As global attention shifts to sustainable consumption, fashion retailers around the world are working to reduce their impact on the environment. In the fast fashion industry, domestic players from emerging markets are increasingly leading the charge.
Clothing production has skyrocketed in the 21st century thanks to falling costs and streamlined operations. At the same time, growth in consumer spending has fueled a boom in so-called fast fashion. By achieving ultrafast production cycles and continuously releasing new designs, retailers have enabled shoppers to buy more affordable clothes, more often. Research shows that consumers today keep clothing items for a fraction of the time they once used to, with the lowest-priced garments sometimes discarded after fewer than 10 wears.
The fashion industry’s carbon footprint has fallen under the spotlight as a result. Among the world’s top eight polluting supply chains, fashion now comes in third behind food and construction, responsible for approximately 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This strain on the environment is set to increase as clothing costs rise more slowly than those of other consumer goods, while growing middle class purchasing power – particularly in developing markets – continues to fuel demand.
Major retailers have moved to address these concerns with pledges to cut down on emissions and resource use across their operations. Spanish clothing giant Zara, part of fashion holding Inditex, released a sustainability “manifesto” this year that includes reaching net-zero emissions by 2040. The company, which signed on to the UN Global Compact in 2001, has scaled up its efforts with a series of initiatives on responsible fibre sourcing, clothing recycling and reduced resource use at its stores.
Swedish retailer H&M has launched clothing lines made from upcycled materials – such as food crop waste and melted glass – as part of an ambitious plan to use 100 percent recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030.
While much of the focus has been on global retail giants, more localized fashion industry players are stepping up to the plate to advance the sustainability agenda in their respective markets.
In Russia, whose fashion market is saturated with the likes of H&M, Zara and Uniqlo, the St. Petersburg-based Melon Fashion Group is one domestic player that is pushing for a more sustainable industry. The company is a leader in the local fast-fashion market and operates four clothing brands – under the names Zarina, Love Republic, Sela and befree – that have become top sellers on e-commerce platforms in the region.
Following the release of its sustainability strategy in 2019, Melon Fashion launched a “green office” initiative aimed at responsible resource use and recycling at company headquarters. Each of the group’s brands carry out their own sustainability activities, ranging from the use of eco-friendly shopping bags and advertising materials to clothes recycling and donation programmes at their stores. Part of the group’s collections are manufactured from recycled and eco-materials.
The company also places strong emphasis on social responsibility, partnering with a local foundation to support employment opportunities for disabled and disadvantaged youth, and organizing waste clean-ups across Russian cities under an initiative of its brand befree.
Melon Fashion has highlighted supply chain sustainability as its main focus in the short term. With most of its production based in China, the company has pledged to put supplier information on each of its clothing labels and carry out regular audits of production facilities via its Shanghai office. The company has also expanded its social initiatives to China, partnering with the Rainbow Bridge Blue Dream Foundation to send monthly donations of new clothes and footwear to students at the central school in a village in Sichuan Province.
While operating on a smaller scale than global fast-fashion heavyweights, players like Melon Fashion are well-positioned to become champions of sustainability in markets where the industry is rapidly expanding. And with reports that the company is eyeing an IPO, sustainability is likely to remain at the top of its agenda. That is good news for the fashion industry, which will need all hands on deck if it is to clean up its environmental act.