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The Rise of Sustainable Fashion

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Shopping for clothes is a very different experience today than it was at the end of the twentieth century.

Where fashion trends were once seasonal, dictated by biannual Fashion Weeks held across the globe, today’s most successful brands are releasing new designs every week. 

The transition to what is popularly termed ‘fast fashion’ has not been met with open arms by all. Consumers are far more environmentally conscious now than they were thirty years ago, and resistance to the shift has led to the rapid growth of the alternative field of ‘sustainable fashion’.

In 2019, a study conducted by KPMG found 64% of global participants to be supportive of sustainable fashion. But who exactly is leading the movement, and which countries are doing the most to promote it?

Fast Fashion

When we talk about ‘fast fashion’ we refer to the mass production of low quality clothing which is pumped quickly around stores in response to the latest trends. The term is a relatively new one, coined by the New York Times in the 1990s in a description of Zara’s mission to deliver clothes from the design stage to stores in just fifteen days.

From a business perspective, it’s easy to see why the fashion industry has tended in this direction. The more frequently a fashion brand introduces new stock, the more regularly it will attract customers to make purchases. The low quality of the clothing produced in order to meet this demand – which calls for regular replacement – further strengthens this incentive to buy.

Fast fashion also benefits consumers. Its low prices have had a democratising impact upon the industry. They have allowed a far larger demographic of consumers to purchase a range of fun and impractical items which mimic the fluctuations of high fashion without the dizzying price tags.

And yet, over all these positives looms a vastly disproportionate negative. The culture of excessive consumption fostered by the fast fashion industry has drastic consequences for the environment.

According to the GFA, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste is produced globally each year; while on the production side, the fashion industry accounts for around 10% of global carbon emissions.

Shopping Sustainably

Since the birth of fast fashion in the 1990s, the world has taken a far more serious stance on climate change.

World leaders have set concrete goals to limit the global temperature rise, and individuals have taken on more responsibility for the size of their carbon footprints. One way individuals have been helping to ameliorate their personal impact upon the planet is by shopping sustainably.

Sustainable fashion is an umbrella term for clothes created and consumed in a manner that is both environmentally friendly and humanitarian.

Shopping sustainably can mean looking out for brands which have publicly committed to going greener: those signed to the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, for example. It can also mean prolonging the lifespan of clothes already in circulation by shopping in vintage stores, charity shops or on preloved clothing sites.

According to online thrift store ThredUp this trend has been taken up with particular force by Gen Z, who are ‘83% more likely’ than Baby Boomers ‘to strongly agree that apparel ownership is temporary’.

A Global Perspective

While it is clear that sustainable fashion is popular with the younger generation, it is less clear which countries are most supportive of it.

The problem ostensibly lies in China, the linchpin of the global textile and apparel supply chain, manufacturing an estimated 65% of the world’s clothes. The main output of China’s textile industry is clothing made from synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon.

While the durable and elastic qualities of these fibres – alongside low production costs – makes them appealing to businesses, they are big polluters. The process of manufacturing synthetic fibres involves the release of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide into the atmosphere and once formed, they are non-biodegradable.

But responsibility does not lie with China alone. International demand for synthetic fibres is quite literally fuelling the fire. China’s export figures translate to more than 40% of the global textile export market.

Fast fashion brands looking for cheaper means of production frequently turn to China to source their clothing, and the most successful of these brands – big names like Zara, H&M and Topshop – are owned by the West.   

While it is also true that the most high profile sustainable brands are Western-owned (Gucci, Adidas, Levi’s, Patagonia, to name a few), the great expense of their marketing campaigns means it is hard to differentiate those truly committed to fulfilling a green agenda from those simply ‘greenwashing’.

Minimising the fashion industry’s contribution toward climate change is a hard task when some brands have thrown thousands into obscuring the source of the problem. A good start would be to recognise that the problem cannot be pinpointed within any single region. It stretches out across a series of global networks, and will thus take a united effort to begin to resolve.  

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