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Is the Fashion Industry Wearing Out the Planet?

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The shock factor of statistics claiming that the fashion industry ‘accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20% of wastewater’ has worn off. We know that the fashion industry is a large polluter – the real questions are why, and what can we do to help?

Overproduction is one of the key issues facing the industry, running at 30-40% each season. Seasonal trends and the rise of fast fashion mean that companies plan overproduction into their assembly line models, knowing that unsold stock will be burnt or put into landfill.

In 2018, the BBC reported that three in every five clothing items end up in landfill or incinerators within a year. The rise of fast fashion has exacerbated the problem, with clothes worn less and less before being thrown away.

The question of ‘sustainability’

As recently as Black Friday 2020, British online fashion brand Pretty Little Thing sold items for a mere 8p (€0.09/$0.11/HK$0.85).

This prompted a backlash from public opinion and environmental experts alike, pointing out that selling items for so little encourages the idea that clothes are disposable.

They also questioned how sustainable the source of such cheap clothes could be, both for the planet and the people who make them.

Questions over the unsustainable supply chains that allow for fast fashion are hardly a novelty, but have come under scrutiny once again during the pandemic.

In May 2020, the Financial Times reported that, due to the closure of shops and reduced customer spending, certain retailers were refusing to pay for the items factories overseas had already made.

However, steps towards a more sustainable fashion industry are being made, albeit fairly slowly.

Consumers’ concern for the origins and production methods of their clothes means that sustainability is increasingly important for brand image, with the number of clothes and accessories described as ‘sustainable’ quadrupling over the last four years.

This isn’t necessarily all good though, as ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’, have been overused and now hold little meaning.

As discussed in the FT, they are not regulated terms like ‘organic’ or ‘free range’, and brands can manipulate ‘sustainability’ to their own needs.

The need for regulation and transparency

The lack of regulation is one obstacle to overcome if the fashion industry is to become eco-friendly. One popular potential solution is to measure the ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) performance of companies.

This allows investors and consumers to see companies’ ratings based on their efforts to be more sustainable.

This has financial implications, as brands like Chanel and Prada are using loans and bonds which increase in value if sustainability targets are reached, and are lowered if not.

ESG ratings are a good start, but are often flawed, as brands can pick and choose which information they disclose.

Transparency, therefore, is vital, even if it doesn’t equal sustainability. Finding brands that are open about their environmentally and socially conscious practices is a mammoth task for someone to undertake who’s just looking to buy a new pair of jeans, but there is some information out there to make it all a little clearer.

For example, The Fashion Transparency Index reviews ‘250 of the biggest global fashion brands and retailers according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts’.

Not a perfect system for a sustainability-minded consumer, but a good place to start.

How can we help?

Looking into a brand’s sustainability ethos and track record can help you to make more environmentally conscious purchases. Companies such as Everlane have been built with sustainability in mind, using recycled materials and keeping their factories to high ethical standards.

Investing in high-quality, long-lasting items can also help to slow down fashion’s turnover. Ultimately, the production of new clothes can never benefit the environment, so the less you buy, the better.

If you’re worried about investing in something that you may only wear once, Rent the Runway could help, as it offers members the ability to rent designer pieces for a fraction of the retail cost.

Buying something ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean you have to buy something that was recently produced. Look for products that have been made from repurposed or upcycled materials, or go for something second-hand.

Don’t think of your local charity shop with its slightly fusty odour, but of shops like Vestiaire Collective, which sell pre-owned designer items.

The key is to change our shopping habits to reduce consumption, which would slow down production rates and benefit the environment.

They say old habits die hard, so a transformation of the fashion industry won’t happen overnight.

The fast fashion model needs to be changed from the inside, and for an industry that, pre-pandemic, was worth over two trillion pounds globally, that would be no small feat.

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