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Green Brands Have a Head Start on Fashion’s Post-Virus Recovery Laura Millan Lombrana Bookmark May 01 2020, 9:31 AM May 01 2020, 3:41 PM (Bloomberg) -- Coronavirus lockdowns have forced giants such as Primark, H&M, and Zara-owner Inditex to shut down thousands of shops and cancel orders worth millions of dollars. In the coming months, the fashion industry will face a “Darwinian shakeout” that wil

Large retailers source textiles to third parties in developing nations such as China, Vietnam or Bangladesh, says Kirsi Niinimaki, a design professor at Aalto University in Finland. These elements are often made by under-paid workers operating old, energy-intensive machinery, treated with polluting chemicals banned in developed countries. “Shorter supply chains allow for more transparency,” Niinimaki says. “For most brands we still don’t know where things are produced, using which chemicals and what waste comes out. That’s quite problematic.”

Niinimaki co-authored a scientific review published in Nature earlier this year showing that the sector produces around 20% of the world’s wastewater—mainly through treating or dyeing fabric—and the plastic microfibers used in many garments release the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles into the oceans each year. The rise of fast fashion, which depends on shoppers buying cheap items frequent

The European Union is still drafting its economic recovery plan, but policymakers in several nations are already calling for measures that push for shorter supply chains to ensure manufacturing of critical components in the region. Stimulus packages targeting local small and medium companies could disproportionately affect green fashion businesses, Niinimaki says, giving them a further leg up in in the future economic recovery. “Stimulus packages should be going to small companies who are operating in an ethical way,” Hilts says. “It would be good to assign funds to companies who are producing sustainably, employing teams of conscious and skilled workers, and are operating locally.” The fashion industry is so fragmented that just calculating the environmental impact of making a t-shirt is a challenge. A September report by the United Nations Development Program and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that fashion is the world’s second-largest polluter and responsible for about 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined

Transparency is a struggle for the brands, which often don’t know where their products are at any given time, says Niall Murphy, chief executive officer at Evrythng, a platform providing product tracing and analytics services to fashion firms. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem. “A producer might have thought they were fine, onshore producing in EU, but then it turns out their production.

Most fashion brands are now completely paralyzed due to the lockdowns, so addressing these issues and fulfilling pre-pandemic environmental commitment will probably become part of the strategy after economies—and shops—reopen.
But some have already been forced to tackle these issues. French wool and textile manufacturer Chargeurs SA shifted some of its production lines from fabrics and garments to equipment for medical workers. In a matter of weeks, it has become one of the French government’s main provider of protective face masks and manufactures several million a week. Now the company is planning to shift production lines in its U.S., Asian, and South American factories, too, rather than shipping masks to those places all the way from France, says Angela Chan, the company’s global president and managing director for fashion technologies. “Right now everything is at a halt, people are just trying to get through this,” Chan says. “But this is a corrector for the industry that will push us to think differently. It will put sustainability on top of everyone’s minds.” ©2020 Bloomberg L.P.