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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

Apparel Industry Predictions for 2021

Updated: May 27, 2021

As this tumultuous year draws to a close, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on the lessons we’ve learned so far and contemplate what the coming year might have in store for us. While it’s clear that the future is impossible to predict – and that we need to expect the unexpected – it’s fair to say there are some clear trends in the apparel industry that are guiding us to an even more sustainable future.

To help us set the stage for 2021, I wanted to share some insights and reflections from SAC members, ecosystem partners, and industry experts on the trends that we expect will shape the next 12 months. After you’ve had a chance to review, I welcome your input on the trends and issues you think will shape the coming year and how, as an industry, we can address them together.

For me, the trend I believe has long-term implications is industry partnerships and collaboration that deliver sustained action and demonstrated progress. We’ve been saying for a long time that real progress is only possible when we come together and unite around common goals, and now, we need to deliver on that. As an industry, we have to stop duplicating efforts and creating new initiatives. Instead, we need to double down on existing work and align on the gaps that must be filled to drive real, systemic change. We also need to get out of our own way to see the synergies that allow us to go further and faster together. Internally, we’ve continued this work, recently forming an alliance of partnerships that will accelerate impact and drive greater efficiencies for our members and the industry.

This past year, we saw what’s possible, during the worst of times, when companies, communities, governments, and individuals unite around a common cause. It’s highlighted that we are in this together and that partnership is the new leadership. I can only hope this trend will continue to unite the world in the fight for climate action and social justice in 2021 and beyond.

BUILDING BACK BETTER Lewis Perkins President, Aii

It’s impossible to talk about 2021 without acknowledging all we’ve gone through in 2020. As the world braces for a vaccine, we’re also bracing for another year of business not-as-usual. Going back to “normal” won’t happen for some time (if ever, in some cases), and we’re being given a rare opportunity to think boldly and differently about the world we want to create once this chapter of our history is behind us.

I’ve heard the concept “build back better” used in a variety of circumstances, but nowhere is it more needed than in the apparel industry. To me, our greatest opportunities to build back better, as it relates to Aii’s work, is going deep with preferred suppliers and wide with collaboration and consolidation efforts.

When brands double down on doing business with the higher volume producers, our ability to track and measure sustainability performance increases, and the entire industry benefits from better business practices. Similarly, when industry organizations that are supporting connected (or sometimes duplicative) initiatives come together and form alliances to meet shared goals, the industry benefits from more streamlined work. 2020 saw public announcements from industry players to more closely align efforts. In 2021, we will see those commitments become operationalized to benefit the entire value chain.

Climate change is the biggest issue facing humanity and has been compounded by the pandemic with irreversible damage being done to our planet. The pandemic, however, also gave us a unique opportunity to see just how quickly the earth can heal itself when given a moment to “breathe”. It was inspiring and motivating to watch the air get cleaner and the skies bluer. Our hope is that as the world exits this pandemic, we seize the opportunity to collaborate more and build back better.

We have seen a trend of renewed urgency and passion around key social and environmental issues with an increased focus on the intersection of the climate crisis, environmental justice, social equity, racial equality, and health. We think the solutions lie in the circular economy, waste diversion, nature, and regenerative agriculture. We think we will see the trend of bold environmental ambition and collaboration continue at a rate we’ve not previously seen. We believe organizations will be more focused, aggressive, and ambitious in achieving their sustainability goals. While some companies have had to make difficult financial decisions, many companies have made even bolder commitments and announcements of increased climate action.

We feel that the momentum building on climate action will really take center stage in 2021. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic gave many a chance to pause and reflect about the world around us and the impacts we have created due to prolonged unchecked human behaviour. Since 2020 has seen a diminished consumption and production across the industry, more companies are likely to set 2019 as the base year for their Science Based Targets. With increased focus on climate action, businesses are likely to prioritize renewable energy purchases, actively reduce supply chain carbon footprint and improve material selection. Tools that the SAC has introduced such as Higg PM, Higg MSI and others in development will enable SAC members to support these steps and take impactful action.

Increased emphasis on climate action will pressure governments and state actors to ramp up their aggression levels on renewable energy commitments, as well as prompt manufacturers to identify and expand opportunities for recycling and low impact material development. Thereby driving an emphasis on circularity by innovating garment and material waste recycling technology. Green Funding is also expected to be far more accessible for organizations which will accelerate progress in the near term.

As the effects of the pandemic subside, 2021 will be a long and painfully slow economic recovery period. Wealthier developed countries in general will recover sooner but with shifted preferences – more mindful purchases of fewer, less formal apparel products made for comfort with specific use – casual wear for work and play. Unfortunately, developing countries will fall further behind socio-economically, yet both will experience internal increases in income and wealth disparity. Urgency will shift away from environmental issues, and rightfully so, to address emergent fundamental human health needs – job creation, food security, health care, and stable living conditions. La Nina, now settling in for the next six months, will provide a brief respite from record setting rising global temperatures and may also usher in a false sense of security that the climate crisis has abated.

Despite the deep challenges 2020 has bestowed upon us, I am optimistic a new resolve to work together will emerge, one hardened by the collective experience of bearing witness to the human suffering and sacrifices brought on directly and indirectly by the global pandemic. Awareness that we are all in this together and likewise that we all need to take collective action to solve the world’s most challenging problems will be excruciatingly obvious. Making progress will not be easy. It will require focused and sustained commitment to think deeply and openly about the problems to solve. The cultural shift to a more empathetic global society will serve us well.

COVID-19 has transformed almost every element of the way we live and work, casting a shadow of uncertainty over everything we do. Among the major shifts we’ve seen in 2020 is increased consumer demand for transparency as a key part of product sustainability. Consumers will no longer tolerate unverifiable scientific claims over brand’s processes and materials as society shifts its focus toward the welfare of the environment.

Yet this shift in attitude should be viewed as an opportunity, not a challenge. Brands must build trust to ensure that sustainability claims are based on reliable data from all actors along the value chain. Greater visibility over the entire supply chain is fundamental to yield a deeper understanding of who the suppliers are and exactly how they’re making your product. This increased clarity will provide traceability and valuable data into your product’s environmental impact through life cycle assessments. We believe greater transparency at every step in the supply chain, complemented by a combination of field expertise, innovative lab testing and technology-enriched digital platforms, is crucial to support both brands and their suppliers.

From governments to NGOs and consumers to civil society organizations, stakeholders are tired of vagueness and lack of meaning in sustainability claims. This frustration, combined with a heightened sense of urgency within the apparel and footwear sector to make environmental and social change, is finally going to push transparency efforts from concept to reality. Industry transparency needs to represent a lot more than factory lists and certifications. Change demands actual performance data that indicates how well a brand, a supplier, a product, or a material performs compared to others.

In 2021, we’ll see the first technologically-enabled, data-backed solutions that demonstrate the sustainability impact of products begin to come to market. And this will only be a starting point. We know performance data will change significantly over the coming years as brands and retailers understand what types of information are critical for various stakeholders, including consumers when purchasing a product. I believe this is going to be the first step on a long path towards transparency and science-based sustainability insights, changing not only product design and consumer perception of products, but shopping behavior as a whole. It won’t happen overnight: it will take many years for this information to become digestible and relevant for consumers in a way that actually impacts how they think about and purchase their products. But 2021 will be the year when businesses begin to make radical transformations to serve a new generation of customers demanding transparency and accountability – and it will be incumbent on sustainability professionals to point the way to the practical solutions the industry needs.

Given the increased sense of urgency to address climate change, recent head-turning commitments by China, the upcoming new US Administration, and ambitious EU commitments on the books, what I see on the horizon is expanded government rules and regulations that will dictate what needs to happen in this industry (and others manufacturing around the world) and by when. Signs abound for this change in government oversight particularly on the labor front, where the US Congress and courts are scrutinizing the adequacy of CSR programs on cotton, cocoa, and more – as well as EU Mandatory Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence legislative recommendations and the recent referendum that would have held Swiss corporations to Swiss standards of behavior for sourcing abroad. Twenty-first century monitoring and oversight tools allow governments to contemplate new approaches that overcome historical difficulties in governing global manufacturing.

At this point in the industry’s corporate sustainability maturity curve, many long for a level playing field where all companies in the industry would have to pay a little more for environmentally superior goods; however, the reality is that the competitive disadvantage of a higher priced tee-shirt with environmental benefits in this market is hard to overcome for even the most motivated company. So many wish upon a star for a single source of credible, authoritative and professional-level data on materials and chemicals upon which to make positive change. Nearly all are frustrated with the practical difficulties of tracking and tracing their suppliers, particularly given the lack of tangible “return” on the extensive investment in time and effort that this entails with collaborative tools or alone. All of these complexities (and many more) are typical conundrums in government rulemakings, and regulators around the world are trained and paid to undertake this type of work. Experienced analysts can apply their many decades of experience to curate best approaches and policy levers that will achieve progress so urgently needed. Government rules and more granular background and guidance documents would really help us by both filling the critical information gaps we face and by supplementing what has proven to be the weak leverage of voluntary corporate sustainability commitments with mandatory requirements for industry-wide action by date certain.

REGENERATIVE PRACTICES Claire Bergkamp COO, TextileExchange

2020 taught us that we can react quickly, but it also taught us that our collective instinct is to hold on to our ‘normal’ way of doing things. We got a brief glimpse into how nature can restore itself when we back off but that we also saw that this is not going to happen within our current system. Looking to 2021 I feel that we are collectively realising that we have exhausted the planet and self-renewal can no longer be counted on. We need to support regeneration, to aid in rewilding – we need to help nature bounce back. This is the trend that I hope to see in 2021.

This is the year to increase the momentum of the incredible work already underway to protect and restore nature. To expand its focus and to scale the methods and systems that will allow us to turn the tide on climate change. If we regenerate damaged land, support the protection and regeneration of forests, and stop the choking and poisoning of our oceans, we have the potential to reduce global carbon emissions by 12 gigatons per year. While textile value chains do not make up the majority of the agricultural systems, I believe that we have an important role to play in this change, both on the ground and through fashion’s ability to tell stories and alter behaviors. I think that this is the year in which brands learn how to engage with the farmers, rangers, loggers, miners, herders and workers that comprise their tier 4. In 2021 we will come together around the table to take collective action on the ground to protect the precious and irreplaceable ecosystems that our value-chain touches up against. We will embrace the power of storytelling and tell powerful stories that galvanize the movement and accelerate the change that we need to see on the ground. At Textile Exchange we are here to help the industry accelerate this change, we are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work and we hope that you are ready to join us.

In 2021 we will be rebuilding the post-COVID fashion value chain. Consumers are increasingly aware and concerned about the sustainability aspects of consumption. The relationship between suppliers and buyers is turning to build on partnership instead of competition. KappAhl sees a trend towards selecting materials with high durability, comfort and quality. Garments not optimized for the purchase event but optimized for the service life. A service life that is prolonged by circular business models. Rent and resale put new product advantages in focus, the lasting value of the product.

The durability trend opens up for that extra care in our actions. Conscious selection of suppliers that can be partners for the future. Partners that are providers not only of products but also competence. Partners offering measurability on sustainability improvements and traceability all the way to the raw material suppliers. A partnership to empower and create commitment in each step of the value chain to improve durability, as it is one part of the road towards sustainability.

Author: Amina Razvi

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