Kate Elliot, Senior Ethical Researcher, Rathbone Greenbank Investments

Clothes retailers have a vested interest in us regularly buying new clothing to stay in tune with a fashion cycle that they spin ever quicker. But it seems that a growing number of us are rebelling.

American model Lauren Hutton once said: “Fashion is what you’re offered four times a year by designers. Style is what you choose.” For many years now, new fashions have been offered to us on an almost weekly basis.

Spanish store Zara pioneered ‘fast fashion’ — it can design, produce and display a garment in its stores worldwide in just 15 days. The fact that those garments may be on the rack for only a couple of weeks pressures consumers to buy before stock disappears.

Other discount brands and online retailers, such as Primark and boohoo, have also accelerated supply and production processes, driving down prices to the point where dresses can be marketed for as little as £5.


From waist to waste

Faster production, cheaper pricing and smart social media marketing mean that fashions fade faster than ever, making many garments single-use items — and often not even that. UK adults have been estimated to spend on average £733 a year on clothes that remain unworn in their wardrobes. We are buying five times as many outfits as we did in the 1980s. The environmental impact is sobering.

 

It can take up to 2,700 litres of water to produce a cotton T-shirt. The majority of this water footprint is linked to cotton farming — a problem exacerbated by the fact that much of the world’s cotton production is concentrated in water-scarce regions. Meanwhile, textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of clean water in the world.

The total amount of greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production — 1.2 billion tonnes annually — exceeds that of international flights and maritime shipping combined. If the fashion industry does not adapt, some estimate that it will use up a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050.

Synthetic materials such as polyester and acrylic come with their own problems and have been linked to global plastic pollution. For example, a single wash can release 700,000 microfibres, many of which end up in the sea, turning our oceans into what one marine scientist refers to as “a big plastic soup”.

Disposal is largely inefficient. Around 50 trucks’ worth of used clothing ends up in landfill every day in the UK, with environmental charity WRAP estimating that we dispose of £140 million of clothes in this way each year. Historically less than 1% of disposed clothing has been converted into new products, as most common recycling methodologies struggle to separate blended materials like polyester and cotton.

In February 2019 the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee published a report condemning unsustainable practices in the fashion industry. The government rejected its recommendations to ban incineration or landfilling of unsold stock that could be reused or recycled.


Smart fashion

It is increasingly clear that we need to introduce ‘circular economy’ principles, where waste is designed out from the start, to fashion. The journey of a Rapanui T-shirt exemplifies this approach.

Sourcing organically produced Indian cotton, the company produces shirts in a factory powered by renewable energy. The shirts are dyed with recirculated water and designs are printed on shirts only once orders have been made to avoid overproduction. After use, the shirts can be returned for store credit and, being made from 100% cotton printed with ink that is easier to remove, can easily be recycled into another garment.

 

As one might expect, these shirts are more expensive than those from discount brands. And there lies the challenge. Affordability remains a priority for many consumers, forcing them to choose between their consciences and their wallets.

The solution may lie in widespread adoption of better technology. Worn Again Technologies argues that there are so many non-reusable textiles and plastic bottles ‘above ground’ that we do not need more “new” raw materials: we need instead to be better at turning the old into the new.

Worn Again’s patented polymer recycling technology separates contaminants, dyes and blended materials from clothing and returns them to raw material state for future re-use. Its research is being backed by investors like fast fashion giant H&M.

And H&M is not the only fashion retailer recalibrating its business to promote greater sustainability. Zara has recently pledged that by 2025 it will use only organic, sustainable or recycled cotton, linen and polyester. Outdoor clothing company Patagonia was the first to produce a polyester fleece from recycled plastic bottles. And for a number of years Kering has published environmental profit and loss accounts in parallel with its financial ones.

There is a business imperative, with future profitability at risk. A 2017 report, Pulse of the Fashion Industry, projected that if fashion brands do not change their ways by 2030 then the decline in earnings could reduce overall industry profits by some $52 billion.


Is “off trend” on trend?

New technologies and circular economy innovations are in their infancy, however, and some consumers are reviving more old-fashioned methods to make a more immediate contribution to sustainability.

Oxfam recently publicised the issue of fast fashion through its #SecondhandSeptember campaign, asking shoppers to say no to new clothes for 30 days. Online US thrift store thredUp’s annual report predicts that second-hand clothes will make up a third of closets by 2033, comfortably overtaking fast fashion. A recent poll of 1,500 people in the UK showed that 45% would buy pre-owned clothes.

Depop, a social media/second-hand shop hybrid, is a mobile platform for users to sell their unwanted or vintage fashion items and accessories. Selfridges is hosting Depop sellers on a monthly basis to highlight changing attitudes within fashion. Similarly, Asda is hosting a ‘Re-Loved’ charity clothing pop-up shop to improve the environmental impact of its George clothing brand operations.

Vintage and second-hand clothing is finding a new lease of life among the younger generation. This trend
is supported by the proliferation of online platforms, the ubiquity of charity shops and the emergence of popular vintage fashion shops in many cities.

 

Emily Stott, a 20-year-old Exeter University student, is one of a growing number of younger consumers committed to buying as much as possible second-hand. “The environmental benefits are important,” she says, “but second-hand clothes are also cheaper, the materials are often better, and I will probably be the only one wearing an item, which I like.”

The idea of sustainable fashion is not just a millennial trend. Financial journalist Simoney Kyriakou says: “I recently realised that I had reached the age of 42 having never thrown any of my clothes in the bin. People need to learn to use a needle and thread!

“If I find jeans with tears then I patch them with other reclaimed bits of fabric. If my old clothes are in too poor condition to be donated then I use them as cloths or rags. There’s a use for everything.”

Kyriakou’s message will resonate with older generations brought up to waste not, want not. And it seems that others are recognising the benefits of a “make do and mend” mindset.

Rachelle Strauss, founder of an annual awareness campaign, Zero Waste Week, says knitting and sewing classes are starting across the country as younger generations seek to rediscover the lost skills of repairing clothes. “Our grandmothers wouldn’t think twice about sewing on a button, repairing a hem or darning socks,” she says. “It was normal and expected.”

Fast fashion may not yet be hanging by a needle and thread, but consumers are increasingly demanding a style that is more sustainable — and the industry is under pressure to respond.