Welcome to this column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what clothing retail is doing to address the issues in its industry. It’s exciting times for anyone involved in this area as technology and retailers try to keep up with customers’ demand for all things ethical. From fur farms to fast fashion, excess packaging to plastic coathangers – this is where the real action is.

This month’s column focuses on the role of collaboration in sustainable fashion and is brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box.

There is no better demonstration of the maxim “we’re all in this together” than the way progress is made in sustainable fashion. While brand designs and IT systems are usually jealously guarded to give competitive advantage and to prevent copycatting, fashion companies seem to undergo a step-change when it comes to eco-friendly initiatives.

Huge corporations like Adidas have teamed up with tiny innovative shoe manufacturers – not necessarily to take them over – but to learn with them the newest techniques and best practices, which a corporate behemoth sometimes finds it difficult to access. It is like a case of the elephant and the mouse.

So much innovation happens at tiny grass roots level that it can be very difficult for the larger organisations to even know what the tiny players are doing at the cutting edge. However, as a sector so often held up as the worst face of consumer culture, fashion can be proud of how it collaborates.

Take H&M, often the target of environmentalists’ ire as a fast fashion leader. Since 2015 H&M has invested in a small company called Sellpy via its CO:LAB arm and in 2019 it became a majority owner of the second-hand platform. But it has resisted the urge to change Sellpy’s existing format – which is to collect a bag of unwanted clothes from consumers, sort through them, list the best items and give 40% of the proceeds to the donor.

In earlier times the operation might have altered so that Sellpy would only accept a bag of exclusively H&M clothing but in the world of fashion today H&M would not dream of limiting the eco-friendly message of Sellpy – in fact quite the opposite. After a successful launch into Germany last year Sellpy will be expanding into The Netherlands and Austria later this year. And consumers can still donate any clothing brands they wish.

In a similar way the sponsors of this column Clipper Logistics works alongside GiveBackBox to help re-use some of the endless packaging associated with online deliveries while also supporting donations to charities.

As the solutions to a lot of sustainable issues are technology and algorithm-based there are also growing numbers of examples of niche start-ups filling very specific gaps in the armoury of larger companies.

Levi’s has just launched Levi’s SecondHand – a platform which allows people to buy second hand items from vintage Levi ranges and sell them gaining credits to spend on other Levi products. Even unsaleable items gain the donor a credit of $5.

Such a development requires an infrastructure to handle cleaning, stock processing and fulfilment. This is clearly an add-on service for Levi’s for which they do not wish to be hiring a plethora of new data scientists and cleaning staff so the company has partnered with logistics firm Trove to handle all that side of the venture. It enables Levi’s to enjoy the eco-credit of entering the resale market without the headache of sorting through tonnes of old clothes.

Where there’s muck there’s brass: interior of a Trove warehouse

Non-retailers can also benefit these partnerships. Recently Simon Property Group, which owns multiple shopping malls in the US, decided to simplify returns processing so that its concierge desks can accept customer returns on behalf of some of the clients in its malls. Again this is not Simon Property Group’s core function so it has teamed with Narvar who specialise in returns tech to oversee implementation. So far so good.

Collaborations of this sort can be seen as a win-win for the mall operator. It keeps customers coming back to the mall and once they are there it is very likely they will buy something to eat or drink or make other purchases so it’s great for footfall.

During the pandemic, when clothing retailers in particular have been largely closed, it has been impossible to do in-person returns so training the mall staff to take returns on behalf of the retailers has been a welcome addition and will keep some of the millions items that are returned annually off the road-freight return-trail.

As more organisations tackle the issue of sustainability and reduce their carbon footprints to achieve legislative targets it is absolutely inevitable that we will see ever more examples of clever collaboration and the healthy sharing of ideas in the fashion sector.

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