The Green Era and Sustainable Fashion

Published on 15 Feb, 2021

Fast fashion debuted on the world scene barely two decades ago, but soon made inroads into wardrobes everywhere. With various brands jumping on the bandwagon, the trend caught on quickly. However, its negative impact on the environment and spiraling labor exploitation issues have tarnished its shine. Brands are now looking at sustainable, ethical practices to remain the top choice of new-age, environmentally aware consumers.

Entry of fast fashion
Simply put, fast fashion is economical clothing produced swiftly by mass-market retailers to keep up with the latest trends. Fast-fashion brands have swamped the style bastion over the past few decades, registering voluminous sales. This accelerated fashion business model offers new brands and everything from party wear to work wear at extremely affordable rates. It soon caught the fancy of fashion consumers. According to the publication Vox, an international survey suggests that almost all retail consumers globally will have at least one fast-fashion item in their closet. Among these, Zara and H&M have emerged the most preferred brands. In fact, Zara, recognized as the first successful fast-fashion business model worldwide, has a design-to-retail cycle of merely 5 weeks and launches over 20 collections annually.

The rise of fast fashion could also be attributed to a shift in consumer behavior. Growing consumerism and rising interest in new fashion trends encouraged the emergence of ‘fast fashion’. It is estimated that clothing production has doubled globally over the past 15 years.

Negative effects come to light...
Fast fashion mooted the trend of ‘use and throw’ among consumers, which consulting firm McKinsey named the ‘throwaway culture’. As fast-fashion items are cheap, users use these only once or twice before discarding them. Globally, the average number of times an item of clothing is worn before being discarded decreased by 36% in the past 15 years. Online retail is even speedier as it allows for the launch of trendy designs and new capsule collections almost weekly.

The trend has led to throwaway garments becoming one of the largest polluters on the planet. In 2015, textile production contributed 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This was more than the combined emissions of international flights and maritime shipping that year. If clothes continue to be produced this rapidly, the fashion industry will be responsible for 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

Another downside to fast fashion is the difficulty in reprocessing synthetic, viscose, or animal-product items (such as leather accessories), which are favored materials for fast fashion. This is why barely 1% of the material used for clothing globally can be recycled into new clothes, thus resulting in massive wastage.

Clothing production utilizes huge amounts of water, thus causing its shortage as well as increasing pollution. Emerging economies such as India, China, and Pakistan – which have huge clothing industries – are likely to face severe water scarcity soon. Furthermore, an estimated 700,000 fibers of synthetic material are released in a single wash of some clothes, which results in 0.5 million tons of microfibers reaching the ocean every year.

Fast fashion is also a consistent factor in the exploitation of labor. Countries such as the Philippines, China, and Vietnam have clothing factories that employ laborers to work in deplorable conditions. These countries have also faced increased allegations of forced labor and child labor. Less than 2% of these factory workers are paid a minimum wage, but are also compelled to work long hours. In Bangladesh, clothing workers earn barely USD 96 per month, which is three times less than the amount specified by the government’s wage board to enable a modest lifestyle.

...kickstarting a revolution
The need for change is critical and the solution to the problems mentioned is a switch to sustainable, ethically created fashion. Ethical fashion – an approach to sourcing, manufacturing, and designing clothes that benefit the fashion industry as well as society – has a minimal impact on the environment. This revolution is now being supported by consumers as well as fashion brands.

External revolution: Converted consumers
The consumer of today is conscious about environmental repercussions, especially in light of the recent global pandemic. A survey conducted in 2015 by research firm Nielsen states that 66% of consumers worldwide are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products or services from companies that advocate and follow through on social and environmental responsibility.

Customers are thus making efforts to reduce their carbon footprint in all products they use. This is true for clothing as well. While fast fashion is still growing, a study conducted in 2018 also revealed that the number of consumers purchasing clothing once a month has reduced while that of those doing so over a longer time (every alternate month or less) has risen.

Internal revolution: Responsible textile industry, fashion brands
Clothing companies and fashion brands busy in the fast-fashion race did not take their environmental obligations seriously until a few years ago. Luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Urban Outfitters have been known to burn tons of unsold inventory, which pollutes the air and is an immense waste of the resources that went into producing the products.

Leading fashion brands have now realized the need to become more accountable for their actions and their impact on the environment. An example of this new consciousness would be H&M; the brand has become more aware of the origin of the materials it uses. It also deploys renewable power at its outlets and has expanded its clothing recycling program, all in a bid to reduce pollution. Similarly, fashion brand Zara’s parent company, Inditex, has pledged to use only sustainable, organic, or recycled material in all its clothing by 2025. As frontrunners of the fast-fashion industry worldwide, these companies are taking these steps to limit the damage they cause the environment.

Environment-friendly initiatives like recycling clothes are now gaining popularity; brands like Primark, M&S, and H&M have launched drives to buy back their clothing items from consumers. Governments are also encouraging such moves. Governments in Europe have introduced extended producer-responsibility schemes for household and commercial textiles and clothing; these steps hold companies accountable for their waste and make them cover the expenses incurred on recovery and recycling.

Secondhand clothing: An innovative solution
According to a TredUp 2020 Resale report, the global secondhand clothing market is soaring and is estimated to triple in value over the next decade, from USD 28 billion in 2019 to USD 80 billion in 2029. In 2019, the US secondhand clothing market grew 21 times faster than the conventional apparel retail market.

In fact, experts predict that while fast fashion would continue to grow at a 20% rate in the next decade, secondhand fashion could skyrocket to 185% during the period. Trading sites such as Depop and Thredup, which are frequented by youngsters, are already popularizing the trends of resold and upcycled clothing. Other digital platforms such as Tradesy and Poshmark facilitate the exchange of everyday clothing between like-minded people.

Secondhand clothing has, until now, been perceived as worn-out, tainted goods, mainly the choice of bargain hunters. This perspective has undergone a sea change as consumers now consider secondhand clothing as good as new and, at times, even better than new clothing – but available at affordable prices. The luxury clothing segment is also exploring the potential of this market, with retailers such as The RealReal or Vestiaire Collective creating a digital marketplace for true luxury brands. People can buy and sell designer labels such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Hermès on these online platforms.

Secondhand clothing extends the lifecycle of clothing and increases the number of its owners. Moreover, branded clothing is usually high-quality, unlike its less-expensive fast-fashion counterparts. Hence, it is a win-win situation for consumers as well as the environment.

It is now essential that every industry develops and adopts sustainable solutions to reduce its environmental impact. Consumers also support brands that adopt environment-friendly practices and are ethical in their dealings. Brands such as Next, Ted Baker, and Asos are now committed to reducing wastage at their facilities. They are seeking solutions to mitigate issues like clothes clogging landfills, wastage of water, and the expanding carbon footprint. While sustainable fashion trends are gaining pace in developed countries, emerging markets still require time to adapt to the new wave.

Luxury brands as well as well-established fashion houses are attempting to not only inculcate more ethical, sustainable practices, but are also popularizing the concept of secondhand clothing. Hence, the global fashion industry would have to pitch in and become more responsible, environmentally as well as socially.