What if brands on sustainability are getting it all wrong?

Asking the question is Transformers Foundation, a platform representing the denim supply chain, which in a recent study comes to very peremptory conclusions. Like this: ‘Not only are suppliers expected to do most of the decarbonisation work, they are also expected to pay for it. Even when no economic return is possible”. What if brands on sustainability are getting it all wrong?


More than 400 clothing, footwear, textile, and luxury companies have set themselves precise and ambitious sustainability targets in order to comply with the Paris Agreement. Thus, if the media debate has – especially in the early days – almost always focused on raw materials, often ending up in a swampy area, it has subsequently shifted its focus, emphasising that it is the production process that has the most significant impact on the environment. As a consequence, brands and labels have unleashed a hunt for knowledge of everything that happens along their supply chain. To do so, they impose specifications on suppliers to be signed, audits to be carried out, continuous improvements, and considerable investment to meet all these demands. However, according to a study by the Transformers Foundation (a platform representing the denim supply chain), brands are getting it all wrong.

What if they are doing it all wrong?

According to the Transformer Foundation, this is a strategy doomed to fail. “The responsibility for climate action in fashion is not shared. This approach is not only unfair but also impractical. It is unworkable,Kim van der Weerd, director of intelligence at Transformers Foundation, tells Business of Fashion. The final considerations of the study are unusually frank when clear and unapologetic. For years, fashion brands have benefited enormously from the situation. Conversely, their suppliers have often kept quiet about their concerns to avoid conflict with customers for fear of losing them.

A strategy destined to fail

The Transformer Foundation study is based on interviews with denim manufacturers. But despite its sectoral approach, it points to problems and challenges that can be generalised to the entire fashion industry. Mainly for one reason: from clothing to leather goods, companies in the supply chain have low margins. Therefore, they have no resources to invest in more responsible business practices. This is also the case in Italy but to an even greater extent in the mostly Asian countries where fashion production is concentrated. Browsing through the study entitled Towards A Collective Approach: Rethinking Fashion’s Doomed Climate Strategy, suppliers say that brands do not seem to be willing to pay a premium to help their subcontractors achieve their goals. “Not only are suppliers expected to do most of the decarbonisation work, but they are also expected to pay for it even when no economic return is possible.

From top to bottom

“This climate action strategy is the result of a top-down approach to sustainability that has lasted for decades and fails to address current problems“. Not to mention that while some improvements are ‘rather easy to achieve’, others ‘are very complicated and costly‘. Transformer Foundation, thus, urges to consider the investments needed for the green transition as a guarantee for the future, regardless of their return. “Climate action must be our responsibility,” says van der Weerd. “It must be our concern and not just a burden on suppliers. This includes sharing financial resources, but also other types of resources. No goal is achievable without collective action‘.

How to activate ‘collective action’?

According to the study, the first step towards collective action is to separate the question “who does what” from the question “who pays”. In other words, the fact that a company has to drastically reduce its environmental impact to achieve its climate targets does not automatically mean that it has to pay the total price. These two elements of the puzzle must be tackled separately. Otherwise, the green transition is doomed to failure.

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