The apparel and textile sector has long been under scrutiny for its environmental and social impacts. The industry is accused of being a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and has been associated with labour and human rights abuses. Over the past 20 years, the industry has taken significant strides to respond. Companies in the sector have developed a vast range of initiatives and approaches to reduce their adverse social and environmental impacts and move towards genuinely sustainable apparel.
Yet much about sustainability performance in the sector remains unclear, and misinformation persists. Perhaps most significantly, good practice is not always shared effectively, and there remains a lack of a shared view about what sustainability in the sector means and what the journey looks like to get there. Covering the whole industry in a report which would be concise enough to read is impossible. What this report does, therefore, is to take “deep dives” into three key topics of current debate: the cotton sector, the viscose sector, and standards, auditing and social compliance. We then try to draw more general conclusions about what a cutting-edge sustainability strategy looks like for today’s apparel sector.
The first deep dive is into the cotton sector, a fabric that has once again been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Over the past few months, reports have made it clear that “China is forcing hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities into hard, manual labour in the vast cotton fields of its western region of Xinjiang”. Since China produces 30% of the world’s cotton, and Xinjiang produces 85% of that, almost any fashion brand buying cotton from China has been affected by the scandal.
Yet, controversy in the cotton supply chain is not new. In the past couple of decades, its production process has faced criticism based on a range of issues including excessive water consumption, the use of child labour and the over-use of pesticides.
To address these challenges, in 2017, a group of 36 of the world’s largest clothing and textile companies signed up to a pledge to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2025. Then called the Sustainable Cotton Communiqué, it has since been re-labelled as the 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge (2025 SCC). This initiative includes retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Tesco, sports brands including Burton Snowboards and Nike, and high-profile brands such as Burberry, Timberland and Levi Strauss. Since then, companies have worked on a number of fronts to address issues, including farmer training, increasing the use of organic cotton and improving traceability in the supply chain.
Smallholder farmers are almost globally among the poorest in their societies and are the main producers of cotton. Multiple studies have made clear that many cotton farmers fail to make even a living income. As the work of the Living Income Community of Practice clarifies, a key aim for any company operating in smallholder supply chains should be the need to ensure that farmers and their families can earn enough to live. Although food commodities such as cocoa and coffee are more usually in the spotlight on this issue, this is nevertheless a problem that companies with cotton supply chains need to address.
A strong sustainability strategy in cotton will therefore require attention to the broader challenges of smallholder farmers.
The desire to reduce environmental and health-related harm in cotton production has led to an increased focus on the use of organic cotton, as opposed to that produced more conventionally. The reason for doing this is that, it is claimed, organic cotton has significantly fewer adverse human and environmental impacts. However, the challenges faced by smallholder farmers are even more acute in encouraging them to switch to organic production, not least the fact that this transition can take three years or more. However, significant efforts are underway to address these challenges, and best practices are emerging to stimulate significant increases in the supply of organic cotton.
A further factor needed as part of the roadmap towards sustainable cotton is the need for greater traceability of products from field to shelf. Historically, many in the sector have argued that traceability was impossible due to the complexity of the cotton supply chain. Yet, traceability is vital if the sustainability of cotton in its journey from field to shop is to be understood and verified. In the past decade or so, many initiatives have been developed that seek to improve visibility, transparency, and traceability in the cotton supply chain. Among the leaders in this area are the Better Cotton Initiative, the US Cotton Trust Protocol and CottonConnect.
The second area of exploration is viscose. Production of this material was initially seen as an excellent opportunity for the sector to move away from hydrocarbon-based fabrics and their associated environmental issues. Historically, therefore, brands have focused less on the impacts of their viscose sourcing, and many are not even aware of fashion’s forest link. A recent survey by Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) UK showed that 84% of British consumers are still unaware that viscose fibre garments are predominantly sourced from trees.
More recently, however, viscose has increasingly found itself enmired in a range of issues about its own sustainability. The viscose sector faces scrutiny by NGOs and other industry stakeholders advocating for more sustainable and ethical production methods. Without proper care, both the harvesting of the raw material and the processing of cellulose with chemicals can adversely impact the environment.
Derived from wood pulp, there is a direct link between cellulosic fibres, such as viscose, and forest ecosystems. While viscose represents a small percentage of global use of wood pulp, the industry is growing rapidly. Pulp for viscose has been sourced from threatened areas such as the boreal forests of Canada, the Amazon in Brazil and Sumatra in Indonesia. In recent years, NGOs have been calling for companies in the viscose sector not just to address deforestation, but also to focus on reforestation. Is this, however, the answer? Some studies suggest that, while reforestation has significant potential, it is no magic bullet. An article in Global Change Biology argued that “tree planting that is poorly planned and executed could actually increase CO2emissions and have long-term, deleterious impacts on biodiversity, landscapes, and livelihoods”.
Viscose production and the process of dissolving pulp into fibre and yarn can be chemically intensive and highly polluting. Chemicals are used at all stages in viscose fibre production. The textile industry generally, and the viscose sector specifically, have various initiatives focused on the controlled and responsible use of chemicals in production. Three of the most prominent initiatives include the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), Changing Markets Foundation and the Collaboration for Sustainable Development of Viscose (CV).
Social compliance questions
The final topic investigated by this report is social compliance in the apparel sector – or rather, all too often, a lack of it. It has been a challenge for more than two decades since campaigners identified and brought to light the use of child labour in the supply chains of leading international brands. More than 20 years later, there remains an ongoing litany of allegations about low wage rates, labour rights abuses, and discrimination in the global supply chain of clothes, footwear and other garments.
Despite the emergence of a plethora of social performance standards and a huge social auditing and certification industry, these abuses are ongoing. This is in addition to an increase in the use by brand companies of so-called 2nd-party audits to examine their supply chains. A 2nd-party audit is an external audit performed on a supplier by a customer conducted by an auditing firm retained by that customer. These have attracted considerable criticism, principally because they can lack objectivity and are not regarded as being as robust as a 3rd-party audit approach.
The ongoing challenges facing the sector demonstrate that the current approach is not working, however well-intentioned. Indeed, so frustrated have a number of governments become with the voluntary approach that they are on the point of introducing mandatory due diligence standards governing supply chains. There is also evidence that the increasing number of standards and approaches to social compliance leads to confusion and a lack of clarity. A key part of why social compliance remains a challenge is quite simply that the sheer number of standards created causes confusion at the factory level and a lack of clarity.
Therefore, what is needed is a greater harmonisation of current practice, and where unnecessary overlaps are identified, they can be eliminated. This solution will require companies in the industry to collaborate more than has been the case in the past. As WRAP argues in their call for “symphonisation”, it will be necessary for “each stakeholder to accept a system they will be able to live with, rather than insisting on the one they would die for”.
This review of three elements of the apparel sector highlights several themes that might inform the development of the sustainability agenda for the industry.
Firstly, there appears to be a tendency in each of the three topics analysed in this report to focus upon an issue or approach that is seen as ‘the answer’ to good sustainability practice in that area. This approach is unhelpful as it implies that a single magic bullet approach can work and takes attention away from the other tasks that need to be undertaken as part of a systematic sustainability strategy. The reality is that the development of a solid sustainability strategy needs to avoid the temptation to focus on one big idea. Even if the topic is important, as a reduction in the number of standards and reforestation undoubtedly are, so are other issues.
Secondly, brands and retailers need to be franker about the complexity of the challenge of sustainability in the apparel sector. The most common explanation for the continuing sustainability challenges of the apparel sector is that its supply chain is highly complex. While this is true, it can no longer be used as an excuse. There is an urgent need for greater honesty about complexity and the consequent fact that broad-brush solutions will not work. Of course, relentless pressure from the media and campaign groups makes it very hard for companies to be entirely transparent about the sustainability challenges they face.
Similarly, an NGO campaign needs to be pithy if it is to capture people’s interest. Yet, these pressures make it hard to recognise the complexity that needs to be tackled if sustainable apparel is to become a reality. Therefore, a strong sustainability strategy needs to be prepared to explore that complexity and be as frank as possible about the difficult realities which this reveals.
Thirdly, if there is to be more honesty about the complexity of achieving sustainable apparel, then further in-depth analysis is needed of the various elements of that complexity. Strategies to address sustainability issues can only hope to be successful if they are designed in light of a proper and rigorous assessment of the challenges being faced. Excellent models and analyses do exist, for example, the Delta Framework. These need to be more widely used. The more companies that engage with them, the better the shared understanding will be, both of the specific challenges to sustainability and what strategies work in addressing them.
Fourthly, there is an urgent need for more and better collaboration. Despite the number of collaborative forums and initiatives in the apparel sector, proper focused collaboration where it is most needed remains weak. The weakness lies in two regards in particular: between the corporate sector and government agencies; and, vertically within the industry. In many cases, better understanding of the contextual factors driving sustainability challenges, and better cooperation with government bodies could achieve significantly more than companies can alone, or working with NGOs. There is also a clear need for much greater vertical collaboration and more durable relationships within the apparel sector itself. Therefore, those companies serious about sustainability need to address such issues and look for opportunities for closer cooperation along the entire supply chain.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, brands and companies need to fundamentally reassess their business models if sustainability is ever to become a reality. None of the issues discussed above really mean a great deal unless companies’ business models and operational practices place sustainability at the centre of decision-making. The behaviour of many brands and retailers during the covid pandemic strongly suggests that this is not currently the case. The Center for Global Workers’ Rights and the Workers’ Rights Consortium found that “powerful US and European fashion companies have refused to pay overseas suppliers for more than $16bn of goods”.
Apparel brands and retailers, therefore, need to re-orient their business models to develop longer-term relationships with key suppliers. This will provide suppliers with visibility of demand, which will allow them to invest, improving issues such as worker safety and pay. In any business, price is a key factor, but apparel companies need to focus not only on that but also on sustainability issues in making procurement decisions.
This is the executive summary of the Sustainable Apparel Barometer 2021. For more information and to download the full report please click here.