Sustainable Fashion Practices are in the rise

June 28, 2019

Ready-to-Wear and Re-Wear — Meet Sustainable Fashion

There’s a clash brewing in the fashion industry -- between consumers’ pocket books and consciences. Shoppers have embraced fast fashion, from the rise of Zara and H&M to brands such as Boohoo, regularly updating their wardrobes quickly and cheaply. Yet increasingly, they don’t want to damage the planet by doing so and the fashion industry can be rough on the environment. Now apparel makers for all budgets are committing to making fashion more sustainable. Is green the new black?

1. What is sustainable fashion?

It’s a movement aimed at making the fashion industry more environmentally responsible by changing the ways clothes are designed, made, transported, used and discarded. The idea is to move away from so-called fast fashion, the rapid production of clothes -- often inexpensive ones -- in response to constantly changing trends, leading to a disposable attitude toward them on the part of consumers. There’s also a focus on animal welfare and making the industry more socially responsible, notably by clamping down on poor working conditions and the use of child labor in developing countries.

2. How do clothes harm the environment?

With clothing output roughly doubling in the past 15 years, carbon emissions from textile production have been calculated as exceeding those of all maritime shipping and international flights combined. Polyester and cotton make up 85% of all clothing material, and both are rough on the planet. The extraction of crude oil, the basis of polyester, can produce toxic leaks and generate polluted wastewater. Most polyester isn’t biodegradable. What’s more, the fabric requires chemical dyes, which contaminate groundwater sources. Cotton is an especially water- and insecticide-intensive crop. Some 2,700 liters (713 gallons) of water -- enough to sustain a person for three years -- are needed to grow the cotton in a single T-shirt. Some brands are using more organic cotton, grown without pesticides, but it makes up only 1% of the global crop and uses as much water as regular cotton.

3. What role do fashion consumers play?

People are buying more clothes and keeping them for shorter periods. The average number of times a garment is worn in Europe before it is retired has dropped by a third in 15 years -- from 200 in 2000 to 160 in 2015. When they’re washed, polyester and nylon expel minuscule particles that contaminate sewage. These tiny fibers have been found to make up an important part of the microplastic polluting the world’s oceans. While it is consumers’ demand for cheap clothes that drove the fashion industry to develop this way, this has started to shift. About half of the consumers in the U.K. have been estimated to care about how clothes are produced, and that rises to 60%among under-24s.

4. What are companies doing about it?

Companies representing about 12.5% of the market have signed up to a 2020 commitment by an industry group, the Global Fashion Agenda, that’s called for measures such as using water more efficiently, developing more sustainable fibers and inventing novel recycling systems. Many brands have their own initiatives.

  • Adidas AG has said it’s committed to using only recycled plastic by 2024
  • Hennes & Mauritz AB aims to use only recycled or other “sustainably sourced” materials in its production lines by 2030
  • PVH Corp., owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, aims for all of its cotton and viscose to come from sustainable sources by 2025; and 100% of polyester by 2030
  • Urban Outfitters Inc. started a rental servicefor women’s apparel in the U.S.
  • Prada SpA has pledged to replace its entire nylon supply with a more sustainable version, using synthetic fabric from recycled ocean plastic for example

After decades of ire from animal rights groups, Prada is also the latest luxury brand joining Gucci and Burberry Group Plc in banning fur from the runways.

5. Is it all making a difference?

Not yet. Better practices still don’t offset the industry’s rapid growth, projected to reach over 100 million tonnes of apparel and footwear purchased each year by 2030. The Global Fashion Agenda found in its 2019 update that without deeper and more systemic changes the industry won’t achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. And fast fashion shows little signs of slowing down. In India, Tata Group, Inditex SA’s partner running Zara stores, is building its own apparel empire that promises to deliver “extreme fast fashion,” getting runway styles to customers in just 12 days and at half the price.

6. What happens to unwanted clothing?

It’s been estimated that every second, a garbage truck of textiles is dumped in a landfill or burned. Less than 1% of materials produced for clothing is recycled into new apparel. Even some companies making sustainability pledges burn millions of dollars worth of unsold clothes. Now Burberry has promised to stop destroying stock completely. To meet that goal, the U.K. company is increasing sales to its own employees; donating unsold stock to brands that make new items out of scraps of leather; and donating clothes to help disadvantaged people dress for success when hunting for jobs. H&M says it only resorts to destroying clothes when they don’t adhere to its safety standards and can’t be sold, recycled or given to charity. When it does burn clothes, it does so at a Swedish power plantthat’s transitioning to become fossil-fuel free.

7. Are governments doing anything?

France, home to some of the world’s most popular fashion brands, is spearheading a global fashion-industry sustainability drive as part of its presidency of the Group of Seven. The push to get companies to make new commitments to reduce their environmental impact is being coordinated by Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive officer of Gucci owner Kering SA. In Europe, producers and consumers will be affected by European Parliamenttargets for at least 55% of municipal waste to be recycled by 2025 and no more than 10% to go to landfills by 2035. But the U.K. government in June rejected proposals aimed at putting an end to the era of throwaway fashion, including a ban on incinerating clothes. In the U.S., customs rules inadvertently encourage brands to burn unsold goods imported to the U.S. by offering refunds on the items’ duties if they are destroyed. Across the globe, there is very little regulation requiring companies to be transparent about the chemicals used to dye and treat fabrics, making it difficult to evaluate the true environmental impact of the industry.