“Sustainability” has become a rather hot topic not only in the fashion industry, but in most economic sectors. However, it is in the fashion industry where a revolution is set to take off.
When talking of sustainability, the United Nations “2030 Agenda for sustainable development” comes to mind and its 17 ambitious goals (e.g. ending poverty and hunger in the world, safeguarding the planet, promoting peace and ensuring that all people have prosperous and satisfying conditions of life, etc.). Although none of these goals directly refer to the fashion industry, each of them serves to clarify the notion of “sustainability” in its various facets and implications.
When talking of sustainability in the fashion industry, one necessarily makes reference, at the same time, to various coexisting phenomena. From an environmental standpoint, the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, with its extremely complex and sometimes “mysterious” supply chains. From a social standpoint, the fashion industry is frequently accused of worker exploitation, inequality and social injustice.
To avoid this negative label, most fashion brands are gradually increasing their commitment to sustainability. In this respect, fashion brands are exploring various solutions to greater sustainability, including the implementation of “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) policies and auditing of supply chains. At the same time, studies have shown an increased awareness of ethical issues among fashion consumers. Millennials, in particular, are ever keener to find products that are both good for the planet and to their personal tastes.
Fashion brands are well aware that their corporate, labour and environmental policies deeply affect their brands’ reputation. This awareness could explain the fact that the most prominent fashion brands often have the best reputations for CSR.
Moreover, fashion brands are adopting a more conscious approach to Intellectual Property that is not only viewed as a tool to obtain legal protection but also as a crucial tool in the process towards improved sustainability.
The fashion industry is highly fragmented, with thousands of stakeholders involved and one of the most complex global production networks and supply chains. There isn’t a standard and trackable path for cotton produced in one country, spun in another, dyed and processed in a third and converted into a garment in a factory elsewhere, often far away from the store.
A sustainable supply chain can only work with trusted suppliers that do not harm people or the environment and involves fair trade and best practice techniques. A company with a genuinely sustainable business ethos must make its customers aware of all locations and players in the production and supply chain.
Theoretically speaking, among the IP legal tools available in Europe, a significant role in this context could be attributed to collective and certification trademarks. These are already widespread across the fashion world and used to certify every aspect of the production chain (e.g. respect for quality standards, environment and work conditions). However, IP tools are neither able to ensure complete transparency nor full traceability of supply chains.
A contribution in this regard could perhaps come from technology and in particular from blockchain technology (i.e. that behind “Bitcoin” and other crypto currencies). In a nutshell, blockchain is an open ledger of information that can be used to record and track transactions and is exchanged and verified on a peer-to-peer network.
A great benefit from blockchain technology would be in supply chain management: tracking production from raw materials to the in-store final product. In Europe, some IP professionals are considering complementing traditional trademarks, with a new kind of trademark, so called “trace-mark” or “tracer-mark”. The idea under trace-marks is that, by relying on blockchain technology, they could not only fulfill their traditional distinctive function (distinguishing the entrepreneurial source of products) but could also, at least theoretically, ensure traceability of supply chains, offering accurate and reliable information, from the production of raw materials, and then following all stages of production and marketing.
As I’ve already mentioned, fashion brands have started to consider the issue of sustainability as a competitive advantage. Therefore, sustainability should not be seen as an obligation but rather as an opportunity to increase business value and consumer trust. Orange Fiber, a young Italian company, now known internationally is a good example of this (http://orangefiber.it/en/fabrics/ )
Founded in 2014 by Adriana Santanocito and Enrica Arena, Orange Fiber creates sustainable textiles for the fashion industry from citrus juice byproducts. Originally from Sicily, the land of the “red orange”, Adriana Santanocito came up with the idea of using what remains after squeezing oranges for juice, which amounts to more than 700,000 tons of byproduct in Italy alone.
While working on her dissertation in fashion design, Santanocito developed the project with Enrica Arena (an International Communications and Cooperation student) with the support of the Polytechnic University of Milan. The two students filed an Italian patent, which was extended through the international protocol in Brazil, the U.S., India, Mexico and the European Union.
The patented textile is made from citrus waste and can be used for different blends. The first prototypes, a lace-like fabric blended with silk and another blend more similar to satin, were presented in Milan, at the 2014 Vogue Fashion’s Night Out. The first part of the production process takes place in Sicily, where citrus cellulose is extracted. The raw material is then sent to a Spanish spinner partner, after which it finally comes back to Como, Italy, where it is transformed into an exclusive textile.
This new fiber immediately showed its potential, being quickly noticed by top brands, such as Salvatore Ferragamo. In 2017, Ferragamo launched a capsule collection made with “Orange Fiber” and timed it to coincide with the 47th edition of Earth Day on April 22, 2017.
Orange Fiber is a real business example of an IP tool - a patent in this case – successfully applied to achieving greater sustainability in the fashion industry.
The success of Orange Fiber means sustainability in fashion is no longer just an abstract idea, marketing issue or trend and so we should continue to support industrial and social innovation, and smart IP solutions can be a part of this exciting journey.
Sócio no escritório De Simone & Partners (Itália)