Throwaway clothes contribute more to climate change that air and sea travel. Clothing retailers are now anticipating a backlash.
Fashion shoppers spent approximately PS3.5bn this Christmas on party clothes. However, 8 million of these sparkly pieces will end up in the dump after one wear.
Fast fashion has made throwaway clothing a mainstream trend. Items are so cheap that they can only be used once.
Boohoo, a young fashion brand, had 486 dresses online last week for less than PS5. Many, such as a black bandeau jersey number bodycon, were available online for just PS3.75. This means that the delivery cost was more than the actual contents. Rival Asos offered 257 dresses and 2,141 tops for as low as PS10.
However, fashion experts think that disposable clothing could soon be extinct. A backlash could also be in the works against plastic packaging, take-out coffee cups and meat. The fashion industry contributes more to climate change overall than both the shipping and aeronautical industries. If current trends continue, fashion could contribute 25% to the world’s carbon emission in 2050.
Global clothing production has increased by more than 50% in the last 15 years to meet increasing demand. According to McKinsey consultants, more than half the fast fashion items are thrown away within a year.
According to Wrap, a government-backed recycling charity that studies textiles and clothing, disposing of them costs the UK around PS82m per year.
According to the industry-led Circular Fibres Initiative, global greenhouse gas emissions from textile production totalled 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2015. This amount is greater than all the international flight and maritime shipping emissions combined.
Globally, less than 1% of clothing material is recycled. 12% are recycled into insulation or mattress stuffing.
With a parliamentary committee set to produce a report on the issue in February and concerns about plastic pollution spurred by the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary now turning to microfibres from clothing, industry insiders believe a backlash against fast fashion is on the way.
Marks & Spencer director of sustainable business, Mike Barry said that fashion is on the same path as plastics, forests, and other alternatives to meat. These were all fundamental concerns that reached the mainstream consumer.
There isn’t a clear consumer backlash against fast fashion right now, but it would take a brave business leader to not look at the next 12-18 months and say that we aren’t heading there. Fashion will be challenged in the same way food has for years. Every fashion business leader knows this.
It is now a consumer issue as well as a business-tobusiness and risk management issue. This is similar to what plastics and deforestation related to palm oil were in the past 12 months.
Research suggests that shoppers are buying less clothing.
According to Mintel, a third of clothing consumers purchased clothing every month in 2018, down from 37% in 2016. However, those who bought clothes every two to three months or less increased from 64% to 67%.
Mintel senior retail analyst Samantha Dover says that nearly half of all consumers prefer to purchase clothing from companies working to reduce their environmental impact. This figure rises to 60% for those under 24.
Dover states that people are more interested in knowing where their products come from and how they were made. Dover says that consumers still care more about the style and price of clothing than how it was made. But, this is changing.
This is why switched-on clothing businesses are not just installing a few eco clothing racks in a corner of a shop but also considering how to make their whole range more sustainable.
The government-backed sustainable clothing action plan, whose signatories include Next, M&S, Ted Baker, Primark and Asos, has committed nine major retailers to reducing waste being sent to landfill, water use and carbon footprint by 15% by 2020.
The government also wants to introduce extended producer-responsibility schemes for household and commercial textiles and clothing, similar to those currently in place for batteries and electronics, which would force companies to pay for the recovery of waste. It is slow and consultation has been promised for 2025.
Mary Creagh MP, chairperson of the parliamentary environment audit committee that has been investigating sustainability in the fashion industry, believes the timeline is too slow.
She says, “We only have 12 years to combat damaging climate change.” We, as consumers, must ask brands questions. It is essential that brands make this part of their business. These are huge companies that are run by the richest men in the world. It’s a good job for someone.”
Creagh says that cheap fashion can have a negative impact on the environment and on society. “Low-paid workers in other countries are unable to provide for their families. We aren’t saying that people with low incomes can’t afford to buy expensive clothes. It is high time the price of clothing reflected the true cost of minimum wage, decent working conditions, and the ability to grow your stuff without pesticides. It must be sustainable from the top down and we don’t believe that a PS5 dress is the true cost. This price is not being paid for us. It is being paid for by the environment and someone else.”
Boohoo testified to Creagh in parliament that the PS5 dresses were loss leaders and on which the company made no profits. It also stated that it takes sustainability seriously. “We also work with reGAIN to recycle clothing that is no longer in use. This will help to keep them out of the landfill.”
Campaigners for the environment say that people who are interested in being more sustainable should buy quality clothes. They should also learn how to repair and rework clothing to make it last longer. You can save money by buying vintage or second-hand clothing and renting instead of purchasing. Also, you can wash garments less frequently at lower temperatures with a full-sized machine.
In many ways, younger people are ahead of the game, using trading sites such as Depop and Thredup to resell and upcycle clothing.
Mending and cleaning services are in fashion. H&M launched its free mending service in the UK earlier this month. This was a crucial part of a Hammersmith store renovation. H&M is joining a trend that was started by ethical brands like Patagonia. The company makes around 40,000 repairs per year at its Reno, Nevada service center.
Jason Markk, a Los Angeles-based specialist in sports shoe cleaning, opened its first London shop on Carnaby Street in March. The company claims that its “sneaker technicians” have professionally cleaned over 50,000 pairs since opening in the US in 2014.
Primark will launch a clothing-take-back program in 2019, joining the many years-old efforts of H&M and M&S. Barry from M&S says that recycling is only one part of the solution. The company collects approximately 3 million items per year through its “shwopping” program. He says, “The problem is not getting clothes back; it’s how to use it.”
The UK sells approximately 1.2 million tonnes of clothing fibre each year. About half of this is cotton and a third is synthetic. The rest is viscose, animal products, or viscose. Mark Sumner, a University of Leeds lecturer in sustainable fashion, says that it is difficult to reprocess these fibres.
Fabrics are often made from a mixture of different types of thread, such as Tencel and cotton for a T-shirt. There are no commercial-scale facilities available that can separate or reprocess these fabrics. Recolored threads cannot also be recoloured because of the difficulty in removing modern dyes.
Sumner states that the more you play and process them, the worse they become and the less quality. “Recycled fibers from traditional routes are of poor quality.”
Sumner and Barry argue that the government and business should fund research to determine how high-quality fibres can reprocessed on large scale to create a closed-loop economy. If we can find a method of recycling, then we can consider the UK as an exporter or salvaging our textile industry. Sumner believes there is an economic story.