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Is Sustainability in the Fashion Industry a Victim of Collateral Damage?

So many people have worked tirelessly to establish environmental goals and objectives for our industry. Indeed, when it comes to environmental impact, the apparel industry is often accused of being a significant polluter, a harmful resident of the world. From this beleaguered position, many individuals and organizations have labored to correct ills affecting our industry and pave a more environmentally-friendly path.

But we live in complex, challenging times. Uncertainty and unforeseen consequences reign supreme. So, will all of this hard work to make the industry more environmentally sustainable be in vain? Let me explain.

First, we had the pandemic. That was bad enough. Supply chains buckled, ports seized up, and carbon emissions soared thanks to many container ships backing up at ports. How sustainable is it to ship clothing, say, 10,000 miles around the world -- which is bad enough from a carbon-emissions standpoint -- only to be held at ports with their engines running for weeks on end, unable to offload their cargo? Let's put it this way: the supply chain snafu didn't do the planet's atmosphere any good.

Now we have a war. The thing about war is other forms of human endeavor tend to get shoved to the side, put on hold. So many brands and retailers have stopped selling their products in Russia for our industry. Such actions are consistent with Western economic sanctions. And the sanctions are squeezing the Russian economy. Make no mistake about that.

Overriding all of this, however, is uncertainty. War is hardly a predictable endeavor and has consequences for people beyond the actual military combatants. First, there's always collateral damage: loss of civilian life and property. But there are other forms of collateral damage. For example, in the case of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Western powers, using economic sanctions, have exerted considerable economic pain on the Putin regime and average Russians. And along with that have come economic ripple effects beyond Russia. For instance, soaring inflation, trade disruptions, and product shortages have piled onto already overloaded supply chains skewed by the pandemic -- and even the West feels the effects!

Sustainability and War

As sustainability is such an essential topic in our industry, it's reasonable to ask: how has the sustainable movement faired during these trying times? Indeed, Russia and Ukraine aren't huge consumers or makers of apparel. Besides, they're preoccupied with the war, so a discussion about sustainability in those two countries is in poor taste and misses the point. It's also stupid to consider with a war raging. So instead, the ripple effects of the war and the ramifications of economic sanctions are more central to this discussion.

Put another way: how are our industry and environmental sustainability affected by the conflict? First of all, our industry is a bit like a canary in the coal mine, chirping away until the air becomes unbreathable, or worse. Hence, unpredictability plays a role. Next, there's a lot of strain on commodity markets regarding fossil fuels, certain metals, and agricultural products. There are shortages, but there's also hoarding. Governments are concerned about sources of supply. But throughout the conflict, demand for oil and natural gas remain high. Isn't that bad for the environment?

The End of Globalization?

But with inflation comes higher prices on everything. Leading the way are fossil fuels. Ironically, inflated oil and natural gas prices will make sustainable alternatives more cost-competitive. What's more, higher inflation will result in lower consumption -- a key goal of many environmental groups when examining consumers' buying habits in developed countries. So, in an unpredictable turn of events, environmentalists may win out in the end.

There's another point to consider. This war may mark the end of globalization, as we've witnessed over the past three decades. At a minimum, it may signal a strategic realignment. Indeed, as companies mitigate their supply chain risk by pulling sources of supply closer to consuming markets, this will have a beneficial impact on the earth's climate.

One of the great fallacies in our industry has been the belief that lower prices for consumers are all that matters. But unfortunately, when supply chains stretch around the planet, these low prices come with high costs to the environment and laborers worldwide struggling to make a living wage. Yeah, and the cheaper the product, the more harm is done to the planet. It doesn't matter how "green" a factory is somewhere in Asia: the physical shipping of products halfway around the world only results in greater use of fossil fuels and more significant pollution from burning those fuels on trans-Pacific ships.

Stop Snoozing

The war in Ukraine? It's a wake-up call for companies everywhere. It's risky to source far from your core markets. We've been fortunate not to have had wars like the Russian invasion of Ukraine over the past 30 years. But that's just the point: we were lucky, not necessarily wise. When it comes to politics, geopolitical jostling, and unveiled competition, look out and get ready to duck. Those much-vaunted just-in-time supply chains? They're nothing more than a take-a-number-and-stand-in-line means of delivering products from across the globe. All in the name of lower prices.

There's another thing about war. It shifts spending from non-essential consumer products to essentials -- which challenges the traditional apparel model. We intentionally overproduce to help keep prices down and products varied as an industry. A side effect of this model is excessive pollution. But this model is also a by-product of the demands of western consumers hooked on "stuff." And guess what? The planet pays for it. No wonder our industry gets a bad rap. It deserves to.

The thing about wars, pandemics, or other catastrophic events is that it triggers economic shocks, followed by adjustment periods. For sure, the adjustments are typically volatile with wild swings. Still, in the end, such swings end up settling at a new norm, albeit at a place different from where it was before the catastrophe began. Ironically, it may take a war to change that -- with an indirect effect of easing planetary pollution in the long run. A new norm?

So does it have to take a war to ease our demands on the environment? It doesn't say much about human nature. Yep, we live in challenging times.

Originally published in on April 22, 2022


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