Fashion revolves around the latest trends but is the industry behind the curve on the only trend that ultimately matters - the need to radically alter our patterns of consumption to ensure the survival of the planet.
The fashion industry produces 20 per cent of global wastewater and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions - more than all international flights and maritime shipping. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans.
Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. If nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Washing clothes also releases half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year.
Then there is the human cost: textile workers are often paid derisory wages and forced to work long hours in appalling conditions. But with consumers increasingly demanding change, the fashion world is finally responding with A-listers, like Duchess Meghan Markle, leading the way with their clothing choices and designers looking to break the take-make-waste model.
“Most fashion retailers now are doing something about sustainability and have some initiatives focused on reducing fashion’s negative impact on the environment,” says Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester. For example, last year, Britain’s Stella McCartney teamed up with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to launch a report on redesigning fashion’s future.
“However, there is still a fundamental problem with the fast fashion business model where revenues are based on selling more products, and therefore retailers must constantly offer new collections. It would be unrealistic to expect consumers to stop shopping on a large scale, so going forward, I would expect to see more development and wider adoption of more sustainable production methods such as waterless dyeing, using waste as a raw material, and development of innovative solutions to the textile waste problem,” she says.
Pioneering solutions to address environmental challenges will be at the heart of the fourth UN Environment Assembly next March. The meeting’s motto is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits—a message that will resonate with fashion designers and retailers seeking to reform their industry.
At the March meeting, UN Environment will formally launch the UN Alliance on Sustainable Fashion to encourage the private sector, governments and non-governmental organizations to create an industry-wide push for action to reduce fashion’s negative social, economic and environmental impact and turn it into a driver for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Across the United Nations, agencies are working to make fashion more sustainable, from the Food and Agricultural Organization protecting arable land, to the Ethical Fashion Initiative set up by the International Trade Centre to the work of UN Environment in fostering sustainable manufacturing practices.
And some entrepreneurs are already designing the fashion of the future:
Some argue that recycling is itself energy intensive and does not address our throwaway culture—the number of times a garment is worn has declined by 36 per cent in 15 years. An alternative might be found in a viable rental market for clothes. Pioneers in this field include Dutch firm Mud Jeans, which leases organic jeans that can be kept, swapped or returned, Rent the Runway, Girl Meets Dress and YCloset in China.
“The rental model is clearly a winner for the higher end of the market where consumers may have no intention of wearing an occasion dress more than once… but at the lower end, it’s all too easy to go online and be able to buy outright any trend or item,” says Perry. “For rental to be a success at this market level, companies need to offer sufficient choice of brands and styles that would engage consumers and tempt them away from outright purchase, and the rental service needs to be smooth and faultless.”
Her best fashion advice? Less is always more.
“Keep your clothing in use for longer to reduce its environmental footprint, as well as reducing the amount of new stuff you need to buy and the consequent use of resources. This also reduces the impact of the disposal of perfectly good but unwanted clothes.”
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.