Why supply chain sustainability will be the innovative force in fashion retail in 2024-5

  • Written by Laura Houghton
  • Published on 12 April 2024
  • Blogs

At the Retail Supply Chain Sustainability Conference (RSSC) in March (24) we heard discussions taking place on a new level.

There was a keen sense of building momentum as delegates expressed their intentions and shared ideas of how to approach the demands of ESG requirements on their businesses.

The RSSC delegates, representatives of fashion retailers and brands, are at the forefront of tackling the challenge of how to make their retail products and supply chains transparent, sustainable and socially responsible.

I was absolutely blown away by the expertise in the audience and the complexity of the task ahead for the industry.

Prof. Kate Goldsworthy, Centre for Circular Design, UAL, London

The key theme throughout all sessions was that; central to achieving sustainability requires supply chain transparency and an understanding of each product’s lifecycle.

What was also clear, however, was that this should not be the end of the matter. The journey towards sustainability comprises collating the data that tells the story of the supply chain and product lifecycle, businesses should also take steps to evidence information on improvements they build in. It’s all being pushed by legislative change, business nous, and a moral compass, and this is why supply chain sustainability will bring about innovation and industry change in the next few years.

Here are a few ways we saw innovative thinking taking shape

How to speed up the route to compliance

Supply Chain Transparency is key to compliance with the forthcoming flotilla of legislation from the UK, EU, USA, and many other legal jurisdictions.

Without validated data that demonstrates the below; As another speaker, Clara Eisenberg, stated; there is no route to compliance.

Businesses need to know;

  • who your suppliers are (through multiple tiers)
  • where they are located,
  • who is working for them and in what conditions,
  • what materials they are sourcing and where from,
  • how goods are transported,
  • what impacts there are in the manufacturing processes,
  • and how the product is ultimately used and disposed of,

Retailers must have accurate data, in a reportable format, that multiple teams within their business can utilise.

The reality is, although some of the regulations might be a little bit unclear at this point in terms of how they’re going to land, the timeline is not going to change.

Sophie Oldridge, Compare Ethics

A consistent message throughout the day is that this is a marathon, not a sprint!

Still, it was clear that retailers and brands are looking for ways to build knowledge of how to do this and do it quickly. The innovative thinking in the room highlighted that sharing experiences, learnings and approaches will save time for all involved. This is a noticeable shift from a year ago when the discussion focused more on the risk of publishing supplier lists. Now the risk of ‘suppliers being stolen’ has been set aside. It was acknowledged that retailers do share a proportion of suppliers and it also made sense to help those suppliers become compliant in the most efficient ways possible.

Teams were convinced that there is a real need to collaborate across the industry, to openly share and talk about what works and what doesn’t, so they can adopt tried methods to start on the road to supply chain transparency, sustainability and circularity.

I think the most valuable aspect to take away (from RSSC 2024) is this idea of communication and collaboration that’s been fostered throughout the day.

Anneliese Simpson, Alexander McQueen

It was felt that a key change would be required around how to minimise and standardise the data requests being made of suppliers, so as not to overload them with differing sets of questions, and therefore to speed up the route to compliance. The group sessions explored the possibility of a standard framework that leads retailers through the steps of how to achieve supply chain transparency and compliance. [Something we address in “5 Steps to Supply Chain Transparency”.]

Furthermore, within a platform like Segura, there is a real possibility of data-sharing agreements between similar retailers, for compliance, factory audits or even supplier scorecards. How that might look and how much collaboration or data-sharing is feasible is yet to take shape, but to be asking these questions is a huge turnaround from the position many had in the industry a year ago.

There was an emphasis around collaboration and I think for some time in this industry we’ve not really seen that at all so I think the event optimises that

Mikey Haswell, ASOS

Collaboration shouldn’t be limited to data sharing between retailers themselves or even between retailers and suppliers. Collaboration should be encouraged between service providers such as Segura and the opening speakers, Compare Ethics. Most recently the two organisations have worked together to provide retailers with data capture from Segura, then shared with Compare Ethics for validation.

How Retailers Can Innovate with the Digital Product Passport

At RSSC we were reminded that the Sustainability and CSR teams didn’t enter their profession to be administrators of legislative compliance requirements. The point is that sustainability is about doing what’s right for people and the planet. Yes, collecting data is necessary for reporting, but it is also the first step from which action can be planned and taken.

One example is the Digital Product Passport: how can it solve a legislative requirement from the EU and also develop a positive customer sales experience that generates ongoing consumer loyalty? There was a significant positive response from retailers to seeing what a DPP in action might look like, compared to what it is now.

The beauty of a fully developed Digital Product Passport, such as Segura’s DPP Module, is that the QR code on the product labels will link to a webpage related to that product, with provenance information, care instructions and any green credentials, such as the percentage of recycled material.

The aim is that retailers and brands will develop a product repository that can last years (at least until the estimated end-of-lifespan of the product – and hopefully longer if, like me, you end up wearing clothes that are 10 years old), where consumers will be able to check how to dispose of the product or recycle it at the end of its life, and in the most sustainable way.

Building confidence and trust within the industry, but also with their consumers.

How to innovate with circular design

Professor Kate Goldsworthy from the Center for Circular Design, University of Arts London, spoke at the RSSC about how retailers and brands can innovate with circular design. Legislation like the EU DPP will require disclosure of a product’s life story and its environmental impact. Those fashion designers who include end-of-life considerations now within the design process will be on the front foot when legislation demands disclosure and action.

The driving goal of sustainability has to work from both ends of the product life cycle, from supply chain sustainability – sourcing materials and manufacturing processes being key – to product use and end-of-life, and how to reduce landfill waste in the fashion industry.

The good news is that innovation is already underway, with plenty of material producers working on fibre-to-fibre circularity. Professor Goldsworthy gave practical examples of how fully recyclable clothing is already being achieved, for instance, by processing vast batches of waste clothing into R-PET pellets for reuse.

For retailers and brands this means educating and training teams about sustainable material choices and partnering with material recycling facilities and re-use partners. It also means careful consideration of the trimmings that can often prevent one-stop recycling from being possible. Innovation will come from ways in which the apparel industry can incorporate eco-design and low-impact materials into clothes and shoes and communicate with consumers about how to treat their products at the end of use, whether recycling or reuse options to avoid landfills wherever possible.

Circularity innovation to find low-hanging fruit in the supply chain

It will become possible to see areas of low-hanging fruit through a combination of supply chain transparency and understanding a product life-cycle. During the RSCC a few things cropped up, but many more will become apparent for each business.

  1. Switching components and materials to sustainable alternatives
    This may be investigating next-gen fibre supply as an alternative to virgin fibres (a list of suppliers can be found here thanks to CanopyPlanet.org), or it could include more recycled elements such as buttons and zippers.

  2. Turning deadstock into feedstock in the supply chain
    When recycling clothes fibre-to-fibre, waste material is the ‘feedstock’. This increases in value as it is sorted into natural versus synthetic fibres, and as it is shredded and pulled into fibres again. Retailers could discover an advantage if they have significant feedstock, already sorted into material type, in warehouses in deadstock, either unsellable merchandise, dead inventory, dated goods, or failed designs that will not be sold. By harnessing fibre-to-fibre recycling within the product life cycle they could solve the problem of large volumes of deadstock, potentially reducing the incineration of unsellable goods.

  3. Finding second life for samples
    Another method of reducing waste is by partnering with resellers, like Reskinned, who can sell samples via third-party sites (eBay, Vinted). There is a market for clothing and shoes that won’t make it to the shop floor, retailers and brands need to be innovative about how to enter it.

In Summary

RSSC 2024 allowed speakers and delegates to get under the bonnet of what is required from fashion retailers to meet growing transparency, sustainability and circularity legislation and to make good progress with the ESG agenda.

The standout thing for me today (at RSSC 2024) has just been the amount of people that have come out and shared the same challenges and issues in the industry, knowing we’re all in the same boat and knowing that there are good solutions out there for us to utilise.

Alex Barnett, TFG Brands London

As Ben Sillitoe of Green Retail World and host of the retailer panel discussion at RSSC summarised;

It’s becoming a bit of a cliche in this space, but it is worth underlining - collaboration is key to ESG progress. Be it internally (cross-departmental approach), with industry peers through events like RSSC, or working more closely with suppliers. Legislation is coming and will require changes to how retailers operate - there’s no getting away from it. Not adhering to certain legislation will mean not being able to trade in certain territories. If that’s not enough of a business case for retailers to get their houses in order, I’m not sure what is.

If you’d like to review the presentations from RSSC 2024 you can access them here.

If you’d like to register your interest in attending RSSC 2025 you can do so here.


About Segura

Segura is the leading fashion supply chain traceability solution, empowering fashion retailers and brands to deliver ethical, sustainable, and efficient multi-tier supply chains.  

Segura provides n-tier mapping, transparency, traceability, visualisation, compliance, and reporting. Segura sits in the centre of your supply chain management structure creating a central repository for all your supply chain, ESG-related data and evidence, including from third-party data sources.  

With all supply chain traceability data stored on a single platform, our customers get the right evidence in the right place to back up claims and meet regulatory compliance. 

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