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Sustainable strides: Abercrombie & Fitch Co.’s journey in fashion leadership

Embark on a thought-provoking expedition into sustainability within the fashion industry with our new series on Images Business of Fashion. In this series, we traverse the intricate pathways of visionary brands committed to reshaping the narrative of fashion through sustainable initiatives. As we journey forward, we uncover the strategies and the profound ethos that propels these brands toward a greener, more responsible future.

In each installment, we unravel the layers of innovation, dedication, and conscious decision-making that define the leadership of these brands. From reimagining supply chains to championing eco-friendly materials, these trailblazers exemplify a paradigm shift towards a more sustainable and ethical fashion landscape.

This week, IMAGES Business of Fashion explores Abercrombie & Fitch Co.‘s sustainability initiatives, unveiling their innovative strides in reshaping the fashion industry.

Abercrombie & Fitch is an American retailer focusing on casual wear for Millennials. Founded in 1892 by David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch in 1892, the brand achieved peak popularity between the 1990s and 2010s. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1976, but while the company shut down, the brand survived. In 1978, Oshman’s Sporting Goods, a Houston-based retail chain, bought the defunct firm’s name and mailing list for $1.5 million and relaunched the company as a mail-order retailer.

In 1988, the Oshman’s sold A&F to The Limited, which housed several other brands including Victoria’s Secret. A&F gradually shifted its focus to young adults, was later spun off as a separate, publicly traded company, and eventually grew into one of the largest apparel firms in the United States. By 2012, the company grew to more than 1,000 stores generating a revenue of $4.5 billion.

Soon after, the company saw a decline in revenues as fast fashion, a woke target audience, keeping up with lower-priced competitors and a general decline in spending on clothes led to a sales downtrend. In dire need of a revamp and losing market share, A&F hired Fran Horowitz as CEO in 2017. He worked hard to change public perceptions of the company including:
> Targeting an older target demographic of 18 to 24 years
> Replacing dimly-lit stores with a bright and contemporary look.
> Becoming involved in social and racial justice initiatives to empower marginalized communities and support the mental health of people of colour.

By 2018, when Horowitz began revamping, some 450 stores had been shut down. Horowitz succeeded in turning the company around. The company was then named the biggest retail comeback of the year by Business Insider. In December 2020, A&F announced it was closing its four biggest flagship stores after a 5% decline in sales revenue. However, the company looks well placed to benefit from the rise in e-commerce shopping with digital sales jumping 43% over the same period.

Operations
> A&F operates 725 stores globally.
> Clocked annual sales worth $3.7 billion in 2021, including $1.7 billion in digital sales.
> Employs over 40,000 people worldwide.

A&F – clothes or merchandise – is not available in India through retail channels. However, its US website ships to India. The orders take approximately two weeks to ship.

Sustainability Journey
In 2019, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. announced sustainability goals – aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – through 2025 focused on three key areas: Product, Global home office and Global stores

A&F pledged:
> 30% water reduction in denim production
> 100% responsible down standard down
> 25% better cotton
> 100% responsible wool standard wool
> 50% canopy supported innovative viscose
> 25% recycled polyester 100% recycling of polybags in stores
> 100% recycling of hazardous waste in all stores
> 100% recycling of cardboard, e-waste and denim and fabric scraps

Water Usage Reduction
The A&F Co. sustainability and sourcing teams work together closely to drive the company’s denim suppliers to implement new technologies, equipment, and water-saving methodologies to decrease the water use in A&F denim production.

All their denim washhouses use Jeanologia’s Environmental Impact Monitoring (EIM) software to measure water consumption per denim. Through adopting environmentally friendly washing technologies, the brand has decreased water use by 32% in comparison to the conventional wash method. Data available up to 2021 suggests that A&F has saved 90+ million gallons of water since 2019 by adopting the eco-wash methodology.

A&F is also committed to planting one million trees in their next 5-year sustainability program.

Supplier Emissions & Supply Chain
Supplier emissions remain a large unknown relative to A&F’s Scope 3 emissions, and the company has therefore partnered with an Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corp Fellow in 2019 to identify its product shipment emissions in the supply chain. Efforts continued in 2020 as A&F Co. acknowledged the strategic importance and growing significance of transportation and distribution-generated emissions from third parties. In 2020, the company began implementing measures to capture emissions data for domestic freight and intermodal transportation to add to its inventory.

Purchased goods and services are the greatest contributor to A&F Co.’s GHG footprint, which accounts for 70% of the brand’s total emissions. A&F Co.’s sustainability team is working with its sourcing team to identify reduction opportunities such as increased use of recycled materials and more sustainable viscose.

Since 2012, A&F Co. has utilized Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index to partner with laundries and mills to measure and improve environmental performance. The Higg Facility Environmental Module measures the impact in specific areas for individual factories. Assessments are conducted at least once a year and are then verified by SAC-approved, on-site assessors. The results guide manufacturers around improving and provide current best practices in the field

Materials Traceability
A&F has implemented several initiatives throughout its supply chain to confirm materials are sourced in a responsible, transparent manner, and works closely with its supply chain partners to trace the origin of the materials through the tiers, back to the forest or farm. In addition, A&F is striving to source more sustainable fibers in key commodities, including cotton, polyester, down, wool and viscose.

The company works directly with its vendors to identify cellulosic fiber suppliers and safeguard against sourcing materials from ancient or endangered forests. The company has also committed to responsibly sourcing both wool and down for its clothes.

Committing to Renewable Energy 
> A&F has committed to sourcing all electricity used at its global headquarters and distribution centres from renewable generation beginning in 2023.
> The retailer has signed a 13-year, 100 percent renewable energy supply agreement for its corporate headquarters and two New Albany distribution centres with fellow Ohio-based company AEP Energy, a subsidiary of American Electric Power.
> The agreement for approximately 30,000 megawatt-hours annually will eliminate about 16,000 metric tons of carbon from reaching the atmosphere each year.

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