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Can Big Retailers Be Sustainable?

Every year, fast fashion is being responsible for 10% of the Earth's carbon emissions, which is as much as the total emissions of the European Union, for drying up and polluting rivers, while 85% of all textiles is discarded by retailers and consumers, according to Businness Insider. "Fast fashion refers to cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through [retail] stores in order to maximise on current trends" -

With this definition in mind, let's explore if and how big retailers can be sustainable.

We've all seen big retailers trying to make an effort in today's climate to be more sustainable. They use paper bags and make a few garments out of recycled materials.

Although paper bags can be a good initiative, especially if they're made out of recycled paper, is that enough in the world we live in? With the rapid acceleration of climate change, can retailers do more? Is their "sustainable" approach enough to really have an impact?

Sustainability in retail entails that companies should be socially and environmentally responsible. They should reduce waste, use renewable energies and reduce their energy consumption. They should also source and sell products made with materials that do not harm the environment and transport their goods in a way that would not impact the planet too much, according to content writer Alexis Damen.

Having worked in various retail companies (big and small) at different levels, I can say that some who pledge to change things are only doing it as a marketing stunt. Most of us want to find more sustainable alternatives to how we consume things and retailers are aware of it. I heard in the past "Let's use paper bags, it will look more eco-friendly and people like that. The competition does it and we want those customers, we want their money". So currently, if we look at the definition established above, it is safe to say that most retailers are not operating in a sustainable manner but pretend to do so.

To actually be sustainable, things need to change from the start of the process. Mentalities both from the retailers and the consumers need to change. Selling for selling, buying for the sake of buying needs to change.

Needs are being created by changing in-store collections constantly (fast fashion). Do you really need 10'000 different jumpers in our wardrobe? If yes, then you must live somewhere very cold. Not buying those extra 9'990 jumpers is also a big save for the wallet (trust me, I've been there) and this money can be invested in experiences, like going to the restaurant, a concert, travel, etc.

When I was young (not that long ago, I assure you) we could still order from catalogues and the order would arrive three weeks later. It took time to produce because some brands were manufacturing on demand. No waste, no rush. That could be a first solution. Consumers would need to be willing to wait a bit longer for their orders to arrive but that would prevent over-production, as items would be made on-demand, thus greatly reducing waste. Of course, no one wants to wait three months to receive what they purchased, so a more local factory would reduce waiting times and transport, thus lowering pollution and costs (shipping all the way from China is expensive and increases the price of goods). That would also diminish the exploitation of cheap work force in other countries.

The most difficult part at the moment would be to make and source sustainable materials. Every material produced consumes energy and clothes dyes pollute the water too much. We are already very close to lacking in fresh water due to global warming (when the planet heats up, the water evaporates, I’ll pass the details) that continuing to pollute what’s left isn’t such a good idea. So how about using renewable energies (solar, wind, etc) to produce fabrics and use more natural options? Organic Cotton uses much less water than traditional cotton and has no bad chemicals added, we could also use recycled cotton more. Organic Hemp is another solution as it requires very little water when produced. Same goes for Organic Linen, that comes from the Flax plant, Tencel Lyocell, which is a fabric made out of wood pulp. All of those are amongst fabrics that do not contain harmful chemicals, do not require deforestation (unlike soya), do not destroy the planet during production and will not pollute at the end of their lifecycle as they are chemical free. Retail stores could be powered on renewable energies too, use recycled furnitures, there are so many cost efficient options to choose from. One more thing all of us can do to be more sustainable is to give the clothes we don’t need anymore to charities, resell them or recycle them if they are damaged.

All retailers have a responsibility towards us, towards the planet, to change their processes to make things better. And we can help by taking a few steps too, we're all in this together. We can still be fashionable and have a cool style whilst being careful about how we consume things. Style is wearing what you love, in the right size and being yourself.

Can big retailers be sustainable? I believe so. But are they willing to?...

Do you think those solutions are achievable?

Do you think change is possible?

Here are a few brands on the right track towards sustainability:

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