Sustainable Innovation in Fashion Products: An Opportunity for Italian SMEs

Sustainable Innovation in Fashion Products: An Opportunity for Italian SMEs

Alessandra De Chiara (University of Naples “L'Orientale”, Italy) and Floriana Iannone (University of Naples “L'Orientale”, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1419-1.ch007
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The chapter deepens the theme of sustainability in fashion products, exploring the importance of sustainable innovation as a competitive driver. The fashion industry is not exempt from issues related to sustainability, in its economic, environmental, and social sense, since it is one of the most polluting industries in the world, in addition to being often shaken by scandals related to the poor working conditions for many fashion factory workers around the world. Given the relevance of the issue of sustainability in the fashion supply chains, the chapter will provide food for thought on the question of managerial behaviors based on sustainability and deepen the knowledge on the need of a collaborative approach among firms and within the supply chains of the fashion system.
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The fashion industry is not exempt from the issues related to sustainability. Within its economic, environmental, and social meaning, it is one of the most polluting industries in the world. In fact, 20% of the global waste of water is attributed to the industry’s production, and 10% of carbon dioxide emissions, a strong incidence in the production of greenhouse gases that is expected, in the next 12 years, to increase by 60%, contributing massively to global warming (United Nations, 2018). The release of highly harmful substances in so many rivers is alarming (Greenpeace, 2011), as well as the data on unbridled consumerism against very low percentages of recycling; 85% of the clothes produced end up in landfills and only 1% are recycled. The fashion industry has important repercussions on social well-being, too, considering its massive outsourcing practices to countries that pay less attention to workers' rights, and also without underestimating its implications on ethical issues related to animal abuse.

The Italian fashion industry is a fundamentally important sector for the economy of the country. Its competitiveness is based on a mix of tradition, style, and innovation, which has also led Italy to register positive trends in the last year (+ 2.5% growth in turnover in 2017, + 4.3% exports), with an estimated positive trend for 2018, which confirms fashion as the second largest industry in the country (Confindustria Moda, 2017). However, many opportunities are still available, especially by smaller companies and, in this perspective, sustainability can be a key factor to strengthen the competitiveness of the sector. Although the theme of sustainability is a very topical issue, and there are many examples that evoke the commitment of large companies and big brands, the theoretical debate does not go deep into the opportunities existing for small and medium-sized fashion companies. Sustainability could act as a distinctive feature, further defending these Italian companies’ offers against competition from firms of developing countries that often embrace a model of low quality/price.

The present work intends to contribute to debate to identify the characteristics of a sustainable innovation strategy as a driver of SMEs’ competitiveness, and to answer the question: what are the resources needed to implement this strategy?

Above all, this paper presents some elements of originality that can be traced in an effort to deepen the theme of sustainability in the fashion system with reference to SMEs. The discussion about which resources are required to face the challenge of sustainability and which ones are most relevant to pursue this type of strategy is an element of absolute importance, too; this is the aspect to stress in order to stimulate a concrete commitment of fashion companies towards sustainability and to implement policies to support them.

The work is structured as follows: the first part deals with the issue of the sustainable innovation strategy and the resources needed to develop this strategy, with particular reference to textile apparel companies; in the second part the work reports the results of the empirical survey carried out on a sample of opinion leaders (institutional representatives of the sector in Italy), the managerial implications and conclusions, as well as the limits of the research and the future trajectories of research.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Sustainability Strategy: A competitive strategy based on the creation of the business offer through its ethical connotations, namely adding an “ecological value” or “social value” to the product/service it intends to provide.

Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs): Defined in the EU recommendation 2003/361. The main factors determining whether an enterprise is an SME are: 1. staff headcount; 2. either turnover or balance sheet total.

Sustainability: Originated with the Brundtland Report in 1987, this concept describes sustainable development as one that satisfies the needs of the present without adversely affecting the conditions for future generations.

Stakeholder Engagement: Stakeholder engagement is the process by which an organization involves people who may be affected by the decisions it makes or can influence the implementation of its decisions. The stakeholders’ engagement has increasingly become the most viable approach for the implementation of sustainability plans.

Fashion Industry: Fashion industry consists of enterprises from textile, clothing and accessories, and tanning sectors.

Corporate Social Responsibility: CSR represents one of the theoretical frameworks aimed at clarifying the role of business in society. “The new concept of social responsibility recognizes the intimacy of the relationship between the corporation and society and realizes that such relationships must be kept in mind by top managers as the corporation and the related groups pursue their respective goals” (Walton 1967, p. 18).

Supply Chain Sustainability: Supply chain sustainability is the management of environmental, social and economic impacts and the encouragement of good governance practices, throughout the lifecycles of goods and services. The objective of supply chain sustainability is to create, protect and grow long-term environmental, social and economic value for all stakeholders involved in bringing products and services to market (UN Global Compact, 2010).

Sustainable Innovation: The application of a new technologies or production methods as well as the development of new products - or the use of new materials and components in the manufacture of products - that aim to design a profitable product or service in an innovative and user-oriented way that benefits the environment and society.

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