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Man repairing denim clothes

Dr Helen Goworek examines sustainable fashion, and the pragmatic strategies retailers could implement to improve the sustainability impact of clothing.

Clothing retailers have a significant role to play in relation to sustainable clothing and are uniquely positioned to be able to influence and improve consumers’ approach to the sustainability of clothing.

There is potential for more retailers of all sizes to offer sustainable clothing ranges, with the potential advantages of corresponding benefits, including reduced operating costs, enhanced brand image and new marketing opportunities.

A much cited barrier to the implementation of sustainable practices by retailers is  the perception of a conflict with companies’ profitability However  there are ethical strategies compatible with financial strategies, that take into account the ‘triple bottom line’, a phrase coined by John Elkington (2004) to acknowledge the significance of environmental and social concerns to businesses, in addition to financial sustainability.

Retailers could be considered to have environmental and social responsibilities throughout the lifecycle of clothing, including the post-purchase stage, rather than just to the point of purchase, and consequently have a significant opportunity to influence consumers’ sustainability impacts when laundering, repairing and disposing of clothes. 

Below I’ve identified 6 possible strategies that could be applied by clothing retailer to help save the planet.

6 of the best techniques to improve sustainability

Retailers have a selection of techniques available to them to use in policy and practice to improve sustainability impacts:

  • Choice editing - Editing the choice of sustainable products available to consumers in their stores allows retailers to limit the sustainability impacts of their merchandise. Clothing retailers could edit the choices available to their customers by offering products either manufactured from sustainable textiles, such as organic cotton, or produced by Fair Trade garment manufacturers, in place of existing products.
  • Use of environmentally and socially sustainable textiles - Since pesticides contaminate the soil, as well as endangering cotton producers’ health, a decision by retailers to supply more products containing organic cotton improves both environmental and social sustainability, via the removal of pesticides from the farming process. Organic cotton is in limited supply, in part because of the lower yield inherent in organic farming methods, so higher retail prices need to be charged for organic cotton products, unless lower margins are accepted, affecting the financial sustainability of using this fibre. Methods of enhancing sustainability used by ethical clothing companies are to manufacture clothes using recycled cotton yarn or pre-consumer waste, thus avoiding the increased costs associated with newly-produced organic cotton.
  • Fair Trade and socially sustainable manufacture - Consumer awareness of social issues which affect clothing production has increased, fuelling the demand from consumers for transparency in the clothing supply chain. An option for fashion retailers would be to communicate to customers information on the suppliers used for particular garments, as implemented by People Tree, however, this may be viewed as a disadvantage by retailers which prefer to keep their sources confidential to avoid their suppliers’ production capacity being acquired by competitors.
  • Laundering clothes - many consumers view the clothing issue to be at the manufacturing stage,but laundering clothes has a greater impact upon the environment. Retailers could improve sustainability in the laundering of clothing, by making the information on the labels of their products more obvious and clear, to dispel concerns about washing temperatures. Extra information could be provided with garments, such as the average energy usage when washing at different temperatures. The economical nature of washing clothes at lower temperatures and avoiding tumble-drying could also be stated on labels, since sustainable behaviour is often a by-product of other factors which are more important to consumers. 
  • Repair of clothes – a lack of sewing skillscan often contribute towards the frequent disposal of clothes which could have been repaired relatively easily. Price deflation in the UK clothing market has led consumers to view clothes as disposable items, for which professional repair is rarely a cost-effective option. Clothing retailers could address this issue by offering in-house repair services, if this could be subsidised to make it cost-effective for customers to use. The value of such a service to retailers could be primarily as a component of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy and the positive publicity surrounding it, rather than being a profit-making venture in itself. Alternatively, guides to repairing clothing and kits to enable consumers to do this could be offered by retailers, from the companies’ websites.
  • Disposal of clothes – consumers often express concern about the waste created by their clothing purchases, but lack the knowledge regarding  facilities available to enable them to adopt more sustainable practices. To avoid routine disposal of clothing with refuse, guidelines about the impact on the environment of clothing disposal could be offered by retailers, featuring clear information about disposal routes and their implications for the environment. A solution would be to place containers for the collection of clothing for recycling to take place within the communal areas of shopping centres. Also partnerships with charities to facilitate the re-use of second-hand clothing could be utilised, with retailers having the opportunity to take advantage of the popularity of ‘vintage’ clothing by selecting and purchasing relevant items from clothing donated to charities, or directly from consumers, thus contributing to both environmental and social sustainability. However, the practicalities and cost implications of attaining and selecting sufficient quantities of garments of suitable quality and design are potential barriers to retailers adopting this strategy on a large scale. Other options could be explored to encourage more sustainable disposal of clothing for example, stores or retailers’ websites could be used as locations for clothes-exchange events amongst consumers.

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