Fashion Forward: What Sustainability Lessons Can IT Take From The Clothing Industry?

Finally, it’s on trend for businesses to take their climate impact seriously.

Clothing brands are looking in the mirror and committing to ambitious sustainability goals, while supermarkets take stock and pledge to ‘halt the loss of nature’ by 2030.

In the IT realm, there’s a welcome migration toward energy efficient data centres as more organisations address their digital habits. But, while it’s encouraging to see companies embrace this change, some areas of industry remain overlooked.

Businesses consume new hardware like it’s going out of fashion. Quite frankly, it is.

The changing IT landscape during the pandemic brought supply chain snags into sharp relief, and industry insiders warn product shortages could carry over into 2023. Aside from procurement frustrations, there are real human and environmental consequences to hardware production.

Exciting solutions exist but, in the midst of a climate emergency, they’re not hitting the mainstream with nearly enough speed or impact. To make this happen, what tips can IT take from industries that are already driving change?

BE BOLD

Patagonia have their green strategy sewn up. Long-time champions of brand accountability, the clothing retailer was a pioneer in confronting the industry’s consumerism issues head on, in a bold campaign with rock-solid messaging.
image: patagonia.com
With absolute self-confidence in its core values, Patagonia’s call to action builds user trust and loyalty; clear, uncompromising statements on circularity remind buyers that their products are built to last. Brands such as Rab, Finisterre, and Alpkit have followed suit, with some offering repairs on clothing that isn’t even their brand.

IT hardware suppliers with robust, circular standards should be emboldened by this direct approach to breaking our addiction to ‘shiny and new’. Buyers need to know why a product should live a full life, and the value they’re getting from being a part of that.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Powerful storytelling is vital for showing the human cost of all mass production. The global food industry’s role in the sustainability crisis comes under the spotlight as many more of us grasp that the food consume has a complex origin story. We know that industrial farming has a direct environmental impact and that our chosen lifestyles have consequences.

We’re learning, for example, that although Peru has the perfect climatic conditions for growing asparagus all year round, exploiting this comes at a local, human cost. We don’t want to support a monocrop system that takes water from communities, diverts from domestic food production, and is flown to Europe with a rocketing carbon footprint
Supermarkets play a pivotal role in climate change. Once we start to understand the systemic issues surrounding growing and importing certain foods, the neutral feelings we have around putting it in our shopping baskets change. When we think harder about what we buy, we begin to question supply chains. The food industry is subsequently accountable to bottom-up pressure as well as top-down legislation.

It’s only a matter of time before IT experiences similar tensions as the grim reality of new hardware manufacturing is more visible. Conditions are ripe for the IT sector to write a new story – this time with an optimistic plot based on the principles of the circular economy.

Like good stories, the best products stand the test of time. Presented with a compelling, reliable narrative, businesses can change their buying habits with confidence.

NO CLOUDING THE ISSUE

It’s great that more organisations are committing to reducing their digital footprint. This direct action responds to our growing understanding that everything we do online comes at a material cost. We now see the Cloud less as a far off, ethereal concept and more as the electricity gobbling, relentlessly expanding physical space it is.

It’s vital that society has the same reality check around IT hardware, and that suppliers are ready to respond to the changing behaviours that will come with that. The dual bottom-up, top-down pressure we see effecting change in food and clothing is not yet being reflected in the hardware industry, but the recent patterning suggests it soon will.
Hardware production relies on expensive mining of earth minerals. There is now more gold in eWaste than in all known mineable deposits around the world. Products have an unnecessarily short life cycle, and the infrastructure for safe disposal and recycling is poor. There are hugely negative human outcomes, with eWaste handling often employing toxic practices like burning plastic.

The global scale of the problem has motivated governments to work bilaterally on circularity schemes like the International E-Waste Management Network (IEMN). But it’s not enough; repairing what we have has to become the new normal, and fast.

The hyper-pace at which new products are made strips natural resources and leads to inherently exploitative production cycles. The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster laid bare the horrors of fast fashion supply chains and was an overdue wakeup call for serious industry transformation. The IT hardware industry must act before catastrophe drives culture change.

FULL CIRCLE

There is fast-growing acceptance that our current level of economic activity is unsustainable, and we need to rethink the way we design, make, and use everything.

Old-school supply and demand behaviours can change. We know that by adopting the principles of a circular economy we can address vulnerable supply chains, bring down costs, and reduce the factory output of carbon. The challenge is in communicating the simple truth that extending the lifecycle of a product through remanufacturing does more than mitigate IT’s footprint on the planet; it makes good business sense too.

Those looking to clean up their environmental impact and change their procurement practices want solutions that suit their stretched time and budget margins. IT is central to the day-to-day operations of industry and the public sector. Companies want to save the planet, but they’re also looking for problem solving that speaks to their own needs.

With intentional leadership, crystal clear communications, and practical support, businesses can reduce spending, stay ahead of regulation, and reduce their environmental impact. It’s time to think Circularity First.
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