When making purchase decisions for myself and my household, I often look for products that will be both better for us, and better for the planet. And I’m not alone, as increasingly consumers say they are more likely to purchase an item if it is clearly labeled as “environmentally friendly.”
Fashion apparel companies see this same trend and are thinking deeply about opportunities to increase circularity and resale, reduce waste and items that end up in landfills; as well as the overall impact of clothing, footwear, and accessories manufacturing on the planet—from carbon emissions to water usage, and from ethical sourcing to fair labor practices.
The recent New York Fashion Act1 presented in the New York state legislature is spurring apparel retailers to accelerate their actions on these issues, as well as plan for greater consumer transparency through sustainability impact product labeling. And as the European Union may go even further in requiring supply chain sustainability and transparency2, fashion retailers must act now to avoid potential fines and reputation risk.
The takeaway is clear: Being thoughtful and transparent in addressing consumers’ interest in sustainability is both a necessary and sound business practice. The challenge and opportunity, however, is in how fashion manufacturers and retailers can go about reducing environmental impact and increasing transparency.
The challenge of sustainability impact tracking and reporting
As consumer demand and government regulations are rapidly evolving, apparel companies are trying to adapt and accelerate their sustainability initiatives. One of their key challenges is best encapsulated by the old adage, ‘what gets measured, gets managed.’ The apparel industry, among others, employs complex supplier networks whose data has largely not been digitized, so just measuring and benchmarking is a challenge—let alone reducing and optimizing.
If we look at an example from the intricate fiber supply chain, a single garment might contain cotton from India, which is then shipped to Vietnam where workers sew it into a blouse, then put aboard a ship for transit to Los Angeles, and finally delivered by truck to its destination. Every step of the journey presents an opportunity to capture and optimize environmental impact. But gathering data at each of these points remains elusive.
Traditional data collection mechanisms like manual inspections, supplier surveys, or spreadsheets are error-prone and can’t scale. These disparate and often manual data sources hinder a company’s efforts to improve sustainability. The information they need to affirm a garment has taken an environmentally-friendly path is hard to gather, organize, and validate.
Data latency also is a problem—by the time a company collects relevant information, it may already be out of date. Environmental impact information must be gathered as close to the source, in as real-time as possible, and be consistently reported, clearly presented, and easily understood—something well beyond the reach of many apparel suppliers, manufacturers, and resellers.
A better way to collect data
Finding ways to digitize and streamline timely data collection, and implementing tools to synthesize and analyze this data to produce actionable insights can make a significant impact in helping the fashion industry meet sustainability goals. Cloud applications and services can help make this possible.
At Microsoft, we work with companies all over the globe to meet just these types of challenges—helping industries from manufacturing to retail to automotive gather better data on their supply chains and operations, improve manufacturing efficiency, and perform deep analytics on varied and complex data.
But we must also continue innovative thinking on how to digitize supply chains and suppliers to understand their impact. Farmers, for instance, could use sensors embedded in the soil to measure methane output. Ships and trucks could provide automated reporting on their fuel consumption and carbon emission. And manufacturing plants could use IoT devices to track their electricity and water usage, and waste output.
How the Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability can help
Here at Microsoft, we are committed to helping all companies reach their sustainability goals. The Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability can help apparel manufacturers on their path to more sustainable production by automating data collection, analysis, and action—enabling companies to more effectively record, report, and reduce. And beyond sustainability initiatives, Microsoft is also working with retailers to help them maximize the value of their data, elevate shopping experiences, build real-time and sustainable supply chains, and empower store associates—all through the Microsoft Cloud for Retail.
In today’s world, sustainability is everyone’s concern. I know it’s top of mind for me, every day. At Microsoft, we want to help empower the fashion industry to win the loyalty of consumers who see sustainability as an important part of their purchasing decisions. Now is the time for apparel manufacturers and retailers to engage consumers, take action to improve environmental impact, and showcase their commitment to a better planet.
1Senate Bill S7428, New York State Senate website.
2“Companies in the E.U. could be held liable for violations along their supply chain,” The New York Times. February 22, 2022.