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How sustainable is the fashion industry?

In this article, we’ll be exploring how sustainable the fashion industry is by looking at the main issues, sustainable design techniques, and how to make sustainable choices.

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Whether you’re a lover of fashion or not, clothes are a very necessary part of society. We need to wear them every day; they must be practical or suitable for our daily activities; they help keep us warm; and they wear out fairly easily, meaning we must own enough items of clothing.

On a more emotional level, fashion is one of the primary ways we are able to express ourselves to others without actually having a conversation. We use fashion to find like-minded people, express our interests and reflect our personalities. 

However, the fashion industry has taken our need for clothes to the extreme and is producing an unsustainable amount of new clothes. In fact, the number of new garments made each year is as much as 100 billion, and a shocking 450 billion dollars worth of textiles are thrown away globally.

We’re left with many questions about the future of fashion. How can the fashion industry become more sustainable? Are there already some truly sustainable brands? And how can we make more sustainable fashion choices? We answer all of these questions and more in this article. 

How big is the fashion industry?

In our blog post on careers in fashion, we explored the current size of the industry along with some of the top career possibilities. As you can probably imagine, the global fashion industry is enormous. Statistics show that the global apparel market will grow in value from 1.5 trillion US dollars in 2020 to 2.25 trillion dollars in 2025, which is a huge amount of growth.

Approximately 430 million people across the world are thought to work in the fashion and textile industry, which converts to 1 in 8 people globally. A large percentage of this workforce exists in Asia, due to the large quantities of clothing factories there.

Looking at the global ethical fashion market, the numbers are much smaller, but we’re still seeing a great deal of growth. The market is predicted to grow from 6.35 billion dollars in 2019 to $8.25 billion in 2023. This shows that people are becoming more interested in shopping sustainably and ethically.

What is fast fashion?

You’ve probably heard of the term “fast fashion” by now, but what does it really mean? Generally, fast fashion can be defined as inexpensive, mass-produced clothing that takes inspiration from fashion trends, celebrity culture and the catwalk, sold in high street stores or by online retailers. 

The clothes are generally poor quality because they’re not made to last. Instead, they’re made with the mindset that a current fashion trend will only last for a temporary period. Then, a new trend will become popular, meaning that old fast fashion pieces can be discarded in favour of new garments. The cycle continues indefinitely because the new clothes are cheap enough to be bought frequently and in large quantities.

Fast fashion, therefore, encourages overproduction, overconsumption, and a culture of buying into trends. This results in clothes only being worn a few times, or not at all in some cases. Additionally, this fast fashion model encourages ignorance when it comes to who makes our clothes – garments are churned out so quickly and easily that we forget that a real person has to create them.

What are the environmental impacts of fast fashion? 

To give you a better understanding of some of the repercussions of fast fashion, we took a look at our open steps by Creative Skillset about the key environmental issues and key social issues related to the fashion industry. We’ll start by looking at the environmental impact of fast fashion, though this won’t be an exhaustive list.

Waste

There is no doubt that the fashion industry creates a lot of waste. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is dumped in a landfill or burned globally, and worldwide consumption of textiles is expected to grow by 4% every year until 2025. Textiles going to landfill is a waste of material, landfill space and money. In addition, synthetic fibres take hundreds of years to decompose, and natural fibres can release methane into the atmosphere.

Water

Cotton actually accounts for 90% of natural fibres used in the textile industry, but growing it requires vast amounts of water – over 30,000 litres to create 1kg of cotton. This amount of water is clearly unsustainable, and has resulted in environmental disasters such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to 10% of its former size. 

Energy

According to The Carbon Trust, clothing accounts for about 3% of global carbon emissions, and these emissions are created during the manufacturing process, but also when clothes are worn, washed, tumble-dried and ironed. As we explored in our blog post all about climate change, CO2 emissions are the biggest cause of global warming.

Chemicals

In our open step, Creative Skillset suggests that 17-20% of industrial water pollution is a result of textile dyeing and treatment – 8,000 synthetic chemicals globally are used to turn raw materials into textiles, and many of these chemicals are released into freshwater sources. These chemicals can be harmful to humans, animals and agricultural land.

Animal welfare

The treatment of animals is widely spoken about in the fashion industry. Two of the biggest conversations happen around the global fur trade and wearing leather, but issues also surround fabrics such as wool, angora, cashmere, silk and feathers. 

Some people consider using animals for fabrics unethical since we are able to create synthetic materials at no detriment to animals. All animals deserve to be treated with kindness, so sustainable brands should keep this in mind at all stages of their garment manufacturing process.

What are the social impacts of fast fashion?

The negative consequences of fast fashion are not just environmental – they’re societal too. Below we go into more detail about the key social issues in the fashion industry so that you gain a better understanding of the true cost of your clothes. Again, this list is not exhaustive, and you can take a look at our open step for more detail. 

Poor working conditions

Most of the time, fast fashion brands make clothes in international factories where working conditions are not as they should be. In many factories, workers lack basic health and safety measures, and they are often exploited. One tragic example of what bad working conditions in a factory can lead to is the Rana Plaza factory collapse, where 1,134 workers lost their lives. Some other poor conditions that workers have to face include excessive hours, exhaustion, harassment, and discrimination.

Forced labour

According to The Global Slavery Index from 2016, 40.3 million people are living in modern slavery, with 24.9 million in forced labour. Many of the countries where a lot of forced labour is occurring are the world’s biggest textile and garment producers, so it’s clear that fashion brands need to be aware of forced labour as a big issue. It can be hard to detect forced labour, though prison labour and child labour are two of the better-known forms of it. 

Low wages

In many countries where clothes are produced, the minimum wage is not enough for a worker to live on. For example, in Bangladesh, the minimum wage is predicted to cover only 60% of the cost of living in a slum. When you consider that the majority of garment workers are women, and many of them have children and families to provide for, these extremely low wages are even more disturbing.

It’s important to consider this when you buy from fast fashion brands – you may have got a really cheap deal, but the people who made your clothes might be struggling to feed their families. Therefore, we need to put pressure on fashion brands to pay a living wage to all of their workers.

What is the definition of sustainable fashion?

In our blog post, What does sustainability mean?, we discussed what the definition of sustainability was. There are a number of different definitions of sustainability, but looking at the word etymologically, to ‘sustain’ means to keep something going or provide support. In this way, we can view sustainability as an approach to sustaining life and supporting the planet.

Thinking about sustainability in a fashion context, Sarah Ditty, the editor in chief at Ethical Fashion Forum, suggests that it’s about capacity to endure. This isn’t only talking about the endurance of a garment, but of business profits, human resources and your natural and material resources. Ditty also suggests that her company defines sustainable fashion as “fashion that maximises benefits to people and minimises impact on the environment”.

If you want to learn in more depth about fashion and sustainability, we have some great courses for you. You can explore the fashion industry’s impact on people and the planet and how this relates to the Sustainable Development Goals on our Fashion’s Future: The Sustainable Development Goals course by Fashion Revolution. 

Alternatively, you can learn how to create a plan for fashion that protects Earth’s ecosystems on our Fashion Values: Nature course, or become an expert at sustainable fashion on our 10-week microcredential, Fashion Sustainability: Shaping Fashion’s Future by Institut Français de la Mode and Kering.

Why is sustainable fashion so expensive?

If you’ve just started making the switch from fast fashion to sustainable brands, you might be shocked about the difference in price tags. It’s a well-known fact that sustainable brands are more expensive to buy, and this definitely puts a lot of people off. Why should we have to spend £40 on a top when we can buy one for £7 in Primark?

Here’s why. There are lots of different factors that make sustainable clothing more expensive than fast fashion. It’s not just about the garment itself – it’s about paying workers fairly, sourcing sustainable and ethical materials, and thinking about production time. 

Many small sustainable brands use a made-to-order service with only one or two people making all of the garments, meaning a lot of time and effort goes into making one item of clothing. Naturally, this means that the price has to increase for the workers to get paid a fair wage.

So, if you care about workers being paid fairly and treated well, and your materials being sourced sustainably, you may have to consider paying more for your garments. It’s also worth noting that buying sustainable, high-quality items on an infrequent basis might even be better for your wallet than having regular fast fashion hauls.

Of course, you do need a certain amount of privilege to be able to buy only sustainable clothing brands. It’s not feasible for everyone, especially if your size is harder to find. For this reason, we should never criticise someone we don’t know for buying fast fashion. There are, however, other ways to shop sustainably that are just as inexpensive as fast fashion, which we’ll explore later on.

How can fashion brands become more sustainable?

The first thing that fashion brands can do to become more sustainable is to ensure that they’re causing minimal environmental and societal harm. This means they should reduce textile waste, reduce use of synthetic chemicals, treat animals with compassion, pay workers fairly, create safe and healthy working conditions for their workers, and essentially try to be respectful of people and the planet. 

On a more practical level, fashion brands might find it useful to look at fashion standards, certifications and schemes, many of which we list and discuss in our open step. These can be useful guidelines for ethical practice within the industry, certifications that demonstrate to customers that you can be trusted, and initiatives that help you make sustainable decisions.

We also have some sustainable fashion design techniques and manufacturing tips from Creative Skillset. These might help you if you’re thinking about starting your own sustainable fashion brand or looking to become more sustainable in your existing business.

Sustainable design techniques

  • Zero waste pattern cutting. This approach requires you to know your textile dimensions before designing a garment, and carefully planning out fabric cutting so that there is no textile waste.
  • Minimal seam construction. This technique reduces the number of seams needed to sew a garment together, saving materials and increasing user comfort.
  • Upcycling. When upcycling, the designer uses by-products, waste materials or existing products and transforms them into something new and more valuable. One example of this is using deadstock fabric leftover from mills and factories.
  • Design for disassembly (Dfd). This requires products to be made in a way where they can easily be taken apart, and so be easily repaired, reused or recycled.
  • Multi-functional / transformational. This design technique requires you to design a garment for multiple uses, e.g. making it reversible or having components you can add or remove.
  • Design for longevity. There are many things that can improve a garment’s longevity, from poor quality fabrics and bad stitching to poor sizing. Paying close attention to these factors will mean they are less likely to be discarded.
  • Craft preservation. Old, ancestral craft techniques can be preserved by incorporating them into modern design. However, always give the original craftspeople credit, or even better, stick to techniques that originated in your own culture so that you’re not culturally appropriating.

The benefits of becoming a more sustainable brand

It might sound difficult and expensive to focus on sustainability as a brand, but there are actually plenty of benefits for your company. First of all, the knowledge that you’re having minimal impact on the planet while supporting people’s livelihoods so that they achieve fair treatment and wages should definitely make you feel good.

But there are actually economic benefits too. In Creative Skillset’s open step about the future of fashion, they discuss an analysis by Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise on over 190 studies, reports, articles and books. The analysis found a huge correlation between thoughtful, sustainable business practices and economic performance, particularly stock price performance.

In addition, a 2012 study by Harvard Business Review found that companies who use less energy and create less waste tend to produce higher investment returns. That definitely sounds like a good incentive to focus on sustainable and ethical practices. A good example is Marks & Spencer, the UK retailer that reported a £160 million net benefit from their sustainability efforts between 2014 and 2015.

How can we make more sustainable fashion choices?

Although brands have a responsibility to become more sustainable in order to protect the planet and society, we also have a role to play as individuals. At the end of the day, companies respond to consumers, so if you continue to buy trendy fast fashion pieces, the brand will continue to push them out. 

If you show more interest in sustainable brands, fashion companies are more likely to adopt sustainable practices – although you also need to be aware of greenwashing, where companies pretend to be sustainable as a marketing tactic. Below we’ve provided some tips on how to make more sustainable fashion choices:

Buy secondhand clothes

There are so many clothes out there for you to find. Exploring charity shops can be fun, but if you know what you’re looking for, sites like Depop, Vinted and eBay are excellent.

Do your research on brands

As we said previously, greenwashing is rampant. Check to see if a brand is open and honest about their business, talking about things like supply, fabric sourcing, and labour. Check out Good On You for advice on whether a brand is sustainable.

Rewear outfits

We live in a society where it’s deemed as bad to rewear the same garments, but this mindset is unsustainable and encourages us to keep buying. Why not play around and see how many outfits you can create with the same garment?

Thrift flip

 This has been a big trend on social media sites like TikTok and YouTube. Basically, you take an item of clothing you don’t really like anymore and turn it into something new. This will require some sewing skills, but why not learn if you haven’t tried before?

Find a tailor

If you’re not so good at sewing, but you have some clothes that don’t fit you well, you could always take your clothes to a tailor. This is an inexpensive and sustainable way to revamp your wardrobe, and you’ll gain some perfectly fitting clothes.

Donate clothes

Most people know that donating clothes is better than throwing them in the trash. However, make sure you only donate clean clothes that someone might want to buy, and call up a charity shop beforehand to check they’re accepting donations.

Sell your clothes online

Alternatively, selling clothes online ensures that they will go to a home where they are wanted. Normally, it’s fair to sell clothes for below their original price, though the particular price reduction might depend on how much it’s been worn.

Have a clothes swap

Not only is this easier than donating or selling clothes, but it’s the perfect opportunity to throw a fun event with friends. Everyone brings their unwanted clothes, and then you can all mix and match. 

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this has been a useful guide to sustainable fashion, whether you’re the owner of a fashion brand or a fashion consumer trying to reduce your mark on the world. Fashion may seem like a frivolous interest to some, but it’s an important part of self-expression for many people, and it has a huge impact on the earth. Therefore, it’s important that we pay close attention to sustainable practices in fashion, and ensure that the future of fashion is an innovative, thoughtful and ethical place.

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