Sustainability has become an increasingly important discussion as we hurtle towards breaching the limits of our planet, and some say that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas. Although this isn’t quite correct, as it is hard to estimate the impact of the fashion industry, the best estimate is between the 4th and 10th most polluting.
Choosing sustainable fashion is an important choice that we can all make to help address what is a growing and significant issue. What is sustainable fashion, and why does it matter?
The increasing speed with which clothing companies churn out products both creates and meets the desire of consumers for new clothes, shoes, and bags, cheap, fast, and now. This has changed the way we use clothes, ‘fast fashion’ means we aren’t re-wearing clothes as often as we used to, throwing them away sooner, possibly too soon, as clothes have become seen as cheap and disposable.
Items may only be worn a few times before being disposed of, some are not ever worn, left languishing in wardrobes. Yet we still buy more. [check out our guide to online thrift stores for options to buy second hand]
Fashion is driven by consumer choices, so collectively we can signal to the fashion industry that we not only want this revolution, but we don’t want to wait for it.
You can be part of this movement by being conscious of what you buy, who you buy it from, and how often you buy clothes. This will create early signals and when more innovative and radical solutions come along to support them too.
Here’s how to think more consciously about your clothes, where they come from, and where they go.
Traditional fashion’s environmental footprint
The classic definition of sustainability is the “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance,” and fashion couldn’t be further from sustainable production. Fashion relies on a number of the other industries in the top 10 most polluting industries, like agriculture and road transportation, so if fashion could become more sustainable, this could reduce the rate of environmental damage across the supply chain.
The clothing industry employs millions of people worldwide, so any changes to business models will have a significant impact on both large corporations that control production and the low-income workers that produce the garments. This is going to be a difficult ship to change the course of. As it is also an industry that is plagued by waste and pollution, it is one that will need to change course.
There are a few companies involved in the fashion industry that are taking steps to address this harm, but their efforts are small compared to the scale of the industry.
The ‘Pulse of Fashion’ report estimates the progress of the fashion industry on sustainability measures, and although there has been some progress, they emphasize that change isn’t far or fast enough and that most of the easy gains have already been made. A bigger revolution is going to be required.
What is the impact of non-sustainable fashion?
Figures from 2015 show that 97% of what goes into making clothes is new resources, with only 3% coming from recycling. That is about 98 million tonnes of inputs a year into the textile industry – from oil to produce synthetic fibers, fertilizers to grow cotton, and all the chemicals needed to dye and finish fabric.
This production process also uses around 93 billion cubic meters of water annually (the equivalent of 93,000 Royal Albert Halls) – often adding to the challenges faced in water-scarce regions. Additionally, in 2015, textile production produced more CO2 emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, adding 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere.
It is not only producing clothes that are damaging when they are disposed of 73% of clothing end up incinerated or in a landfill. Not only are the valuable resources in the clothes lost, but these methods also pollute the environment.
New models of production for sustainable fashion
This linear model is unsustainable, and significant innovation is required. The Make Fashion Circular Campaign from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation advocates for creating a circular economy for fashion. There are also companies working on how to recycle common fibers used to create clothes, like cotton and polyester, but they aren’t yet able to do this at scale.
Other innovations that are currently being trialed are – new models of ownership – you don’t own the clothes – either in short or long-term renting, or you return the piece of clothing when you no longer want to wear it. These are some of the companies in fashion trying new models to be more environmentally friendly.
MUD Jeans, want you to return your jeans when you’re done with them and will resell them in their vintage section after the jeans have been repaired. Or if the jeans have reached the end of their useable life, they are recycled; all MUD jeans contain at least 20% recycled cotton.
One-off wonders, if it is something that you aren’t going to wear more than once or twice, then there are some great rental services that can represent an affordable way to access designers' clothes; even the Financial Times is profiling clothing rental companies. Sites offer access to designer fashion, designer shoes, and handbags or communities that share clothes.
How do I choose sustainable fashion for the better?
Even though the system of production for clothes leaves a lot to be desired, it is still possible to make choices to respect the resources that have gone into making your clothes and minimize the environmental impact. Reduce, reuse, recycle - as the environmental mantra goes, and this can be applied to fashion as well.
REDUCE - We can reduce the number of clothes we buy – thereby reducing the resources consumed by the industry. Another way to reduce the use of new resources would be to buy vintage, pre-loved, or second-hand clothes.
To reduce the environmental impact, think about what your clothes are made from, and opt for natural fibers over synthetic fibers derived from fossil fuels, for example, wool, cotton, or linen over polyester, nylon, or acrylic. If you want to reduce the impact of water consumption and pesticides, think about organic cotton or cellulose-based textiles like Tencel or modal.
REUSE – buy high-quality pieces so you can wear them for longer, and hire or borrow items, especially if you are only going to wear them once. If the clothes are still in good condition, consider selling them or donating them to charity.
RECYCLE – Clothes and shoes can be recycled in textile recycling bins. Those items that can be reused will be sorted, and those that have reached the end of their life will be turned into industrial scraps, so they will have some sort of second life.
We have only discussed what clothes are made from; you can also consider whether they are ethically made, although this is a longer discussion.
Acting to Support Sustainable Fashion
In short, the power is in your hands. If you want to reduce the impact of your fashion choices - show the corporations you care about what your clothes are made of, buy differently, choose consciously, and support new models of fashion that reduce impact.
Fashion has always been a way to indicate who you are to the world - so now is the time to think about what you want your clothes to say about the kind of world and future that we should aim for.