In previous articles I discussed how much of the change required to decarbonise the fashion sector will be systemic and led by brands, governments, manufacturers and financial institutions. One crucial element we have not discussed is us, the consumers! We have a key role in making sure this new system works, and making it come about in the first place.

There is a lot we can do to signal to brands that we want the system to change. For many brands, sustainability is not only about ‘doing the right thing’. Like all businesses, they cannot ignore the profitability lens. And this is precisely where us consumers come in. The expression ‘voting with your wallet’ is overused but under- practised. In this article I aim to leave you with some key tips to revolutionise the fashion sector, one wardrobe at a time.

1. Ask questions

The more questions we ask as consumers, the more brands will listen. The more we search for sustainable clothing on search engines or e-commerce platforms, the more brands realise demand exists. Ultimately, fashion brands must make a profit to survive. As they realise their profitability is increasingly tied to consumer demand for sustainability, they will be convinced that going green is both the right and the profitable thing to do. If we don’t ask our favourite brands how their garments are produced, whether they are recyclable or if they come from sustainable sources, the move to a low-carbon circular economy will be slower.


Luckily, there are many brands who are already making this shift. By being inquisitive and finding out which brands align with our environmental concerns, we can support those who are committed to decarbonising and becoming circular. And this will also incentivise brands who aren’t already on this journey to invest in changing their ways.


Ref: A transparent product description, emphasizing the sustainability decision making that went into the development of this product and its final footprint. Click image for a link to allbirds website.

2. Cherish your wardrobe

Dame Vivienne Westwood has provided us with some wise words to live by: “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last.” (Along with creative and sustainable collections!)


Annually, 48 million tonnes of clothing are disposed of, which is estimated to be equivalent to the annual sales volume. 1 This means today we are buying as much clothing every year as we are throwing away. It is clear we cannot ignore the fact that we are buying too much.


We all have garments in our closets that we no longer like, that we’ve only worn once, that haven’t been worn for years, and even some that we may never have worn. What did we think about when we purchased those garments? Did we think how many times we were going to wear them, or what we were going to wear them with? Did we consider their quality, craftsmanship and how they made us feel?

Fashion will always be an incredibly special way to express ourselves. By really thinking about how a beautiful garment we want to buy fits into our closet and how it reflects our personality, we can re-start cherishing our clothing so much that we don’t mind being seen in it multiples times and *GASP!* having several posts of us wearing it on Instagram.

If we cherish what we buy, we want to make it last. This means buying good-quality products and not following all the latest trends just because an influencer told us to. We should only wash clothes when we really need to, so that colours don’t fade and materials don’t degrade. Clothes should also dry naturally, rather than being tossed around in an incredibly energy-intensive dryer. Finally, this also means getting clothes mended, or better yet, learning how to sew ourselves!

If we truly value our clothes and wear them a lot because they are beautiful and they make us feel great, why would we want to immediately discard them and replace them with new ones?

3. Lend, rent and resell


In addition to buying less, buying well and making clothes last, we can also trial new forms of clothing ownership. Many of us already purchase vintage clothing because we like its uniqueness. There is also a flourishing second-hand market on digital platforms for resale, as well as peer-to-peer lending. Some brands are also trialling rental, subscription and repair services.


These new services and ownership models are at the core of the new circular model that will allow the fashion industry to be sustainable.



4. Recycle



Finally, when it is time to part ways with a garment, hopefully after it has been worn (many times), lent, resold and mended, we should recycle it. As discussed in the previous article, textile-recycling infrastructure is currently under-developed. By bringing our clothing back to brands, we are helping them increase their stocks of recyclable material. They need a critical mass of clothing in order to help develop the demand that recycling start-ups need to scale.



Now, time for action!

The time for action is now. We have a decade to avert catastrophic climate change and it is time for consumers to really start voting with their wallets and use their wardrobes as a tool to revolutionise the fashion sector.

In summary, all you have to do is: 1) Ask questions & do your research 2) Buy less, choose well & make it last 3) Be open to new forms of ownership 4) And recycle!

Next week we will be looking at how the sector has been impacted by Covid-19 and how this has provided a space for reflection on the state of fashion for both brands and consumers.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own as an individual.


[1] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future (2017)

From last week’s article, we know that the complex environmental impacts of the apparel sector are entrenched in its current linear model. Fortunately, a lot of thinking has taken place on how this can be transformed to deal with the climate crisis. Namely, by moving away from a linear economy to a circular one.

The concept of circularity is in itself quite simple. Instead of making, using and disposing, we move to a circular system where waste simply does not exist. Regeneration rather than extraction. In this system, everything is designed and produced such that it can either be reused or recycled. Waste is removed from the economy and from our vocabulary[1]. Circularity is inherently less carbon-intensive than the current linear model.


This sounds fairly simple, logical even. And, to a certain extent, it is. Many have compared the principles of a circular economy, a new concept, to the principles by which previous generations lived by. It is only since the 20th century that companies have been producing more goods of lower quality, and in many cases built to be prematurely obsolete[2]. So, while much of the technology needed to re-engineer our economy towards circularity will require innovations that are under development or do not exist yet, the principles themselves have existed for hundreds of years. For the apparel sector, re-engineering to a circular economy will require a combination of structural changes and the development of new forms of consumer ownership. So what will this future look like?

Circular design

Circularity is in essence a design principle. Design in a circular economy is governed by the need to utilise a material in its best conditions for as long as possible[3]. For fashion this means:


  1. Designing for durability, so that clothing can be worn for a long time and by many;

  2. Using fibres that either already exist (i.e. recycled fibres) or natural fibres that come from regenerative agricultural systems that give back as much to the Earth as they take out;

  3. Sewing and assembling garments in an energy-efficient facility powered by renewable electricity, and

  4. Shipping through more efficient sea freight and even rail, as some production will have shifted closer to the point of sale and the sector’s slowing down will make faster air-freight less necessary.



Slow Fashion and new ownership models

Slower fashion means less seasons in a year, less consumption and more wears. If clothing breaks, brands will offer repair services, or we might even all learn to sew again like our grandparents did(!) This will extend the life of our garments. It will hopefully no longer be shameful to wear the same dress to five weddings in a row and post a picture of the same dress on Instagram. If we do buy something, we will wear it for longer, wash and dry it less, and then be able to resell it or lend it with ease.

Also, new ownership models will become the norm. Some consumers might stop purchasing clothing altogether and have subscriptions that allow them to switch out their wardrobe without having to purchase and discard their clothing. We might only rent garments for special occasions and no longer buy something to only wear once.

After a garment has been worn, lent, rented, fixed and resold many times over, we will be able to recycle it with the confidence that it will indeed become a new garment and not end up in landfill.

Is this realistic?

This may sound like a long way off. In some ways it is, because for this to work there will have to be a dramatic shift at a systemic level with a critical majority of consumers, brands and even governments participating.

But we are starting to see shifts towards a circular economy. Many large brands have circular economy and recycled content targets and are trialling rental and repair services. Today, many brands’ unique selling point already is that they build clothes to last, and they do not want you to buy their jacket more than once in a lifetime[4].

There is also a flurry of innovation and action in this sector. Chemical and mechanical recycling start-ups that can break down complex blends and spin these into new fibres are approaching scale[5]. Re-sale and peer-to-peer lending platforms are also gaining traction. Media and consumer engagement with the question of fashion sustainability is also at an all-time high[6]. Crucially, textiles are one of the four key sectors that the EU is focusing on in its European Green Deal. In fact, the proposed regulation centres on circularity[7]. These are all essential components of a circular economy and their development is very encouraging.

The road ahead

Two key catalysts are needed for these developments to transform into systemic change.


The first is collaboration. No brand, or even a collection of brands, can be circular in isolation. Circularity is a system and in order for systems to work they need a critical mass of players. This means that:


  1. innovation can scale, helping to finance energy efficiency and the switch to renewable energy in factories and bringing down the cost of recycled or recyclable materials;

  2. brands can work with governments to create the right regulation to develop recycling infrastructure and incentives to recycle, and

  3. systemic pressure can provide encouragement for enough consumers to recycle their clothing to develop sufficient stock of material to make new garments without further resource extraction.

The second element is financing[8]. All of these innovators need financial assistance to get to scale – there needs to be investment in recycling infrastructure so that enough clothing can be collected in the first place and there needs to be investment in factories and their processes. Brands also need to invest in training their employees in circular design thinking. We see these elements developing, but they will have to accelerate at an unprecedented pace in the next decade to keep this sector’s decarbonisation on track.

The road ahead is hopeful. So, what can we as consumers do today to keep our wardrobes sustainable and help change the system? Stay tuned for my next article and you’ll find out.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own as an individual.

[1] Ellen McArthur Foundation, Towards the Circular Economy, (2013) [2] BEUC, Factsheet Premature Obsolescence: When Products Fail too Quickly, (2018) [3] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept [4] https://www.patagonia.com/stories/dont-buy-this-jacket-black-friday-and-the-new-york-times/story-18615.html [5] https://renewcell.se/news/ [6] Lyst, The 2020 Conscious Fashion Report, (2020) [7] European Commission, Circular Economy Action Plan: For a cleaner more competitive Europe, (2020) [8] Fashion for Good, BCG, Financing the Transformation in the Fashion Industry, (2020)

When we arrive in a shop the environmental impact of what we are about to purchase may not be front of mind. More often than not, this environmental cost is not shared with us at the point of purchase. Unpacking the environmental impact of an individual garment is not a simple task and does not fit onto one small label.


Before we start it is important to acknowledge the environmental impacts I will explore are systemic to this sector. Today the production direction of a garment is linear. Meaning brands take and make and we the consumer dispose. The carbon footprint of each garment is determined by the strategic priorities of a brand and it is these priorities that need to change in order to decarbonise this sector.


In this article I will explore the source of carbon emissions[1] within the global apparel supply chain by analysing the different stages of a garment’s lifecycle: material production & processing, manufacturing, logistics, retail, consumer use and its end of life and examine how these stages contribute to the apparel sector’s overall emissions and consequently, its alarming impact on today's climate emergency.



Production


All clothing begins with a design and a choice of which materials will bring that design to life. The production and processing of raw materials used in the garment manufacturing industry is one of the most carbon intensive stages of a garment’s lifecycle.[2] Materials are either synthetic (e.g. petroleum-based fibres such as polyester) or natural (e.g. cotton). The sheer volume of emissions released from the extraction of petroleum and the frequent use of fertilizers for natural materials are only two examples of the energy intensive processes which turn these materials into fibres which are then dyed and formulated into fabrics ready for sewing and assembly.


In addition, the vast majority of materials used in clothing today are not recycled. These materials and how they are blended into a fabric will ultimately determine whether a garment is recyclable or if it will eventually end up in a landfill. For example, it is common practice for garment manufacturers to resort to the use of blended materials to reduce cost while seemingly improving the quality and finish of the garment Such blended materials, once produced, owing to their nature and constitution, can prove extremely costly to deconstruct into their original materials for recycling and reuse. The more expensive the road to recycling is for a garment, the more assured is its journey to a landfill.


At the manufacturing stage a choice can be made to use recycled materials or sustainably sourced natural fibres. This will come from the strategic direction of the brand: focus on the lowest price or the most sustainable fibre? Unfortunately, making the sustainable choice today is often the costlier option. This is because what is known as the "true cost" (i.e. the social and environmental cost of a material) is not factored into the retail price presented to the consumer. To make matters worse, much of the technology to produce sustainable fibres is not yet available at scale. So, an environmentally detrimental material and process is cheaper than one that is better for the planet. Similarly, the search for low-cost manufacturing means that the manufacturers of the final garment are often unable to invest in energy-efficient machinery and renewable electricity, resulting in carbon-intensive manufacturing.


Once the garments have been manufactured, often in developing countries, they have to be transported to where they will be sold, which adds to their environmental impact. Garments are mostly shipped by sea freight; however, last-minute orders are shipped by air freight, which is relatively much more carbon-intensive.


Consumption

Once the consumer arrives at a shop or an online platform, the emissions of that garment are locked-in (i.e. all the supply chain emissions have taken place and these decisions will largely determine the consumer use emissions). What may surprise you is that at this point our choice of how we use and dispose of garments can be as carbon-intensive, if not more so, than all of the emissions associated with the production of the garment.[3] The consumer’s choices around the washing, drying and ironing of clothing is almost as important as the brand’s original choice of materials and manufacturing in determining the lifetime emissions of a garment. How to make the right choices at this stage will be explored in my fourth article of this series.


Disposal


The less we wear something, the higher the emissions per garment. On average, consumers today wear a garment only 10 times before it is disposed of[4] and almost half of fast fashion is produced and disposed of in under a year.[5] Extending a garment’s life by just three months can reduce its lifetime emissions by 3% [that is a potential 12% reduction in just one extra year].[6]

Once we have decided to part with the garment, we may donate it to charity, return it to the brand for recycling, or simply put it into our normal bins. Despite current efforts, less than 1% of materials used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing.[7] The reasons for the small rate are that: not enough materials are recycled, not enough clothing is designed for recyclability in the first place, and the infrastructure and technology required to collect and recycle clothing either does not exist or is not available at the scale we need it to truly move away from the current linear model that defines the sector.


From linear to circular


So yes, the current production, consumption and disposal practices of the global garment retail manufacturing industry are unsustainable. Annually, we throw away almost as much clothing as we produce. This linear process, where decision-makers within brands lack the right incentive structures to drive sustainable production choices, and consumers paradoxically buy more and wear less. Luckily there is a solution – it is called "circularity", and I will discuss this systemic solution to overconsumption and overproduction in my next article.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own as an individual.

References [1] Please note that while there are many more factors affecting sustainability in the sector (such as worker rights, chemicals and water usage), this article will be focusing on the impact of carbon emissions. [2] Business for Social Responsibility, Apparel Industry Life Cycle Mapping (2009) [3] Ibid [4] Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the fashion industry (2018) [5] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future (2017) [6] WRAP Sustainable Clothing Action Plan https://wrap.org.uk/sustainable-textiles/scap [7] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future (2017)

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