Fashion is big business. It plays a major role in the global economy, with annual worldwide revenues of well over £1 trillion. The industry supports hundreds of millions of jobs around the world, accounting for over a third of total employment in some of the most important producing countries.
It is also a fast growing industry. Work by industry consortium, Global Fashion Agenda, and Boston Consulting Group predicts a rise of 63% in overall fashion consumption between 2017 and 2030, with increasing demand from developing countries leading us swiftly towards a point where over 100 million tonnes of apparel and footwear will be purchased each year.
Unfortunately all this success comes at a high environmental cost.
Fast fashion is leading to mountains of post-consumer waste being produced. In turn this leads to problems such as the rapid increase in damaging plastic microfibres from polyester fabrics and artificial suede making their way into ocean ecosystems.
Cotton is heavily associated with freshwater resource depletion. The majority is grown on irrigated farmland and the water footprint for just one kilogram can be 10,000 litres of water, or more than 20,000 in parts of countries such as India.
Certain activities lead to harmful levels of pollution, caused directly by the hazardous ingredients needed for dyeing and tanning escaping into the local environment.
Then there is the land use change associated with raising livestock for leather, or growing tropical rubber plantations, which are a cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss.
And of course, climate change comes into the picture. Analysis from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes how, if the growth in fashion continues along its current trajectory, by 2050 the textile industry would account for around a quarter of the world’s total allowable carbon emissions, when considered under a scenario that would hold global warming below 2°C.
The good news is that there are some exciting consumer trends, new technologies and innovative business models, which are helping to lead the future of fashion down a more sustainable runway.
The shift to sustainable materials
Many of the materials currently favoured by the fashion industry face three interwoven challenges: resource scarcity, a lack of recyclability, and the fact that costs are expected to rise for some virgin raw materials.
As water scarcity increases, this puts security of supply at risk for water-intensive fibres like cotton. And as ever higher carbon taxes are put on fossil fuels, materials derived from petrochemicals such as polyester are going to get more expensive at the same time.
However, some materials already exist, or are being developed, which are far less resource-dependent, more recyclable and have longer lifecycles.
Lyocell, for example, is made from wood pulp and has a low environmental impact in its production and processing when compared to alternatives like cotton, although this comes with higher costs. But in recognition of the sustainability and reputational benefits it brings, a growing number of companies – including Patagonia and Banana Republic – are making it a feature within their product lines.
Learning to design for longevity
Designers and brands are increasingly pushing the advice encapsulated within Dame Vivienne Westwood’s mantra: “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last.” This is with the aim of shifting demand towards valuing fewer, higher quality products, which can command higher prices and result in lower total resource use.
Making clothes that last just three months longer can help cut 3% from the carbon, water and waste impact of companies in the fashion supply chain, according to WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan.
Rather than create things that go out of fashion within weeks or months, the principle of emotionally durable design is starting to take hold. This is encouraging the creation of items that people love, look after, and want to keep using for longer periods.
This is a trend being strengthened through new opportunities for personalisation and customisation, unlocked by advances manufacturing technologies, and even 3D printing. Larger companies are now able to produce unique variants of common designs with customer input, which has become especially popular in footwear. Brands including Nike, Adidas, Vans and Converse each now have their own online create-your-own offerings.
The adoption of circular economy principles
Due to the current way materials are used and a limited use of recycling technology, the fashion industry experiences up to a 75% loss of value from material use in the first cycle of production. But the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that an industry-wide move to adopt circular economy principles could add €160 billion in value by 2030.
Despite the fact that there has been cultural shift, where some items that were once second-hand are now considered to be vintage instead, still only 18% of clothing in the EU is currently reused or recycled. But there are signs that the industry is starting to become more collaborative and circular. Major retailers including Zara and Marks & Spencer are introducing collection points for old clothes at their stores.
This is leading to opportunities to increase recycling rates. Materials like wool have been recycled for hundreds of years, but mass production technologies are now advancing so that more fibre recycling is becoming far more cost-effective. This is closing the loop, helping turn waste fabrics back into useful materials, cutting down the need to produce virgin fabrics.
Innovative business models are starting to take off. Companies like Rent the Runway are using e-commerce models to turn expensive dresses, often bought and only worn once, into something that can be worn once by many people. MUDjeans leases its products for a one year term, with free unlimited repair services, after which they can be changed for a new pair and returned for recycling or upcycling.
Beyond this, we are seeing a trend towards trade restrictions on used clothing. Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda all now seeking to prevent the import of second-hand garments and shoes to protect their domestic industries.
This will prevent dumping of excessive production, of the sort encapsulated in the example of the annual Super Bowl donation of tens of thousands of pre-printed “Champions” t-shirts, baseball caps and sweatshirts, wrongly naming the losing team as the winner. This merchandise is manufactured for both teams ahead of time, to be sold quickly as soon as the game is completed. By refusing to take waste from the West, this will force developed nations to adopt better policies, encouraging them to deal with end-of-life clothing more effectively.
There are also structural changes coming through the system. Fashion graduates coming into the industry today are grounded in zero-waste design and circular economy principles, which as they progress through the ranks and grow in influence should change things for the better.
The will to change
In addition to the three trends already discussed, one final important ingredient is helping to drive the shift towards a more sustainable fashion industry: the will to change. Alongside the fast-growing disruptive businesses, some of the fashion industry’s titans are making clear commitments to transform the way they do business.
H&M announced in April 2017 that they are aiming to become 100% circular by 2030, meaning that they will only use recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials. Others leaders are setting similar goals. This means that many in the industry are waking up and recognising that business-as-usual cannot last much longer.
Inertia leads to the risk of irrelevance, falling behind innovative competitors. And where sustainable success can be demonstrated, regulation is likely to fall hard upon companies that continue to cause environmental harm.
Fashion isn’t going anywhere. Millennia of human history tell us that as we move towards a sustainable, low carbon future, people are still going to be dressing to impress. But if we are going to reach that future, the industry is going to have to fundamentally change for the better.