River Island’s journey to sustainability

River Island

Fashion brand River Island has over 300 stores worldwide employing over 1000 staff and last year sold over £600 million worth of clothes. The company has been working to a dedicated net zero strategy since 2020 and has introduced a range of sustainable supply chain initiatives. Here, Jose Arguedas Schwank, head of corporate responsibility and sustainability at River Island details the steps the company has taken on its journey to net zero.

“In 2020 we introduced 12 commitments for people and planet, which includes action on climate change as a priority,” Schwank explains. “We understand that it’s important and that we must do it right. In 2022 we re-launched our Kind Society Initiative that aims to bringing the strategy together with collaboration at the core.

“We’ve taken a number of steps in building a Net Zero roadmap, completing our footprint for scopes one, two and three where we have a range of opportunities to achieve reductions aligned with 1.5 degree science based targets. Our goal is to be net zero by 2040 and, in line with the BRC commitment we would like to be net zero in our scopes one and two. We’re taking practical steps to build and improve ESG strategy into everything that we do in the business.”

The fashion industry is responsible for up to eight per cent of annual climate emissions and has some of the world’s most eco-damaging supply chains. At COP26 in 2021 the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action saw 100 leading companies pledged to reduce emissions to keep climate change below 1.5 degrees C and reduce emissions by half across their entire value chain (scopes 1, 2 and 3) by 2030, and to phase out thermal coal from their supply chains within the same time frame.

Reporting supply chain complexity

Supply chain emissions can be on average over 11 times higher than operational emissions but obtaining a complete and accurate product carbon footprint can be challenging due to complexity of global supply chains and the lack of transparency in data.

“It is essential that we understand and have a clear picture of the impact we’re having through our different scopes,” Schwank says. “We use a system called Segura that gives us transparency and visibility in our supply chain to measure the real impact our products are having. It enables us to use the right emission factors and the right data to calculate our footprint. This really helps us to understand what measures we can put in place to help reduce our carbon footprint.  We also measure impact of transport and this helps us maximise use of our suppliers and find alternatives with less emissions. It’s important to consolidate measurements and analysis to gain an overall picture of your footprint and so find ways to reduce it.

“Our first step was to understand the complexities of our supply chain and to start measuring and tracking the product journey. We’ve broken that journey into three key components; one is materials that go into a product, two is the process and the transaction of making and selling those products. And then it’s the consumer and end of product life. Using our data system we analyse materials sourcing from suppliers, find efficiencies and incorporate more sustainable materials to reduce our footprint.”

Embedding sustainability into operations

Scope 3 supply chain complexities are a major challenge for all large companies but embedding sustainability into operations is possible, and necessary, for resource-intensive industries such as fashion.

“River Island is working to incorporate greener chemistry and the use of water so manufacturing becomes less resource intensive,” says Schwank. “We’ve addressed our packaging to maximise space and reduced mileage involved in transporting goods.

“We’re introducing green energy and recycled elements in our operations. So far, we’ve introduced renewable energy in our stores, head office and distribution centre and by 2040 we aim to be net zero in carbon emissions.

“We’ve been producing our own energy from solar panels for some time, with around ten per cent of energy used in our distribution centre, for example, coming from solar energy. We partner with different suppliers to make sure we can transition to a green tariff that allows us enough energy supply to our UK operations.”

Cost savings resulting from use of renewable energy have been hard to measure, Schwank says. “It’s hard to measure directly because we’ve also accompanied this with measures to improve our energy efficiency. We have smart meters in our stores and movement sensors that help us control lighting. Yes, we’ve seen improvements in our efficiency and therefore reduced costs but it will take time to gain a detailed overview.”

The company launched a takeback and repair of clothing scheme and has re-used or recycled 850,000 items of clothing through its partnership with NewLife. “We’re now incorporating a more circular design process,” Schwank says. “Next year we’re introducing our first fully circular line involving single material components that are able to be reprocessed. Like many concerned companies we are embracing regulation and best practice in seeking to reduce our footprint across our entire value chain.

“We’re eliminating all hazardous chemicals from our production, introduced lists of restricted substances to help remove harmful chemicals and train all our suppliers to make sure they can match our standards. In 2022 we began implementing manufacturers restricted substances lists with our top 50 suppliers which covers around 80 per cent of all our products.”

Clothing manufacture consumes a vast amount of water and River Island is now integrating sustainable water stewardship throughout its network. “We’re taking steps to reduce the water impact of our denim and developing guidelines for manufacturers to reduce the water used when they’re made,” Schwank says. “By 2030 we will reduce the water used in our manufacturing processes by 50 per cent and by 2023 all denim will use 22 litres or less of water.

“In addition, we’re committed to eliminating landfill waste from all of our operations and to increase recycling. By 2023 our UK operations will have eliminated single use plastics and send zero waste to landfill.”

River Island is taking positive action to achieve its eco-targets but the road ahead is long, Schwank admits. “Scope three or supply chain eight is the biggest area of our footprint with about 90 per cent of our footprint in UK so we definitely need to address that consistently and effectively.”

Regulation and consumer trends driving change

Many organisations are starting to introduce carbon budgets across individual business units to better measure and manage emissions and River Island are working towards embedding such budgets into its operations. “We’re looking into carbon budgets as part of our reporting as we need to have the financial component to address things like CFD reporting. It will also help people across the company understand how their actions relate directly to environmental impact and our Net Zero roadmap.”

Regulation aimed at stricter oversight and reporting of whole lifecycle environmental impact is being welcomed by industry but there are calls for common standards and a more simplified regime. “When it comes to regulation and reporting I think there is definitely a need for a more common and sector-specific approach, because one-size-fits-all regulation does not address the many differences across industry,” Schwank says.

“We need industry-wide change to be able to achieve the reductions we need to hit net zero targets and we need a unified use approach that will allow us to address the big picture questions collectively as an industry. There are many nuances involved across various sectors but I’m generally in favour of simplicity.”

The River Island sustainability head welcomes the increasing integration of ESG across the entire value chain of industry and hopes that the trend continues. “I’ve been involved in sustainability for over twenty years and I’ve seen the transformation of corporate responsibility around sustainability. It is so much more prominent now, and increasingly sits at the heart of business decisions. I think the majority of big companies now have an ESG professional as part of their board for oversight and governance as sustainability is key to both current and future business planning.

“Customers want eco-friendly products and want to know that they are being produced sustainably. We need to reflect this growing trend and participate in that conversation if we want to remain relevant in an industry that is rapidly evolving.”

There is a growing trend away from ‘fast fashion’ to recycling and re-use of clothing, a trend that River Island aims to reflect in its sustainability journey. “Many different brands are now offering vintage product ranges and there’s a statistic that indicates that by 2026, thirty-five per cent of the revenue in the fashion industry will come from the second-hand market,” Schwank says. “That’s an indication of how people are changing the way they’re buying products and how they are making purchase decisions. Added the cost of living crisis, these are the big drivers that are moving the industry forward into more sustainable future.”

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