We are in the midst of Fashion Month - a time that always inspires reflection on an industry that desperately needs radical reinvention to achieve a sustainable future. Despite many positive signals of change, it often feels as if the fashion industry is sleepwalking into a >1.5°C world, with many legacy brands seemingly hunkered down in their last defences, clinging to unsustainable business models.  We are now two months into the decade of delivery, and while there are hopeful signs as ‘emerging’ designers (like Gabriella Hearst and Richard Malone) centralize sustainability and celebrated fashion houses embrace it, not enough is being done. The apparel industry needs wholesale change. 

Last year, we worked intensively with the industry to tackle systemic barriers and drive a paradigm shift. To achieve the necessary change, we need to tap into our collective wisdom and share best practices. Based on insights from our last year of work - including ambitious visioning work for sustainable textiles (MMCF), continued collaborative work on Cotton, and working with pioneering brands to craft future-fit business strategies - I wanted to share some reflections on what we need now more than ever: 

Keeping our sights on the horizon helps us to continue to raise our ambitions.  At Forum for the Future, we use futures tools - creating possible, plausible and preferred future scenarios based on today’s emerging trends - as a means of uniting around a shared vision of the future. Last summer, we launched Fashion Futures 2030 to support this goal. Co-developed with the London College of Fashion and Center of Sustainable Fashion through funding from the Laudes Foundation, Fashion Futures 2030 is a robust set of future scenarios that helps to guide and inspire the fashion industry in its critical sustainability journey. By stepping into the future of fashion and the world, fashion businesses and organisations can explore the material issues shaping the future and assess how current trends could impact the industry - thus making better decisions today to navigate the radical change that the industry faces.

Learning and knowledge management on sustainable best practices within the Apparel Industry will be critical to our collective success. We need to continue to rely on and learn from each other to replicate best practices. Brands and supply chain partners need to continue to work together to increase cross-pollination within the industry. In our hyper-interconnected world, we also need to improve learnings from other commodities and sectors.

Collaboration is critical. To shift the fashion industry we need entire systems to change. No single entity can do this alone or in isolation. In our interconnected and complex value chains, each actor needs to use their unique influence to inspire change. Collective action will play a pivotal role in leading the shift towards a more sustainable future, by taking concrete steps together to protect our planet and people.

Building sustainability into company culture. The success of the sustainability agenda can not fall on the shoulders of one department, or person. Companies need to integrate Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria across organizational structures, engage all levels of the value chain, and formally train a community of ambassadors to ensure sustainability is understood and lived as a key value. For many brands, design departments will need to lead the sustainability agenda as sourcing decisions begin and end on the design table. 

The need to integrate social and environmental impacts into business decisions requires a fundamental rethink of the current operating paradigm. We need to shift towards an economic system that is more human-centric and community-focused. Future-fit business models must factor in externalities, equitably distribute value, and build resilience and positive economic development.  To achieve this, the industry needs better data, including audited and credible Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) that measure environmental and social aspects across the value chain. 

All these elements will be instrumental for changing mindsets and behaviour, to operationalize sustainability as a competitive advantage within the industry.

Systems are not broken, they simply generate the outcomes they were designed to produce. It’s time for the apparel industry to rethink the underlying logic of the whole system, of an endless pursuit for growth within a finite planetary system. Only by transforming both itself and its underlying, unsustainable system, will the industry become regenerative and resilient. But there is no one silver bullet. The apparel industry will need multiple solutions at different levels and at different scales. It will require a diversity of solutions at different intervention points.

Difficult? Yes. But necessary, in order to ensure that the fashion industry that I love, and which is loved by so many, will be able to endure and thrive in the future.

Eager to redesign the fashion industry for a sustainable and just future? Get in touch with Forum for the Future to explore how to tackle the challenges the volatile future presents. The future of the industry - and frankly the world - depends on it.

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