Impacts of Sustainability in Apparel Retail Supply Chain

Last Updated on 09/12/2020

Sustainability is a complex term and there is no universally agreed definition of sustainability. In fact, there are many different viewpoints on this concept and on how it can be achieved. Sustainability is the characteristic of an object that can be sustained for a certain time or refers to something capable of being continued at a certain level. Moreover, sustainability can perhaps be seen as the process(es) by which something is kept at a certain level. Hence Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. Besides, sustainability has great impacts on apparel retail supply chain. According to the UN World Commission on Environment and Development:

“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UNWCED, 1987)

tripple bottom line of sustainable
Fig: Tripple bottom line of sustainability

Modern use of the term sustainability is broad and difficult to define precisely thoughoriginally, sustainability meant making only such use of natural, renewable resources that people can continue to rely on their yields in the long term. Sustainability is made up of three pillars: the economy, society, and the environment. These principles are also informally used as profit, people and planet which is widely known as the “Triple Bottom Line” or the 3Ps. The triple bottom line approach suggests that companies should consider social and environmental performance, not only financial performance, in their business operations.

3Ps of sustainability
Fig: 3Ps of sustainability

Apparel Retail Supply Chain:

The conventional apparel retail supply chain usually refers to textile processing chain from spinning to garment making-finishing. The purchase order, PO is issued to the merchandiser, who then orders his/her fabric supplier for the required fabrics. The fabric unit subsequently places the yarn order to the spinning unit and simultaneously book for dyeing so that dyeing unit can plan their capacity accordingly. The spinning unit places orders to the raw material suppliers/traders/producers for fibres. So suppliers in this conventional linear supply chain can only know who is before and after them. They even cannot know much about the final customer and vice versa. Fashion retailers cannot collect data such as the origin of the raw materials used in their products, the processes used to dye the fabric, and who made their garments.

For example, a retailer can’t know about the fibre/filament details from the apparel retail supply chain. She/he may get information up to the spinning unit or yarn production.

Entire apparel supply chain
Fig: Entire apparel supply chain

To ensure sustainability, an apparel retail supply chain must be transparent and traceable so that retailers can extract data about the origins of the raw materials and complete a detailed analysis of the production processes used during manufacturing. For instance, sustainable retailers should have the following information for a cotton garment:

  • Identify the origin of the cotton used, and record the environmental and social impacts associatedwith the cotton production.
  • Identify and determine the environmental and social impacts associated for every aspect ofthe manufacturing supply chain, including impacts associated with the components such asfabrics, sewing threads, labels, buttons, interlining, packaging, and any chemicals used in theproduction of the shirt.
  • Identify and determine all the impacts of the logistics and retail operations involved.
Garment Life Cycle Assesment (GLCA)
Fig: Garment Life Cycle Assesment (GLCA)

Measuring Sustainability:

How the industry should view sustainability depends on the stakeholders like owners, shareholders, media, staff, consumers and so on. Certain economic, environmental and social measures are evaluated to calculate sustainability.

Economic Measures

  • Personal income
  • Cost of underemployment
  • Establishment churn
  • Establishment sizes
  • Job growth
  • Employment distribution by sector
  • Percentage of firms in each sector
  • Revenue by sector contributing to gross state product

Environmental Measures

  • Sulfur dioxide concentration
  • Concentration of nitrogen oxides
  • Selected priority pollutants
  • Excessive nutrients
  • Electricity consumption
  • Fossil fuel consumption
  • Solid waste management
  • Hazardous waste management
  • Change in land use/land cover

Social Measures

  • Unemployment rate
  • Female labor force participation rate
  • Median household income
  • Relative poverty
  • Percentage of population with a post-secondary degree or certificate
  • Average commute time
  • Violent crimes per capita
  • Health-adjusted life expectancy

Sustainability Impacts on Apparel Retail Supply Chain

Sustainability is influenced by especially four major areas: raw material impacts; processing impacts; usage impacts; and end-of-life impacts.

Raw Materials Impacts

Cotton accounts for nearly 40% of world textiles demand and accounts for 16% of pesticide usage. To produce one kilogram of cotton lint takes an average of 5.44 g of pesticide and an average of 13.5 cubic metres of water. Pesticide use can contribute to biodiversity loss, soil erosion and chemical waste, while half of the water used in growing cotton is from irrigation (the other half being from rainfall) which can have a negative impact. In contrast, polyester fibre requires less water and land to produce but has much higher impacts on CO2 emissions, living and non-living (abiotic) natural resource depletion and non-renewable energy use. This is because polyester production is petrochemical-based, which not only uses petroleum products as a feedstock but also in generating energy for the manufacturing process.

Processing Impacts

There are many sustainability concerns in the processing stages from fibre to fabric and garment production. To dye a kilogram of fibre, it takes approximately 80 to 100 litres of water. Also, there are various chemicals discharged with water from the dye house that, if untreated, can endanger water-based biodiversity and enter the human food chain. Also, two commonly used toxic chemicals in the dyeing process that may cause skin cancer and allergies are formaldehyde and aromatic amines from azo dyes. Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NEPs) break down in water treatment process to toxic nonylphenol (NPs), which acts as a hormone disruptor; it accumulates in the tissues of fish and tends to magnify through the food chain. Moreover, the excessive use of non-renewable energy and unethical labour sourcing are very worrying. “Fast fashion” culture is reducing the garment order processing lead time and it has been reduced to about 2 weeks from almost 120 days. These fast track orders use airfreight that causes higher carbon emissions and pollutes the environment.

Energy consumption and CO2 emission throughout the entire apparel lifecycle

Energy consumption and CO2 emission throughout the entire apparel supply chain
Fig: Energy consumption and CO2 emission throughout the entire apparel supply chain

Usage Impacts

Currently, sustainability also depends on the use of clothing in addition to material production or garment making. Recent research revealed that the clothing usage phase can contribute more than 80% of the energy used in its life cycle. Changing the washing temperature from 30 to 40 can increase energy consumption by 30%, while one load of tumble drying can produce up to 2kg of CO2. Even though the usage phase has the highest environmental impact level, it does not mean that replacing washing with new clothes is preferable. The below graph indicates the climate impact for one use of a Jeans (477 gm, 98% cotton/2% elastane; 299 gm blue cotton warp (578 dtex), 144 gm white cotton/elastane mix weft (470 dtex)).

Climate impact for one use of a Jean
Fig: Climate impact for one use of a Jeans

End-of-life Impacts

At end-of-life, a remarkable amount of clothing discarded yearly end up in landfill of which some are made from non-biodegradable synthetic fibre, while natural fibres such as wool create the greenhouse gas methane when they decompose. Also, in high fashion and cost-competitive markets, lowering the cost by the poor quality of material or clothing construction technique can reduce garment durability and potential to be reused. If a garment is bought inexpensively, it is more likely to be discarded as waste rather than be reused or recycled.


Ensuring sustainable apparel production is the demand of time.  In this age of technology, people are much more aware. There was a time when the buyer was satisfied with his product quantity merely. Gradually they began to emphasize on product quality. In this continuum of change, buyers are now looking at the issues of product quality as well as compliance and sustainability with great importance. Even buyers are likely to pay more price than the normal price for sustainable products.


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Author of this Article:
Engr. Dilruba Yeasmin
B.Sc. in Textile Engineering (BUTEX)
Regular writer at the textile learning-based blog site, Texpedia

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