A hand holding a “100% organic cotton” certification label on a peach-coloured shirt

It’s time for the fashion industry to take sustainability seriously

  • The fashion industry has a massive environmental impact
  • Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to consumers
  • Fashion brands are slowly starting to adopt sustainable practices

Sustainability isn’t a word you often hear associated with fashion. Still, it will probably come as a surprise to most to learn that the clothing industry is actually the second largest polluter in the world, surpassed only by the oil industry. How is that possible? Are the clothes we wear really that bad for the environment?

The fashion industry has a massive environmental impact

Well, if you consider that it takes about 2,700 litres of water to produce a single t-shirt and that we produce more than 80 billion pieces of clothing every year, it starts to make sense. Furthermore, 73 per cent of our clothes end up in landfills once they’re no longer needed, creating 53 million tonnes of waste every year. A lot of it gets incinerated as well, with the designer fashion label Burberry alone reportedly having burnt more than $36.5 million worth of unsold clothes in 2017. This seems to be a fairly common practice across the industry and is employed by many other brands, including H&M, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Montblanc. Although almost 100 per cent of clothing is recyclable, the fashion industry has notoriously low recycling rates – less than 1 per cent.

People standing next to a devastated building and polluted green-yellow water
The majority of the world’s clothing is made in developing countries like China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

The choice of materials can also play an important role. Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon are made in a process that pumps large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. And to add insult to injury, they aren’t biodegradable. Polyester, which can be found in 60 per cent of our clothing, also releases fibres when washed, which can then get into our rivers and seas and cause harm to animals and humans alike. The manufacturing of nylon emits a large amount of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has an almost 300 times bigger impact on global warming than carbon dioxide. Natural materials like cotton, wool, silk, hemp, or linen are always a better choice, but the fact that something is natural doesn’t make it entirely harmless. The production of cotton, for example, which is the most commonly used natural fibre and can be found in 40 per cent of our clothing, requires large amounts of water and pesticides. Organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative but it’s more expensive to grow and currently accounts for only one per cent of all cotton grown worldwide.

Another important consideration is the location of the factories. The majority of the world’s clothing is made in developing countries like China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The clothing is then shipped to the US and Europe to be sold, which is another major source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to consumers

However, everything points to that changing in the future. Today’s consumers are more environmentally conscious than previous generations and they’re increasingly calling for companies to make sustainability and corporate social responsibility a major part of their business practice. Those that fail to do so risk alienating a large portion of their customer base. A recent report by the Shelton Group reveals that around 45 per cent of Americans are interested in buying eco-friendly products. Millennials feel even more strongly about this issue, with 90 per cent of them saying they’d buy from a brand with social and environmental practices they can trust, while 95 per cent would also recommend these brands to their family and friends. Seeing how millennials already spend approximately $600 billion every year in the United States alone, (a number expected to grow to $1.4 trillion by 2020 – representing 30 per cent of total retail sales), it’s clear that this is a group that companies simply can’t afford to ignore.

Sustainability is also becoming increasingly important for Gen Z shoppers, who are willing to spend as much as 10-15 per cent more on sustainably produced clothing, according to a recent study published by the NDP Group. “Sustainability is a value members of Gen Z hold dear and they want to project that through what they wear,” says Mary Zalla, the global president of consumer brands at Landor. Another recent study reveals that 40 per cent of Gen Z shoppers have stopped purchasing from brands that behaved in a way that didn’t align with their values, while another 49 per cent would consider doing so in the future. They want to know what type of materials the clothes they buy are made from, whether any toxic chemicals are used to dye them, how the waste water is handled, and whether the company offers recycling options. They also want to know who’s making the clothes, what their working conditions are like, and whether they’re being paid a fair wage. Gen Z will account for 40 per cent of all consumers by 2020, and they, along with millennials, will finally force the fashion industry to take sustainability more seriously.

Fashion brands are slowly starting to adopt sustainable practices

The message seems to be getting across to fashion brands, which are starting to pay more attention to sustainability and working to reduce their impact on the environment. A number of new, eco-friendly fashion brands have appeared on the market in recent years. The outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, for instance, is probably the first name that comes to people’s minds when they hear the word sustainable fashion. One of the first companies to start making clothes out of recycled plastic bottles, Patagonia now offers only two fabric options for its products, either 100 per cent organic cotton or a blend of recycled cotton and recycled polyester. And even some of the big players are stepping up their sustainability game. For example, Adidas recently released a pair of running shoes made entirely from upcycled marine plastic waste, as well as jerseys for European football giants Bayern Munich and Real Madrid made from the same material. Nike did something similar with kits for the US National Soccer Team, which were made from recycled polyester fabric, with 16 recycled plastic bottles used for each kit. H&M and Zara, two of the world’s biggest fashion retailers, also have their own lines of sustainable fashion, named Conscious and Join Life, respectively. Conscious accounts for 5.4 per cent of H&M’s overall fashion offerings, while Join Life represents 3.6 per cent of Zara’s. And even though these might be low percentages right now, they do seem to herald the beginning of a transition towards sustainable fashion.

Will it be enough to offset the fashion industry’s tremendous environmental impact? Probably not yet, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Consumers can also do their part by calling for companies to adopt sustainable practices and refusing to buy from those that fail to do so. Actions speak louder than words – and the time to act and save our planet is now.

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