The fashion trade is one which flew under the radar of the environmentally conscious and of policy makers alike for longer than any other of the world’s major pollutant industries. The scale of its environmental impact, however, has only seriously registered in the public consciousness in the last couple of years. For an industry accounting for 20% of industrial water pollution and 10% of global CO2 emissions – that’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined – to name only the two most salient of the myriad of issues it entails (sustainyourstyle.org provide an eye-opening overview), modern society has been decidedly slow off the mark in recognising and addressing the magnitude of fashion’s environmental repercussions.
The cause of this indolence is clear; the landscape of the clothing industry has faced fundamental and unprecedented upheaval since the turn of the millennium with the arrival and dazzling ascension of fast fashion and the mass globalisation it brought with it. Sent reeling by the scale of the disruption, we’ve only just now sufficiently regained our balance so as to take a step back and assess the new norm. It is at least understandable, although perhaps not quite excusable, that where governments and law-makers have long recognised and taken measures against the environmental problems caused by sectors such as the energy industry, which had for decades remained largely unchanged in its dependence upon fossil fuels, they should have failed to anticipate the magnitude of the effect the changes rapidly re-shaping the fashion industry would have on its contribution towards climate change and towards pollution in general.
As belatedly as our realisation might have come, the past few years and months have seen a surge in general awareness and public outcry at the state of the industry, and fashion’s big players have been piling on top of one another in their attempts to be seen as the most forward-thinking of their competitors. This August, 32 industry giants ranging from H&M to GAP to luxury conglomerate Kering signed a sustainability pact pledging to reduce microfiber usage, embrace the upcycling of materials, and targeting carbon neutrality by 2050. A 2018 report found 52% of executives in the industry cited that “sustainability targets acted as a guiding principle for nearly every strategic decision they made”, compared to 34% only a year previously, whilst research shows 75% of brands have taken strides in improving lessening their environmental and social impacts over the past year; the industry is a-flurry with change and hasty re-brandings.
Nonetheless, we find cause for scepticism. The notion of “Greenwashing”, whereby companies feign a sustainable conscience for the sake of PR but lack any real commitment to meeting the targets they set out for themselves, has gained increased traction and visibility, with the likes of Greenpeace’s “Detox My Fashion” campaign proving instrumental in exposing the worst offenders and those not keeping to their pledges. H&M’s “Conscious” collection makes use of recycled, organic materials from ethical sources, but with price-tags as low as £5 it does nothing to deter us from our current conception of clothing as single-use, nor does it represent more than a mere 5% of their total products. In the luxury market, Off-White’s SS20 show at the most recent Paris fashion week centred around a condemnation of society’s abuse of plastics, some of the pieces adorned with a re-worked recycling motif in an admirable but seemingly disingenuous rallying cry from a brand who have taken no publicised steps toward sustainability and have shown no intent of doing so. Farfetch-supported brand-assessing platform “good on you” has highlighted the brand’s lack of transparency with regards to their environmental policy. Moreover, the reliance of many brands on carbon offsetting, that is, the financial support of carbon-reduction programmes such as forest planting and carbon capture technology, as a means towards achieving their goals demands scrutiny; inherent to the process of carbon offsetting is an uncertainty as to where exactly the money goes, and some projects funded will simply never come to fruition, meaning less carbon is actually offset than claimed. In theory, carbon offsetting should be resorted to once every measure has been taken to reduce emissions throughout the supply chain, the most effective means of CO2 reduction and the most definite in its consequences, yet in practice many see it as a comparably cost-efficient substitute for real, tangible action. Kering’s ambitious claims to imminent carbon neutrality are considerably less impressive for its being achieved primarily by means of carbon offsetting.
Yet the real stumbling-block to significant change presents itself not in the form of industry practices, but in the consumer attitudes nurtured by the rise of fast fashion over the recent decades. Ultra-cheap prices have progressively cultivated a mentality of clothes being disposable, whilst the replacement of the traditional biannual seasonal collections with 52 weekly “mini-collections” has deliberately encouraged a culture of rapid-fire trends, such that customers view their purchases as inadequate and stylistically outdated within a matter of weeks. One H&M sign read “New stuff is coming in each and every day. So why not do the same” in a slogan typifying of the fast fashion philosophy. Customers are pressured into further stuffing their already saturated wardrobes by the anxiety of their lagging behind trends artificially engineered by retailers; indeed, the average item of fast fashion clothing remains on the rack for only 12 weeks before being reduced to clearance and is in landfill within a year. What’s more, the poor quality necessitated by the production of such cut-cost garments means that they lose their shape and colour within only a few wears, with the material itself degrading far more rapidly than in the case of even marginally better-quality clothes. The consequence is that 400% more clothes are now produced than 20 years ago, with the United States having seen a 750% soar in textile waste since 1960, over ten times the increase of the country’s population during that same time; by 2030 worldwide garment consumption is predicted to increase by a further 63%.
The extension of the lifetimes of our garments is crucial, be it through buying better quality, less trend-inspired clothes, selling them on for others to use, or repairing them when damaged rather than simply just throwing them away; Academics from the London College of Fashion suggest that keeping the average piece of clothing in use for 9 months longer than we do currently could reduce our carbon and water usage by up to 30%. Certainly, the UK has long led the charge in terms of the buying and recycling of used clothing, with most of our wardrobes containing items bought from Depop or from vintage shops, and the emergence of this mindset represents a considerable step in the right direction. Yet neither is this a solution in itself; the UK and Germany take up disproportionately large shares of the used clothing export market, accounting for around 10% each, and were the likes of China and India to reuse at even half the rate of these countries, their second-hand markets would each be larger than the current global one, overwhelming us with excess fabric for which we must have a plan in place.
Retailers would do well to look to the model of higher-end fashion. Although far from a pristine industry, as demonstrated particularly shockingly by Burberry’s burning of £28.6m worth of excess clothing in 2018, luxury fashion’s core values of durability, quality, and timelessness of design mean their products remain wearable for years, neither physically deteriorating nor succumbing to trend. A concerted attempt at producing longer-lasting garments sold at a price reflective of a more carefully managed supply chain would no doubt see a drastic decrease in clothes production and go some way to altering the perception of clothes as disposable. Yet this, too, would result in rarely discussed difficulties. Perhaps the greatest benefit fast fashion has brought to the industry has been the way in which its ultra-low prices have facilitated a certain democratisation; where 100 years ago only the wealthy could afford to keep up with the latest trends, now almost everyone has the means to buy clothes in keeping with the current vogue, albeit only after a number of months when the season’s styles have trickled down from the catwalk to the high street. To raise prices, as would be necessitated by a shift towards better quality, longer-lasting products, would be to risk depriving a certain demographic of the satisfying endorphin rush that accompanies the purchase of a new, stylish item of clothing, and a consequent social push-back might well be expected.
This issue illustrates yet further the need for a change in our tendencies of consumption. No matter the extent to which brands endeavour to remedy the issues in their supply chains, the fast fashion business model and the consumption habits it promotes in the public are wholly unsustainable in their current state. Where the power of individual action is somewhat limited in battling the emissions of the energy sector, our lifestyles being too dependent upon energy for us to forgo using it to any great extent, and the sources of our energy supply being largely beyond our control, our personal buying habits are easily changeable in a way in which our electricity usage is less so. A fundamental and immediate alteration to our entrenched consumer attitudes is imperative, with too many relying upon top-down change without examining the way they view their own clothing usage, but it might be too late for such a fundamental reversal in mindset. Devotees of the high street are so accustomed to being able to pick up a seasonal, on-trend outfit for under £50 that it is doubtful if they could be persuaded to relinquish that unmatched convenience. Fast fashion has left an indelible impression upon the consciousness of the average consumer.
We have reason for optimism in our pursuit of a sustainable fashion industry of the future, but energy has been wasted on focussing on the same few areas of change for too long. Awareness of the problems inherent to the industry has never been more wide-spread, but too little has been done to address the unfeasibility of maintaining our attitudes as they are now. The brakes are gradually being applied, but the fast fashion juggernaut may well have picked up too much momentum to be stopped.