The Comprehensive Guide to Sustainability in Fashion
Both companies and consumers have to move towards sustainable fashion in order to maintain the ecological balance
By Monika Ghosh
When eyeing your favourite pair of jeans or dress, you seldom think about the tons of water that were used to produce those clothes, or the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) used in their dyes, or the small hands of the children who might have produced them in a factory in a third-world country.
Revenue in the fashion industry worldwide has amounted to US$581,308 million so far in 2020, with the industry as a whole valued at more than $2.5 trillion. The global apparel market is projected to grow from US$1.3 trillion in 2015 to about $1.5 trillion in 2020. The fashion industry employs over 300 million people along its value chain across the globe.
In order to understand sustainable fashion, it is important to understand the ecological and social footprint of each piece of clothing you wear every day.
According to the United Nations, 10,000 litres of water is required to produce a single pair of jeans. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt—that’s enough water for one person to drink for 900 days.
The fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Cotton farming is responsible for 24% of insecticide use and 11% of pesticide use despite using only 3% of the world’s arable land. Moreover, McKinsey estimates that to produce 1 kg of fabric, typically 23 kgs of greenhouse gases are generated, while washing and drying 1 kg of clothing over its entire life cycle, using typical methods, creates 11 kgs of greenhouse gasses.
Besides, every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated, while washing clothes releases 500,000 tonnes of microfibers into the ocean every year. It is estimated that more than half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year.
What is fast fashion, and why is it so bad?
Fast fashion refers to pieces of clothing that are adapted imitations of high-end haute couture designs, making them affordable for the mass market. The rise in fast fashion has largely contributed to clothes being treated as almost disposable, leading to the increase in textile consumption.
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), between 1996 and 2012, the amount of clothes bought per person in the EU increased by 40%, but relative to average EU consumer consumption, the price of clothing fell by 36% in the same period.
The price fall can be traced in other markets across the globe as well, which contributed to the rise of fast fashion. For example, in the U.S. a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans cost $50 in 1998, and $46 in 2008, while a Lacoste Polo shirt which was sold for $95 in 1998 was priced at $75 in 2008.
Moreover, fast fashion has increased consumer demand for new styles, prompting fast fashion companies to constantly churn out new designs. For example, Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year and H&M offers 12 to 16 and refreshes them weekly. This means that the wasteful practices described above are amplified to an extreme degree as fast fashion brands strive to put out new collections.
There is now cutthroat competition between garment and textile companies to find the cheapest sources of labor, in order to offer the cheapest clothes and maximize profit. This mentality has led to degradation in the quality of products and the and social and working conditions of laborers.
“If a piece of clothing costs you $19.99, that means the person who made it was paid 19 cents,” Dana Thomas, a veteran journalist and author of Fashionopolis: The Prices of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, told Vox.
While the population continues to grow every year, we are inching closer to the limits of natural resources, with demand constantly increasing.
The dictionary definition of sustainability refers to avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.
Therefore, sustainable fashion refers to fashion products that have high quality, an ethical social footprint where workers are paid decent wages, pollution-free and chemical-free production processes, the use of recycled materials, and biodegradable or sustainable packaging.
The case of Hong Kong
According to Tmall Trend Centre, Alibaba’s fashion-trend forecasting arm, sustainability or impact will be a key decisive factor for Chinese consumers in 2020.
Echoing the same thought is a survey conducted in June and July of 2018 by KPMG entitled ‘Sustainable Fashion: A survey on global perspectives,’ which found that after Shanghai, Hong Kong respondents are the biggest backers of sustainable fashion. 71% of those surveyed said that they consider themselves either very supportive or quite supportive of sustainable fashion, although only 43% see their society as supportive of sustainable fashion.
Moreover, nearly half of those aged 18-24 years said they are very supportive of sustainable fashion, indicating that the concept is highly popular with the younger generation. The survey further indicates that for respondents in Hong Kong, the use of resource-saving technology in production and biodegradable materials for both products and packaging, are key elements of sustainable fashion.
However, according to the Environmental Protection Department of Hong Kong, the metropolitan produces 340 tons of textile waste every day. The waste is dumped in the city’s overflowing landfills.
Besides, the survey indicates that although respondents expressed concern for the environment, most of them are unwilling to pay a premium for sustainable fashion, which is also a major barrier, hindering companies from becoming more sustainable.
According to the survey report, 67% of respondents in Hong Kong would prefer sustainable fashion if the price was similar to normal fashion, while 22% of the respondents would prefer it if it was cheaper than normal fashion. A mere 8% were willing to pay a premium for sustainable fashion.
Data from a report by ecological certification company Oeko-Tex illustrated that while 69% of Millennials say they look into claims of sustainability and eco-friendliness when researching clothing purchases, only 37% actually bought clothes from brands with that focus.
Another important fact that has been brought to the light by most of the studies is that consumers find it difficult to purchase sustainable fashion items as they are relatively unaware of their options.
There are different ways in which companies and consumers can help reduce and control the impact of fashion production on the environment, and become more sustainable.
Clothing is increasingly being underutilized—in China, clothing utilization has decreased by 70% over the last 15 years, according to ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future,’ a report released by Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The report claims that globally, customers miss out on $460 billion of value each year by discarding clothes that they could continue to wear, and some garments are estimated to be discarded after just seven to ten wears.
Changing consumption patterns towards sustainable behaviours and attitudes requires a shift in how we think about and value garments. The idea is to buy higher quality and durable products and to use them for longer.
Fashion as a service:
The rise in sharing economy has provided opportunity for clothes rental and leasing startups in Asia. Although clothes rentals and leases were exclusively limited to wedding garments and occasional party clothes, startups are embracing this new business model in an effort to reduce textile waste.
Other businesses operate clothes subscription services like YCloset in China, where consumers pay a monthly fee to rent unlimited garments and accessories, enabling them to change their wardrobe frequently without buying new products.
Singapore-based Covetella, Style Lease, Yeechoo (which operates in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Shenzhen), Wardrobista, and Pret-a-dress all offer designer dresses on rent. This helps consumers reduce their ecological footprint by allowing them to rent dresses that they do not wish to wear twice, while ensuring longer utilization of the clothes.
Shift to renewable sources of energy:
According to a 2018 study by Quantis, the major climate impact of the fashion production process is driven by coal and natural gas, used to provide heat and electricity, especially in Asia. Therefore, by exploring and turning towards renewable sources of energy, the emissions from the fashion industry can be brought down significantly.
The scenario analysis showed that an 80% overall greenhouse gas emission reduction in the apparel industry alone may be achieved by shifting to 60% renewable energy and setting a 60% energy efficiency target by 2030.
Innovation and digitalization in fashion:
On the supply side, digitalization can lead to increase in production efficiency by reducing raw materials and waste. New technologies can also improve energy efficiency to further reduce emissions in key life cycle stages like Dyeing and Finishing and Yarn Preparation.
Companies should also know the sources of their raw materials, and the specific factories for each batch of production. This can help with organic certification and eliminate subcontracting. Emerging tracking technologies such as DNA tracking and blockchain can help.
In Hong Kong, for example, a pilot project was launched in 2019 by WWF-Hong Kong and HSBC in collaboration with Chicks, a local heritage sustainable fashion brand with a legacy stretching back to the 1950s. The project also involved Chicks’ suppliers, including international fiber producer Lenzing AG, and blockchain provider TextileGenesis.
With textiles produced by Lenzing being issued together with ‘fibrecoins’ on the TextileGenesis platform which were then passed on along the supply chain, the project was designed to enhance supply chain transparency and traceability in the fashion industry, through blockchain technology.
Another example is Google Cloud’s pilot in collaboration with Stella McCartney, announced at the 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, to use Google Cloud technology to provide a more comprehensive view of the raw materials used in clothing manufacturers’ supply chains.
Improved collection for re-use, repair, recycling and up-cycling:
Sustainable fashion brands like Filippa K are taking steps by selling their used clothes in their regular shops to make buying second-hand clothes easier. Others are offering long-term warranties that include offering free repair or replacement of a product, offering repair or instructions for repair, or offering upcycling or instructions for upcycling. The ‘Pulse Of The Fashion Industry’ report suggests setting up public collection points in areas with currently limited garment collection opportunities.
Technology offers the easiest way to overcome barriers to large-scale recycling. Smart garments would allow sorting machines to detect fiber types and determine the practicality of and next steps for further processing.
The industry has to advance to new process technologies that will make it possible to chemically recycle every possible fiber combination at scale and to mechanically recycle with no significant loss in fiber quality.
Conversely, companies are also looking into new fibres that are completely biodegradable and can be sourced sustainably. For example, Chicks sources TENCEL Modal from Lenzing, which is completely biodegradable, has low environmental impact, causes low pollution, offers supply chain transparency through digital tracing solutions, and is certified by OEKO-Tex.
The term ‘circular fashion,’ first used independently in 2014 by H&M and Anna Brismar, the owner of consultancy firm Green Strategy, was inspired by the idea of ‘circular economy’ put forth by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
‘Circular fashion’ is defined by Brismar, as clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use,” the report said.
In order to keep clothes usable for long periods, products should be designed to have multiple life cycles, with recyclable materials that are tailored to the intended use, timeless styles and design suitable for disassembly.
Circular material flow alone, however, is not enough to ensure the apparel sector greatly reduces its carbon front by 2030, as such solutions do not alter the impacts of key production stages, such as dyeing and finishing. Quantis’ study indicates that fiber recapture and reuse alone would achieve only a 10% sector-wide emissions reduction within the broader apparel value chain, though it is a good starting point.
Increasing consumer awareness and engagement:
Through campaigns or providing information on sustainability in stores or through tags on clothes, it may be possible to educate consumers to buy only what they need and to choose more sustainable options.
30% of Pulse Survey respondents identified sustainability as “a social responsibility that fashion brands should fulfil,” while 31% tagged it as “an immense business/value creation opportunity for fashion companies.”
By creating content and conversations about sustainable fashion, brands and companies can position themselves to their advantage, while generating more interest for the topic, and help reduce the ecological and social footprint of the fashion industry.
Header Image by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels