Sustainability In The Fashion Industry
Today we sat with Kerry Huang, Chief of Staff at Global Fashion Agenda (GFA). GFA is a non-profit organisation that’s on a mission to “mobilise and guide the fashion industry to take bold and urgent action on sustainability” through thought leadership, forums, and advocacy . Already, they’ve engaged 12.5% of the global fashion market to accelerate the industry’s transition to a circular fashion system through their 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment. Today, Kerry is helping build a platform featuring a new Copenhagen Fashion Summit concept, including a digital meeting place for the leading sustainability solutions and innovators. Prior to joining GFA, Kerry was a consultant at The Boston Consulting Group, specialising in the Fashion & Luxury sector.
As a quick background, Kerry started a jewelry company back in middle school, looking for a solution that could serve as both a necklace and perfume holder (think portable Glades air freshener). This sparked her interest in business and design. From there on, she wanted to devote her time solving different problems and learning about how different markets and companies operate. She attended Wharton for her Bachelor’s degree, but found that she was still seeking a larger purpose - something beyond Finance.
Why sustainability in fashion?
Well, fashion is something everyone can relate to. It influences our perception of what is cool and on-trend, and visually tells you so much about someone’s culture and personality. There’s a story behind every outfit. Yet, “one in seven consider it a fashion faux-pas to be photographed in an outfit twice” , and surveys indicate that on average in Europe, an item of clothing is worn seven times before it is disposed . It’s crazy. This desire for newness drives a lot of overconsumption and waste, and at the end, hurts our planet. Of course the fashion industry is a powerful engine for global growth and development, but the current model is pushing the earth beyond its planetary boundaries and challenging social justice. The industry accounts for ~20% of industrial water pollution globally and workers face many issues such as hazardous environment and low wages .
What is lacking from your perspective in sustainability?
I think the two biggest things are: transparency and a standardized fact-base. Just as the food industry is becoming more transparent in how meat is being processed, how plants are processed, and how many calories are in a piece of food all around the world, there’s a lot more that needs to be done in fashion and transparency. One of the biggest challenges is that it’s difficult to know what actually goes on in a company. How do you measure how much carbon emissions comes from each part of the supply chain? When a consumer goes to the store, how can they know the emissions from a t-shirt vs. a shoe? So many entities are acting on this now, like Sustainable Apparel Coalition, but it takes time and is not easy.
Of course, we face the issue of greenwashing as well - when brands claim they’re doing good for the environment in their corporate messaging - when in actuality, they are not or are just creating one organic T-shirt. It’s pretty frustrating to see this false information and advertising going on. Consumers can only act with the information available, so we all need to do better to give that to them.
What is your stance on H&M?
They’re in a difficult situation, because they are a pioneer in fast-fashion, making clothing affordable for the masses. In recent years, they’ve worked hard to make sure sustainability is a priority. Helena Helmersson was also recently appointed as CEO, and used to be their Head of Sustainability & Production, so it is clear that they’re prioritizing sustainability. They’re also investing in research reports for sustainability and partnering with companies like GFA to create change. During COVID-19 crisis, they were one of the brands who fulfilled their supplier contracts to ensure all workers were paid.
What are some major trends you’re seeing in fashion?
Upcycling has been a trend for a while. A lot of brands like Converse use old shoes for scrap material to turn into new shoes . People are using old sweaters and turning them into new products. One of my favorite designers/accounts to follow is Nicole McLaughlin, who is constantly working on creative upcycling projects. She makes bras, fanny packs, bags - you name it - out of old clothes.
Can you share some cool companies?
Allbirds recently launched an initiative called carbon calories. Just as you can decide what to eat based on calories, you can decide what to buy based on carbon calories. It’s much easier to understand what this means if you can compare it to things you do everyday...For example, a standard sneaker has a carbon footprint of 12.5 kg CO2e, and the average carbon footprint of all of Allbirds’ products is 7.6 kg CO2e. In terms of emissions, an Allbirds shoes is equivalent to “driving 19 miles in a car, running 5 loads of laundry in the dryer, or making 22 chocolate bars” . When you see it in context, it’s much easier to decide on what actions to take as a consumer. They’ve also partnered with Adidas to make a net zero carbon shoe.
LA-based startup Mi Terro, founded in 2018, is also an innovative company that creates usable products with materials that would be otherwise wasted. Their most recent t-shirt is made of excess milk, and a kickstarter campaign for the product was fully funded (goal of $3,000) in just two hours .
There are so many exciting startups and technologies - the difficult part is scaling these technologies up for the masses.
Are there other innovations or changes happening in the fashion industry?
One that everyone talks about is circular economy [https://www.finuprise.com/blog/why-to-invest-in-circular-companies]. Instead of buying, you reuse and repurpose. A brief diagram below explaining how it works :
Essentially, this system is aimed at eliminating waste and ensuring the continual use of resources. It contradicts the typical ‘take, make, and dispose’ model. But I don’t think that circular economy is the be-all-end-all solution. It takes a lot more collaboration by all players to be on the path towards reaching the Paris Agreement (limiting the global temporary to 1.5°C).
In a recent McKinsey survey conducted during COVID-19, 65% have claimed that after COVID-19 they will be much more concerned with buying sustainably (more stats below) - I hope this behavior and demand for sustainable business models sticks. 
What can people do better to have an impact?
One is so simple, something we all learned in elementary school. Reduce, reuse and recycle - it’s such a good 3 pronged system. Reduce what you buy, and naturally you will be more sustainable. Reuse clothes through clothing exchanges or go vintage shopping, and think about how you can extend the duration or lifetime of your garments. Upcycle a sweater - cut it up and turn it into socks or a bag. At the end of the life of clothing, if there are no other options, then recycle. But you should opt for reduce and reuse first. Outside of fashion, there’s so many little things you can do. The biggest misconception is “I’m just one person, I can’t have an impact”. Composting food, reducing energy usage, being aware of packaging when you’re going shopping, using a reusable bag, using a bamboo toothbrush and not plastic, a lot of little things that you can shift in your everyday life that can make a big impact. Also think about the bigger picture, such as eco-friendly cities - e.g. ~65% of people in Copenhagen bike to work, and there are compost bins at almost all apartments and companies. There should be more cities that are built like that, so that the system enables consumers to make better decisions.
 McKinsey & Company post COVID-19 consumer survey, which took place from 24-28 April 2020 among a sample of >2,000 consumers aged over 18 from across UK and German markets, who have bought apparel/footwear in the last six months
Other relevant consumer stats
2/3s of consumers state sustainability has become a more important priority to combat climate change following COVID-19
More than 80% of consumers agree workers in poor countries need support during this crisis; 45% brands that have made meaningful contributions towards resolving the social and medical impacts of the crisis
Transparency will enable businesses to increase engagement and deepen brand loyalty with the 70% of survey respondents expecting to stick with brands that build trust during the crisis
65% of surveyed consumers are supportive of fashion brands delaying the launch of new collections by up to year as a result of COVID-19
40% of consumers, who did not shop online previously, started using online channels during COVID-19 and 26% expect to shop less at physical stores following COVID-19