Part of the Boston Consulting Group since 2014, Javier Seara is one of the co-authors of the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, that measures the advance of sustainability in the fashion industry and its different systems.
Sustainability starts being a worn-out concept, difficult to wrap around…
In fashion, a sustainable company is the one that respects the planet’s natural resources and follows some production and ethic guidelines that allow its employees to have a decent life. To achieve that, collaborations with other players are vital, suppliers, associations, governments and clients.
The fashion industry started focusing in this subject years ago, why now?
It matched the growth of the industry, with previsions of 5% in an annual average up to 2030, pushed by Asia and the increase of the pressure due to an unsustainable production for every industry, from an environmental point of view, with the climate change, the Paris Agreement, social aspects, labor conditions, there are still things to improve.
Is fashion late?
In every industry, distance between the ones on top and the rest is big. This is the case of Patagonia or Nike, for example, both started early. But if some industries started sooner specially for saving resources, it’s not that focused on sustainability. This happened for example when the production was in countries with high salaries or in industries with very narrow margins.
Is there a bigger concern?
To the last Copenhagen Fashion Summit attended some of the biggest leaders of the fashion industry, the French environmental minister and the queen of Denmark. This subject is no longer hiding in a corner, is a subject that CEO’s discuss.
Will change come from the bigger or the smaller companies?
The main transformation power is in the big one because they have a biggest negotiation power and more resources to invest, and because the small ones tend to follow the best practices of the leaders. But further than that, the small ones tend to be more flexible talking about solutions that are not in the big ones reach, like local value chains.
Pulse of Fashion caused commotion precisely because of that statement…
There are a million organizations that only point the system with the finger up, but without data. The only thing they achieve is that no one listens to them because they don’t help the change.
Criticism is always stronger in the big ones…
H&M and Zara receive critics, but they only represent 5% of the total of the world’s fashion commerce. The problem is the 50% of small companies of less than 1 billion revenues and the ones we know nothing about. To make the change real everyone must be on board. The issue is serious because if Chinese and Indians start consuming half of the garments that an American consumes, the planet is over, because there is not enough water or cotton.
Some state that they do greenwashing…
We need to be cautious with the accusations of greenwashing in the industry. Because of the fear of being accused, some companies and associations don’t share its progress and practices, when sharing is crucial to move forward in the sector. Greenwashing accusations do not help because what we really need is new business models: there are many ideas and the circular economy started to be implemented.
Is it a problem of the business model?
Long term we are going to need a new business model that assures the use of resources inside the planet’s limits and that respects human rights. Circularity, for example is the key. But there are other models oriented to the service, that is still slow in the industry.
Can fast fashion be sustainable?
With its current business model and production, fast fashion has in general a very low level of sustainability, like waste and salaries. However, fast fashion it’s not necessarily opposite to sustainability. Fast fashion works to produce faster, but its problem is the one of a linear system. If it moves toward a circular model, it can grow. If all the fashion that fast fashion produces turns recyclable, the problem would reduce. The linear model is strained.
Is there a lack of investment capability for new materials or processes?
If you look at it from an isolated point of view, the easiest and fastest way of changing would be with new processes. Think of a new dye process that could be more efficient using less water, for example. Suppliers of the solutions are there and its easy to implement. Innovation in materials, on the other hand, is more complex because it requires a high level of technical knowledge, time and investment for its development. However, we need both of them to go hand by hand: new recycled and recyclable materials will be key for circularity.
Can you be sustainable alone?
We are in a phase where progress is hard to execute alone. Innovating in ecosystems requires a high investment. Circularity needs to be effective in the collection, in the classification, in the recycling, and none of these companies can do it on its own because it requires the help of manufactures, brands and clients. Change in the value chain need cooperation between suppliers so the improvements are affective in each and every actor of the chain.
Will the one that doesn’t act sustainably penalized?
Fashion industry has been for a while out of the spotlight, but since the Rana Plaza tragedy, governments are paying more attention. We forecast that it will arrive, experts and associations ask for it, even some fashion companies ask for it too.
Do you perceive more pressure from the consumer?
Consumers are moving but slowly. Its not going to be them that led this change. But its interest adds. We have researched five markets and this tendency is in all of them. 75% of consumers affirm that sustainability is important or extremely important for them. 38% assured abandoning their favorite brands because of the lack of sustainability and 50% says they were planning on doing it. If companies don’t want to lose its consumers, they must act and communicate it.