Comment: Innovation spells the future for sustainable fashion

The fashion world is waking up to the sustainability challenge. Until recently, pressures around cost effectiveness and risk exposure left executives reluctant to embrace more environmentally-conscious policies. There are signs, however, that attitudes are changing.

Decision-makers are starting to recognise the commercial benefits of operating more ethically, and sustainable strategies are being used to replace pure consumption-driven business models. Interest in a circular economy, for example – whereby clothes and materials that would once have been thrown away are instead recycled, reused or regenerated – is gaining traction, though achieving it won’t be easy.

In our view, the industry leaders of tomorrow will be those that can find new ways of meeting the demands of a growing population, while minimising waste across the production chain. To succeed in this ambition while remaining commercially viable, they are likely to need a new focus on innovation.

The positive news is that, in an industry underpinned by creativity, brave new ideas are in abundance. We also believe that, by focusing on three key areas, industry leaders have a clear opportunity to deliver innovation-led change.

So where should leaders prioritise activity? First of all, we believe they can use their influence to give greater voice to up-and-coming innovators; secondly, they can enable the faster scaling of new ideas; and, finally, they can drive real change in the industry by reaching out to a wider talent pool.

Amplifying exciting new ideas

The fashion industry is a hothouse for brilliant ideas, and a growing number of these have an ethical slant. One example is Orange Fiber, which makes fabrics out of the by-products created during citrus-fruit manufacturing. We also see circular new business models, such as Rent the Runway, that allow consumers to rent designer clothes rather than buy them, reducing the number of garments that are worn once and discarded. There is even growing interest in “connected clothes,” through which a digital tag is added to the thread to give recyclers all the information they need to recycle correctly.

Interestingly enough, many of these ideas are developed by non-corporate technologists and entrepreneurs. Some originate with non-profits, foundations or universities. As these innovators often choose to work outside big business, their solutions can remain modest in scale – unless they attract funding or form partnerships with established fashion brands.

In order for fashion to become more sustainable, leading fashion brands need to form “unlikely” partnerships with individuals/organisations from very different backgrounds, to collaborate on new ideas and take them to market on a wider scale.

Finding the key to scaling at speed

Creating partnerships is essential for idea-sharing, but ideas can take a long time to spread and to make a real difference. The most sustainable fashion businesses are thinking about how they can scale up sustainable innovation more quickly and to accelerate the process.

In practice, acceleration means supporting innovators and helping them develop the business and negotiation skills they need to connect with others in the ecosystem, so they can operate in a competitive market as quickly as possible. It may also mean getting a better understanding of how data analytics can be used to drive growth. We see many organisations investing in coaching and training to ensure their new partners achieve success at pace.

Expanding the talent mix

There are signs that deep-seated issues may be preventing some individuals from contributing to a more sustainable fashion industry. To be able to address the significant challenges the fashion industry is facing we need to embrace ideas from all types of backgrounds, in a collaborative effort where every idea counts. The challenge of getting people from different backgrounds to share ideas is a difficult one, which may include long-term investment in mentoring and accessible open innovation initiatives, but is vital for the industry to get the full range of perspectives it needs.

It’s exciting to see such momentum around innovation-led sustainability in the fashion industry, which could be illustrated by Accenture’s partnership with the non-profit H&M Foundation on the Global Change Award – along with KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden – which received 3,000 applications from 130 countries this year alone. But while these signs are promising, lasting change will arrive much faster, and become much more firmly embedded, when the entire industry learns to think differently and embraces a sustainable future together.

 By Lynda Petherick, managing director and UK&I Fashion lead, Accenture.