Saving planet Earth is more than a fashion fad

The clothing industry has struggled with excessive and wasteful production, but sustainable manufacturing is at last topping the agenda 

The dire handling of materials, chemicals, water, emissions and waste poses a serious problem for the fashion industry. Each year the sector uses enough water to fill nearly 32 million Olympic swimming pools and emits carbon dioxide levels equivalent to 230 million cars, according to the Pulse of Fashion report. Meanwhile, consumers annually dump 92 million tonnes of clothing that could have been recycled.

“Projections show that in the worst case, the fashion industry will face distinct restrictions on one or more of its key input factors, leaving it unable to grow at the projected rate, and in the long run unable to continue its current operating model,” warns Eva Kruse, chief executive of non-profit Global Fashion Agenda, which authored the report with Boston Consulting Group.

The industry has taken a long time to acknowledge its impact. Sandy Black, a London College of Fashion professor, who authored The Sustainable Fashion Handbook, explains that while things are changing, the challenge for companies has been measuring their damage. “It’s not feasible to carry out a life-cycle assessment on the volume of products being produced in fashion, unlike other industries with slower change and fewer products,” she says.

Taking action

Some brands have begun initiatives to solve the measurement challenge, most notably the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, whose members include Primark, Marks & Spencer, Walmart and Nike.

“The era of wilfully ignoring environmental impacts in fashion is coming to an end,” says SAC chief executive Jason Kibbey. The organisation’s Higg Index, used by nearly 40 per cent of the industry, enables greater scientific benchmarking of the impact of designs, material, energy, water, chemicals and distribution.

High street chain H&M, an SAC member, is targeting using only sustainably sourced materials by 2030. The key to its success could be in its aim to become completely circular, so clothes are made entirely from reused materials. Its stores already allow collection of clothes and the company amassed nearly 16,000 tonnes of used clothing last year.

“Ninety seven per cent of all clothes, textiles and shoes that we collect can be repurposed, and 3 per cent goes to energy,” notes Catarina Midby, sustainability manager at H&M UK and Ireland.

Cyndi Rhoades, chief executive of circular fashion company Worn Again, which is collaborating with H&M and Puma to find new ways to recycle material, says clothing reuse will help deliver the drastic changes needed by the industry and consumers.

“There is a new generation of textile-to-textile recycling technologies that will enable raw materials, like polyester and cellulose from cotton non-rewearable clothing, to be recaptured, restored back to virgin equivalent quality and reintroduced back into the supply chain,” she says. When this becomes cheaper than using untapped materials, it will be impossible for brands to ignore.

The era of wilfully ignoring environmental impacts in fashion is coming to an end

A number of other manufacturers are tackling sustainability and material usage head on. Levi Strauss has saved more than a billion litres of water since 2011, including slashing usage in cotton farming and how it finishes its jeans. Nike, which began by using more environmentally friendly materials and production with knitted uppers on trainers, has gone on to halve its manufacturers’ energy usage in the last decade.

Many of the large firms, nevertheless, can be stuck in their ways and it is innovation by startups that holds great promise. “Customisation and manufacturing on demand is one way to make less volume of product speculatively and provide only what is ordered,” notes Professor Black. She cites customised clothing business Unmade, which has created such a model with interactive tools for consumers to order exactly what they want.

Consumer conscious

Success in sustainability, of course, relies upon consumers wanting environmentally friendly items. With clothes buying expected to increase by 63 per cent by the end of the next decade, according to the Pulse of Fashion report, many fashion brands are encouraging consumers to change their buying habits.

“We want to communicate with our customers how to consume fashion sustainably, offering a diverse assortment to create their own personal style form rather than fast-changing trends,” says Ms Midby.

Persuading consumers to change will be tough and governments need to play their part. Melody LeHew, a professor at Kansas State University, who says education and increased awareness will be important in changing habits, explains that consumers “must understand how human actions contribute to global warming and what the consequences will be if our consumption habits do not change.” She adds that businesses equally will need to get to grips with the importance of making changes now.

The immediate incentive for any change, barring saving the planet, will no doubt be the bottom line. Businesses risk a 3 percentage point slide in their margins by 2030 if they do not embrace sustainable production, Ms Kruse warns. “If no action is taken,” she says, “fashion brands will find themselves squeezed between falling average per-item prices, deeper discount levels, rising costs and resource scarcity along the value chain.”

Change in clothes production is more than a fashion – it’s essential.