The sustainable T-shirt is the new normal
The Dutch renew roughly a third of their closets each year, which amounts to buying about fifty new garments. As such, the demand for affordable fashion remains high. And with the entry of easy online shopping, this business model is strengthening more and more.
It provides a wry crux for producers. On the one hand, they see a strong demand from consumers for new outfits; on the other hand, there is a growing need to deliver this clothing supply in a sustainable way.
We sit down with Giny Boer, CEO of clothing group C&A, and discuss the consumer paradox within the clothing industry: wanting to buy more, but with a net lower impact on the environment.
What comes to mind first when you think of sustainability in clothing?
"Sustainability for clothing is mainly found in two elements. First is the sustainability of the clothing itself. One of our main challenges here is to increase the proportion of sustainable materials. For example, organic cotton and recycled textiles, which we know have a much smaller footprint than traditional raw materials. In addition, we have to take into account everything that is part of buying clothes, such as packaging, hooks and bags. We need to eliminate the use of 'virgin plastic' throughout the supply chains of apparel producers."
Are these elements currently being looked at enough?
"They are being looked at seriously and consumer awareness is also increasing. But when I look at the clothing industry, the transition is not going fast enough for me. Sustainable clothing is currently still too much a niche rather than a mass concept. To change that, it must become easier for consumers to purchase sustainable products. Indeed, the sustainable alternative must be the new standard."
What should that transition toward the new normal look like?
"The biggest opportunity is in collaboration and standardizing sustainability. Ultimately, as an apparel industry, we all want a sustainable proposition. That requires the same turnaround for everyone in the supply chain. Collaboration goes much better if we look at our supplier network through the same lens and assess sustainability with the same, high standard. For example, C&A is already working with H&M to apply the same sustainability benchmarks. There are also forums, where we get together and discuss these kinds of issues. If the entire apparel industry gets behind it, such concrete initiatives will gain much more power."
A sustainable proposition seems like a nice promise toward consumers, but by now we are all used to affordable clothing. How important is willingness to pay to make the transition successful?
"If you want to position sustainable clothing to consumers as the new normal and then double the price, you don't have a compelling story. Our customers have become accustomed to being able to buy everyday clothes at a reasonable price that are good quality and therefore long-lasting. In our collective journey toward ever more sustainable products, it always has to fit into that picture."
"Sustainable clothing is still too much a niche rather than a mass concept. The sustainable alternative should be the new standard"
We do see in a number of studies that millennials, for example, attach more importance to sustainability and indicate that they are willing to pay more for sustainable clothing. Doesn't that present opportunities to better valorize sustainability in order to create mass?
"I do believe that there are certain groups of consumers who are looking more consciously at the sustainability of their clothing purchases. At the same time, I do wonder if this is always reflected in purchasing behavior. We also see trends, for example in online purchases, that are less indicative of sustainable consumer buying behavior. Ultimately it is the responsibility of C&A, and also of the rest of the industry, to make the purchase of sustainable clothing easy for everyone. This is also how we want to structure our proposition."
Are we seeing less sustainable consumer behavior mainly in online clothing buying and returns?
"Yes, I think as an industry we need to do a much better job of explaining to customers how they can make an informed choice online. From certain webshops, about fifty percent of all clothes purchased are returned. I find that ridiculous. That has a huge, unnecessary impact on our environment. The data we have on purchasing behavior, we need to analyze it much better and use it to help customers make a conscious choice."
"We need to do a much better job of analyzing and leveraging the data we have on purchasing behavior, to help customers make an informed choice."
Many new digital business models are also emerging in the apparel industry. For example, platforms for second-hand clothing, shared fashion or rentals. Is that also on your radar?
"Yes, those are interesting developments. I firmly believe that we should be able to make all our choices from a business perspective as well. So if there is a market for a more sustainable form of sales, we are happy to participate in that. For example, we have been doing a pilot on circular clothing since 2018. In it, consumers have already returned more than three million kilos of worn clothes to our stores.
In France and Germany, we are now running pilots selling second-hand clothing. In this way, we have created a platform to bring suppliers and sellers together. It is still too early to make a business model out of this, but I believe that pilots like this are needed to discover future revenue models."
The clothing industry also benefits from consumers' urge to want to wear something new all the time. Doesn't that feel like something of a paradox: providing people with new clothing while wanting to be sustainable?
"The basis of our own proposition is that we sell everyday, long-wearing and affordable clothing. If you see on the street what most people wear, that's the segment we want to serve. I would never want to make clothes that only last about two weeks, because after that they are not good enough in quality or go out of fashion.
For me, it's about creating a good design and never compromising on quality. And I don't think it's wrong for people to want to buy new clothes. I myself like to wear something different every now and then. That also contributes to our well-being.
So selling clothes doesn't necessarily feel like a paradox to me. However, I do think we and the whole industry will take a huge step if clothing becomes 100 percent circular."
Is it realistic for us to wear circular clothing any time soon?
"The foundation, the first step of such a turnaround, is in how a garment is made. That determines whether you can reuse it as a raw material in the production of other garments. The second step is a collective collection system. Think about how we return plastic bottles. Behind that first step, we are now trying to gain more momentum with our Factory for Innovation in Textiles (FIT) in Germany, where we can recycle denim clothing through an automated process in the future. Then it becomes important to standardize this kind of initiative with the whole industry. I don't believe so much in heavily regulating the industry, but I do think guidelines from the government or the European Union are necessary. Then we all work together on sustainability in the same and right way."
Translated into a vision of the future: is that what the apparel sector will look like in ten years?
“Normally I prefer to look pragmatically: in what way can you move forward step by step? But this issue, I think, requires a bold vision. Ideally, I would like to change how we look at and deal with clothing. Circularity is the biggest turning point in that.
And maybe sometimes we should reverse the step-by-step approach. Why couldn't everything, across the apparel industry, be fully sustainable in 10 years? Why should consumers still bother to check if one T-shirt is sustainable and another less so? Customers should be able to feel good with every purchase they make, without any greenwashing. If we can collectively set that ambition, then we can really start a turnaround."