How can the fashion industry become more sustainable?

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
The real cost of a £9.99 dress may be more than you think. Image: AdobeStock

Fashion can be glamorous, stylish and iconic. It can also be wasteful, damaging and exploitative.

As the conversation around fashion’s ‘dark side’ grows, the public is becoming more aware of the real cost of a £9.99 jumper.

According to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, 35% of all microplastics in the ocean are caused by synthetic textiles. The fashion business model thrives on retailers producing cheap, low-quality garments which are soon disposed of and replaced with more cheap, low-quality garments.

This is wreaking havoc on the environment and has caused 300,000 tonnes of textiles to be thrown away in the UK alone in the past five years. Fast fashion and its wasteful practices are increasingly problematic, so what can the industry do to become more sustainable?

This is the question the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is currently investigating during its public inquiry. Last month, leading fashion designers, entrepreneurs and campaigners were all questioned as part of the inquiry at a packed public evidence hearing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Though the problems impact both the planet we live on and the people on it, the evidence gathered at the session all demonstrated positive steps that can and are being made. There are solutions out there, but these cannot be adopted on a large scale until there is a serious reworking of the current model.

Origins of waste

Fashion designer Phoebe English runs an eponymous fashion brand in South London. In order to make sustainable garments, English employs expert ‘cutters’ who use as much material as possible when cutting the garment’s outline from the main piece of fabric. Yet English has often struggled to convince her suppliers to send the waste cuts back.

She said: “It often takes extra time to get the waste scraps back and I have to fight to get it. Off-cuts were once a resource and now they’re deemed a waste product. I haven’t been able to find a reliable place to recycle my textiles. Imagine every garment on Oxford Street and the space around it [once it’s cut] is waste – where is that waste going?”

Waste cuts are an inevitable outcome of the industry, but how they are viewed and dealt with could play a large role in reducing the industry’s overall carbon footprint. If the textiles could be given to a responsible recycler, or better yet – reused – a more circular model could be achieved.

Slowing down the cycle

Many of the panellists spoke to MPs about the speed of trends and seasons racing through the high street, with some pointing to examples where retailers stock a collection for just one month before shipping in a new haul.

Often sustainability is a privilege for those who can afford it and many designers only offer high-end products, yet data shows we are spending more than we ever have on the high street.

Professor Dilys Williams, professor of fashion design for sustainability at the London College of Fashion, said: “We are buying 400% more pieces than we were 20 years ago, and we are spending more money on things that we are chucking away. I think that we have to change cultures and the consumerist attitude that more is better.

“We need to create a different kind of business modelling and produce less within planetary boundaries. Businesses are aware their model is broken and need to make that transition, that’s why we need the support of government so there isn’t the option to undercut.”

The inquiry also heard that the cycle cannot be quickly broken given that the creation and innovation of more sustainable materials can take many years to perfect.

Claire Bergkamp, sustainability and innovation director at Stella McCartney, said: “No major change we’ve had has taken less than two years. In my opinion, brands are removed from what it takes to truly build a product. In all the decisions we make, we consider every step of production, but we are still dealing with waste in the supply chain.”

Digital potential

Although the fashion model has long relied on compulsive purchases, the past few years have witnessed growth in the rental market. No longer confined to formalwear and suit jackets, the rental sector now offers users an easy way to keep up with the latest trends and change up their everyday wardrobes.

Coined the ‘Spotify of fashion’, shops are now offering subscription packages where users can hire several garments at a time for a flat monthly fee. Firms are using the same principles as the fast-fashion brands to analyse and track which styles are most popular and durable, helping to avoid waste.

English has begun working with a hire company and is so far impressed with the results. She said: “It is interesting to see how people are responding to clothes in a different way. You don’t have a big fee to pay to take risks.”

Renting clothes also means the endorphin high that customers get when purchasing a garment can be repeated, this time without any damage to the environment or the bank balance.

Second-hand clothing marketplaces, such as mobile app Depop, are also increasing in popularity. The app allows users to buy or sell clothing plus message each other, comment and like posts, echoing the familiar territory of Instagram and Twitter.

With many Depop users also the target market for cheap online-only retailers, the app can help boost the popularity of buying second-hand and change the narrative around reusing clothing to an impressionable group.

Next steps

In a following evidence session, committee chair Mary Creagh also pointed towards the propensity for some online-only marketplaces to lead to exploitation. She said: “Low-quality £5 dresses aimed at young people are said to be made by workers on illegally low wages and are discarded almost instantly, causing mountains of non-recycled waste to pile up.”

Creagh has since written to five leading online-only fashion retailers – Amazon, ASOS, Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Missguided – requesting information on the steps taken by both consumers and brands to reduce the environmental impact of their processes.

Some brands, like Wales-based jean manufacturer Huit Denim, are also offering a repair service to make their garments last longer, demonstrating the simple steps brands could take to reduce their environmental impact.

Excessive waste in the fashion industry is just one of many obstacles preventing fashion from becoming sustainable, and it can often be challenging for consumers to know where to shop ethically. Yet as critics became louder, it’s only a matter of time before the fast-fashion culprits get stitched up.

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