Industrial growth and technological developments, in recent times, have compelled the modern world to think about the long-term impacts of its current actions on the future generations. A talk about our future, more often, than not, provokes questions about sustainability and sustainable standards in every commercial industry.
The multi-billion-dollar fashion industry remains no exception to this existential question. For a majority of the shoppers, fashion is defined by clothing, accessories and the overall outer appearance/ attire of an individual. The term fashion, however, really is much deeper than this shallow perception. It is, often, pursued by consumers as an expression of their personalities. On an elementary level, fashion is a time-sensitive and context specific phenomena that equips a person to express his/her individuality.
The fashion industry, which has observed most of its growth in the contemporary times, broadly consists of four levels: (a) production of raw materials; (b) production of fashion goods by fashion designers, etc.; (c) marketing and promotion; and (d) sales, with the ultimate goal of mass production and profit maximization. While production of clothing in medieval times was largely handmade, with the passage of time, it shifted to factories and sophisticated manufacturing units facilitating mass production of clothing. The objective of mass production is based on the concept of economies of scale, which reduces the cost of production for manufacturers, thereby helping them reduce the selling price of their products. The entire fashion industry is built on the concept of speeding up trends and shortening seasoned clothing where a wide selection of inexpensive items is churned out every week creating a recurring cycle of demand and supply. The shoppers tend to purchase these low-priced products, while simply ignoring the price paid in the form of environment degradation. Thus began the story of sustainable fashion.
In one of her famous books, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, fashion journalist, Dana Thomas, states that, on an average, an American buys sixty-eight (68) clothes every year. According to similar research done by the Newsweek, Americans throw away eighty (80) lbs of clothing every year. Ecologically speaking, the problem with production of clothes is twofold – firstly, the manufacturing of clothes requires incredible amount of natural resources, and secondly, once these trendy clothes become obsolete, their disposal leads to further environmental damage. According to the United Nations, a pair of jeans requires a whopping 7,500 - 10,000 litres of water (which is 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person). The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in one of its studies, shows that the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn has decreased by 36% between 2000 and 2015. In the same period, clothing production doubled. Due to lengthy supply chains and energy-intensive production methods, apparel and footwear industries generate 8–10% of global carbon emissions, superseding emissions from the aviation and shipping industries combined (European Parliament, 2021). This brings to light the dire need to re-evaluate the values and standard business practices of the fashion industry.
The fashion industry, in the early 21st century, witnessed a phenomenal growth leading it to become a trillion-dollar industry employing millions of people worldwide. It is estimated that the clothing production and consumption doubled between 2000 to 2014. The term “fast-fashion” was first used in 1990s for the fashion brand ZARA by New York Times to describe 15 days-manufacturing cycle and selling garments on racks. The worldwide reduction in prices of clothes and footwear coupled with ease of access through e-commerce, catapulted the adoption of fast-fashion model. The concept of fast fashion basically involves rapid design, mass production, greater product variety and low price, with the goal of producing and selling the maximum number of items in the shortest possible time, typically by paying little to zero emphasis on its impact on the environment or human rights. Initially, the idea gained traction owing to job creation, low prices and large variety of products, but soon enough, consumers woke up to the ill-effects of fast fashion on society and the environment, thereby shifting consumer sentiment from fast fashion to durable clothing or “slow fashion”. Unlike fast fashion, slow fashion items take longer to produce and are, therefore, usually expensive but durable due to high quality.
Given the rising consumer awareness and evolution of "cyan shoppers” (those who try to purchase only ecologically friendly products), naturally then, fashion brands started ecologically and sustainably sound clothing lines that are carbon positive, organic or vegan. Examples include LULULEMON’s yoga mats made from mushrooms or ALLBIRDS’ sneakers made from sugarcane, etc. In 2016, H&M launched CONSCIOUS Collection made of organic materials that aims to get its customers to recycle their clothes. Similarly, LEVI’S launched its Water<Less Collection which uses 96% less water for manufacturing denim jeans and reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. Similarly, ZARA started to recycle and reuse all its boxes, bags and hangers and also came up with a new collection called the JOIN LIFE Collection, which focussed on using raw materials that have a lesser impact on the environment. All these efforts are made to transform the fast fashion model into a slow fashion one, to counteract the detriment of fast fashion and produce items in a way that does less harm to the environment.
With the shift to slow fashion, brands started playing a major role in empowering end users with product sustainability information and steering them towards purchasing of sustainable products. Trademarks, due to their inherent nature of being source identifiers, can bring the best in sustainable products by instantly conveying that the products bearing the marks are "green". “Green trademarks”, that identify eco-friendly products, not only identify the brand's contribution towards sustainability, but also influence consumers into making eco-friendly choices. In this manner, green trademarks act as effective marketing tools for environmentally conscious businesses.
The Trade Marks Register has not remained unaffected with the increasing awareness about the need to promote sustainability. There has been a surge in applications for trademarks incorporating the terms ECO, BIO, E, RE and the like, images of leaves, the Earth, the recycle symbol or the colour green, to indicate that goods offered are eco-friendly. MAMAEARTH for toxin free natural beauty care products and BIOTIQUE for skin and hair care developed from ayurveda with 100% botanicals are good examples of green trademarks. Luxury brands are no exceptions. Prada adopted the mark RE-PRADA along with an arrow-infused take on its triangle logo to depict the use of recycled nylon. Louis Vuitton tweaked its well-known LV logo by elongating the ends of the letters LV to represent arrows for use on “upcycled” sneakers. Valentino also graced its sneakers “redesigned and re-dedicated in a spirit of open innovation with a more conscious-driven ethos” with a logo comprising its signature “V” with arrows representing “recycle”.
These new logos have proved to be very successful for clothing and footwear brands. These marketing strategies have pushed the brands to take some substantive steps that mitigate the detriments caused to the environment. It is important for the brands to substantiate their sustainability-centric claims to avoid charges of “greenwashing”, i.e., misleading advertisements or false claims suggesting that products are environment friendly and sound than they actually are.
While consumer awareness and the competitive fashion market have compelled brand owners to adopt sustainable fashion trends, the impact of sustainability initiatives on the environment is naturally a slow process. Further, not surprisingly, not all fashion brands are actively connected with their raw material suppliers and even fewer are aware of the impact of their raw materials on environment.
Another horrid practice followed by some of the luxury fashion brands is incinerating their own products in the name of maintaining their brand’s exclusivity. These brands would rather have their products burnt, than sell them on discounted prices. For instance, in 2018, Burberry came under the radar for burning products such as clothing, bags and other fashion accessories worth several millions of dollars to preserve its reputation and exclusivity. Concerned shoppers did not react well to this news and vowed to boycott the brand. The outrage worked and resulted in Burberry getting rid of the practice immediately.
The global fashion industry has steered a long way from its tracks causing widespread destruction of environment. While the destruction caused cannot be undone, the potential harm can surely be avoided by setting sustainable fashion goals.
Below are a few ways through which the future of fashion can be more sustainable:
Discouraging the “trend cycle”- the culture of obsolescence and trend-led clothing should be discouraged. Focus should be on extending the life cycle of products.
Ending to dumping/discarding clothes- Fashion items should be swapped, repurposed and eventually recycled when worn out.
Reducing overproduction and mindless consumption- Effective made-to-order or small batch production system should be adopted by consumers to increase their relationship with clothes, resulting in longer use.
Creating awareness about sustainable fashion- educational institutions should acknowledge the ecological collapse and explore methods to safely and radically restore and regenerate the system from a “nature first” viewpoint.
Fashion as community service- Fashion is not just about what a person wears. Rather it is the story behind an item and if the focus of fashion can shift towards that connection instead of simply churning out more items, it could lead to more sustainability.
It is high time the fashion industry focuses its energies on sustainability and embraces a culture of prolonged use of resources, better working standards and less discharge of waste. Likewise, consumers should rethink their purchasing patterns to create a sustainable future for all.
Deeksha Anand is a Partner at Sujata Chaudhri IP Attorneys. The co-author Shashwat Tiwari was a Former Associate at Sujata Chaudhri IP Attorneys.