The first thing to say is that the initiatives that have a lasting impact on carbon emissions or water usage are often offset by fashion brands’ continuous drive for growth. Real change can only be achieved when sustainability is accounted for at every stage of the fashion value chain, especially educating and incentivizing consumers to buy fewer clothes in the first place—and keep them for longer.
In 2019, Europeans spent €226 billion on clothes (excluding underwear, nightwear, and swimwear), with a particular focus on fast-fashion brands such as H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, Primark, and Boohoo, all of which have seen tremendous growth in recent years. These companies have enticed consumers to buy more items, more often, in order to stay stylish or just buy cheap products — and we’ve responded by doing exactly that. In Germany, the average consumer buys about 17 items of clothing a year — most of which are brand new. These 17 pieces then join the 97 items that are already hanging in our closets. And then there’s the top quartile of the population who buy 23 items or more per year, adding to the 145 items or more that they already own.
After an average of about six years, consumers sell these items, gift them to someone else, or throw them out altogether, although quality issues mean that many clothes might not even last that long. Consumers have different motivations for disposing of their garments: around 36 percent believe they are worn out or damaged, while around 28 percent say they no longer fit. But 20 percent dispose of garments because they no longer like them, and 11 percent simply want to make space in their closet for new ones. So, that means that one third of the time, we get rid of clothes that we could still feasibly wear.
That consumption pattern comes at a heavy environmental cost. According to a variety of sources, the global fashion industry produced 1.2 billion to 1.7 billion tons of carbon emissions — more than the aviation and shipping industries combined. And that represents 3 to 5 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. When it comes to water consumption, the picture is even worse: the fashion industry accounts for about 11 percent of all fresh water used for industrial purposes. The manufacturing process itself also requires vast amounts of oil and toxic chemicals. On top of this, the industry has a shocking track record when it comes to ensuring humane work conditions and animal welfare and is one of the worst culprits behind the millions of microfibers that end up in our oceans.
Against the backdrop of these challenges, the industry is slowly starting to change, as shown by initiatives such as Global Fashion Agenda, Better Cotton Initiative, Fashion For Good, Mistra Future Fashion, and Ellen Macarthur Foundation. Reducing their environmental impact is slowly becoming top of mind for many fashion executives and has triggered numerous initiatives along the value chain, including avoiding plastic bags in stores, choosing more sustainable cotton, and using fewer toxic chemicals for processes such as dyeing or finishing. These measures are more than just a step in the right direction: they also help support the brand’s profitability along the way. And they’re all designed to tackle the pollution that comes with the production and distribution process, which is responsible for 94 percent of the emissions produced through the entire value chain. Some early successes are already visible: Adidas reduced its absolute carbon emissions by 12 percent between 2015 and 2018, and Kering — owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Balenciaga—reduced its emissions by 36 percent.
So, what can companies do to embrace circularity? I recommend 10 immediate actions, most of which are already happening across the larger fashion companies but only sporadically. In the short term, fashion brands can start with easy-to-implement measures such as educating consumers about how to treat their clothes properly. Fashion giant H&M, for example, publishes detailed care instructions and repair tips on its website. Next, companies need to encourage consumers to wear clothes longer and restyle them more often instead of chasing the latest trends. Lindex tells its customers to make “conscious” purchases by only buying what they really need and Swedish start-up Asket was founded on the premise of conscious consumption. In 2019, it unveiled a gigantic billboard on Stockholm’s main shopping area saying F*** Fast Fashion. But fashion brands don’t have to go to such dramatic lengths to become sustainable. Another way to achieve this goal is to reduce the amount of product launches per year and to take pressure off the consumers to be on trend. In a recent case in point, Giorgio Armani announced it would go back to a traditional summer/winter–rhythm, with many other designers following suit.
Education and communication are a good start, but fashion brands must also address design issues in order to credibly embrace circularity. This means creating longer-lasting collections based on designs that can be worn on multiple occasions and can be easily restyled. Product quality, such as durability and no discoloration, also plays a crucial role in encouraging consumers to wear their clothes longer.
In addition, fashion brands need to re-examine their use of traditional materials such as polyester and cotton in favour of exploring more environmentally friendly options such as recycled or biodegradable materials. Recent years have seen the emergence of fabric alternatives made from wood (Lenzing), mushrooms (Amadou and Boltthreads), algae (Algalife and Algiknit), and fruits (Pinatex and Orange Fiber).
To truly become circular, brands need to invest (either directly or through partners) in reverse logistics to collect clothes and prevent them from ending up in a landfill. They can also extend the longevity of garments by establishing repair services, as Patagonia and The North Face have done, enabling customers to send in or drop off damaged clothes and have them repaired by experts in days.
Crucially, unwanted clothes don’t have to be destined for landfill. The second-hand market is maturing. Although 30 percent of transactions are still happening within the circle of friends and family, several exciting start-ups (ThredUp, TheRealReal, I:Collect, and Vinted) are professionalising this burgeoning market. The charity shop around the corner is now a thing of the past. More consumers are seeing the benefit of second-hand clothing as they seek out more unique and sustainable alternatives — not necessarily always much cheaper, too. Even luxury brands such as Burberry are embracing this trend. Zalando, Europe’s largest fashion online retailer, just launched a pre-owned business where consumers can buy and trade-in clothes.
For consumers who want to change their look on a regular basis, rental models are an intuitive option. Companies such as Rent The Runway, Le Tote, and Glam Corner give customers an opportunity to rent a few items for a limited amount of time in exchange for a monthly subscription fee. Once the items are returned, the company has the clothes professionally cleaned and then rents them out to someone else. This means users can refresh their wardrobe on a regular basis without actually buying new clothes —and harming the environment in the process.
Lastly, garments that are damaged beyond repair can still be used to produce new ones. Some innovative companies, such as Pure Waste Textiles, Circular Systems, Tyton BioSciences, and Worn Again, have developed solutions to transform textile waste into virgin-quality recycled fabric. In the long term, recycled fabrics may become the rule rather than the exception.