Can fast fashion ever be sustainable?
By Carlota Esguevillas, Consultant
“I feel like we understand what plastic does to the Earth, but I had no idea what cotton was capable of” – Stacey Dooley
Few people realise the extent of social and environmental damage caused by the fashion industry. Burberry shocked consumers over summer when it revealed that it has destroyed and burnt over £90 million worth of goods in just the past five years. The outcry was immediate and widespread, however, they are far from alone. The reality is that over 60% of all clothing produced is thrown out within a year, ending up in either landfill or incineration – with a huge cost to the planet. Fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry, and this trend is set to continue. It is estimated that emissions from the sector will rise more than 60% by 2030, and by 2050 it will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.
With reports continuing to reveal the extent of environmental and social damage resulting from our fast fashion obsession, it is more clear than ever that the fashion industry needs to change.
Elle UK recently conducted research to better understand attitudes and awareness of sustainability in fashion among young women in the country, and the results were poignant. They found that 90% of women want to know more about sustainability in the industry, and 51% want to know what they can do to become more sustainable. It also showed the importance of an education piece, with 62% of those surveyed unaware that the fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, and 55% finding it very important to know where the clothes they buy comes from.
While there is no doubt that the fashion industry is playing catch up in this space, there are also some good stories which suggest the industry is undergoing genuine change. Headlines last month celebrated the fact the London Fashion Week is officially (and finally!) fur-free. This important landmark moment was accompanied by a series of events running alongside the traditional LFW shows to highlight eco and ethical fashion. More recently, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee wrote to the chief executives of the UK’s ten leading fashion retailers to find out what steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of the clothes and shoes they sell.
Slowly, the industry is realising it needs to change, and we are seeing the circular economy model taking hold. For example, more and more retailers are entering the second-hand market for their products, buying them back, cleaning and repairing them, and then reselling them to consumers. Not only has the resale market become more chic as a result of environmental awareness, but is also presents a tremendous business opportunity – it is estimated that the resale market will hit $41 billion by 2022. To name a few, The North Face recently launched their collection of refurbished products, Patagonia buys back used gear in exchange for credit, and H&M’s ‘Take Care’ initiative, helping customers repair and reuse products, has now launched in Norway, France and Germany.
Renting models are also gaining popularity, with an increasing number of brands providing this service. In the UK, it is estimated that clothes are more than twice as likely to be thrown away because they don’t fit anymore, than because they are damaged – rental models could be one way to overcome that problem. Mud Jeans, for example, operates a ‘Lease A Jean’ model. For a small monthly subscription price, you can lease a pair of Mud Jeans. After a year (or whenever you feel like changing them) you can switch to a new pair of jeans, and your old ones will be recycled to make new wonderful items.
Make Fashion Circular, led by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, is bringing together the fashion industry and these initiatives in an effort to design a workable circular economy for clothes. The ambition – to ensure that clothes are made from safe and renewable material, new business models increase their use, and old clothes are turned into new – is now closer than ever.
At Simply Sustainable, we know how daunting it can be to begin the journey towards new business models. However, we also know how vital they are for our transition to a low-carbon, just society. From designing a workable circular economy model, to envisioning new un-tapped business opportunities, we can help embed sustainability into your operations.
If you are interested in exploring new business models, including the circular economy, please get in touch.