The United Nations made history with the Paris agreement in December, demonstrating a global commitment to environmental protection and addressing climate change. It was a reminder that many industries, including fashion, have a lot of work to do to reduce their carbon footprints.
But to their credit, some brands and fashion entrepreneurs have become more environmentally conscious by changing their methods and by introducing new ways of producing clothes and bringing them to market. Many of these organizations are using recycled materials or manufacturing products closer to areas that generate raw materials. They are publicizing their efforts, as well, in no small part because consumers are increasingly looking to connect with socially responsible organizations. Good environmental practices are more likely than ever to mean new business opportunities.
In fashion, manufacturing, supply chain operations and transportation of the final product can negatively impact the environment. According to a recent M.I.T. study, greenhouse gas emissions produced by the cotton industry each year equate to driving to the sun and back more than 1,000 times. The same study reported that more than 700 billion kilograms of greenhouse gas can be attributed to polyester production in 2015. As global campaigns for sustainability gain momentum, the focus will shift to apparel manufacturing.
Yet making eco-friendly fashion cool from the consumer perspective has historically been challenging. Most consumers still care more about what something looks like than how it was made.
More recently, celebrities and influential designers have started to change attitudes. They include Emma Watson, who is collaborating with the ethical fashion brand People Tree, and Neil Young, who has called on his fans. to boycott nonorganic cotton.
Musicians Pharrell Williams and will.i.am have even invested capital and their personal brands into sustainable manufacturing efforts. In 2008 Williams co-founded Bionic Yarn, a company that transforms fibers made from recycled plastic into durable textiles. He currently serves as the company's creative director. To complement his efforts with Bionic Yarn, Williams collaborated with G-Star Raw and Parley for the Oceans for a denim line called RAW for the Oceans.
Created to combat the accumulation of plastic waste and the damage it inflicts on marine life and habitats, RAW for the Oceans retrieves plastic from shorelines, breaks it down and spins it into bionic fibers that can be woven and dyed to create denim.
In 2012, will.i.am followed suit when he partnered with Coca Cola to launch EkoCycle, a brand that identifies products like plastic bottles and aluminum cans and then repurposes those items into recycled materials that can be used to manufacture fashionable lifestyle products. Since its inception, EkoCycle has collaborated with widely recognized brands such as Apple's Beats by Dr. Dre, Levi's and Adidas to make eco-friendly fashion and lifestyle products like headphones and blue jeans.
Prominent designers are also affecting real change. Vivienne Westwood, an industry visionary best known for bringing modern punk into the mainstream, has been at the forefront of the sustainability movement for years. She was one of the first to partner with Ethical Fashion Initiative, with whom she developed the "Handmade with Love" collection. Every style in the line is produced in Nairobi's biggest slum and manufactured with recycled canvas, reused roadside banners, unused leather off-cuts and recycled brass.
Currently, Westwood is in the midst of an aggressive initiative targeting climate change, The Greenpeace Save The Arctic campaign. The project features an art exhibition with portraits of prominent celebrities such as Hugh Grant and Judi Dench wearing a Westwood-designed organic, unbleached cotton T-shirt.
Designer Stella McCartney has been increasingly vocal about the types of materials she uses. McCartney refuses to use leather or fur in her collections. She has also made considerable efforts to find sustainable sources of power -- like solar and wind -- to manufacture apparel and accessories in the most eco-friendly manner. These practices have become a critical part of these brands' reputations.
Using sustainable textiles can be particularly good for business when combined with the right technologies. For example, as part of its ongoing partnership with Parley for the Oceans, Adidas recently unveiled a new trainer with a 3-D-printed midsole created from recycled fishing nets.
The 3-D technology builds off its Futurecraft technology, which tailors midsoles to a shopper's foot. The custom-fit shoe feels like a luxury product. Meanwhile, using 3-D printing cuts down on production time, reduces the risk of design flaws and lowers overall manufacturing costs. The sustainable manufacturing process is significantly increasing margins for Adidas.
Fashion, like all industries, has a long way to go to be completely eco-friendly. In the end, the biggest accelerant to this trend will be consumer demand, as long as production costs remain low. That will mean greater revenue and profitability.