at a certain level in order for the entire operation to be successful and profitable. Products must be developed to meet consumer demand and meet both regulatory and, in some cases, brand-specific performance metrics. A level of performance must be able to scale-up so products can be expanded to new regions, an important eco-friendly practice. Logistically, materials must also sustain their performance standards in different environments, under different conditions, and through specific length of time.
Strategic material innovation development combined with high and verified standards of social and environmental performance, internal and public facing transparency, along with legal accountability to balance profit and purpose are actions that can be taken to prepare for expected industry shifts. As an example, B Corporation certification allows companies to meet and maintain modern standards, which can lead to a substantial impact. Sustainability does require a huge industry shift. Today, companies in the fashion industry have the ability to define their unique sustainability methodology by working with industry experts who plan and initiate multiyear transformations. Corporations have the capacity to lead the way and gain public support for taking the ethical steps to help redefine sustainability. Ultimately, sustainability goes beyond eco-friendly innovation and practices, it is about supporting and empowering our society through every aspect of business. Our industry could easily become a source of profound inspiration.