Sustainability has been a hot topic in the fashion industry for years, reaching the point where many think the fundamental meaning of “sustainable” has lost its significance when attached to fashion.
Over the past few years, as the fast fashion frenzy has substantially cooled down, a growing number of brands and consumers have become more aware of the dire consequences the fashion industry has on the environment, thus changing their behaviour in efforts to make a positive change.
Although it seems like these attempts to change have been too little too late, it will be intriguing to see whether the global Covid-19 pandemic will play a part in making a positive change, or if it will challenge the mission of achieving a greener fashion industry.
The negative effects that the fashion industry has on the environment are colossal, placing it in the top five of the most polluting industries on earth. It has been estimated, that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and almost 20% of wastewater.
While many are familiar with the environmental footprint of the aviation industry, what may come as a surprise is that the fashion industry uses more energy than both aviation and maritime shipping combined.It can be difficult to account for all the emissions that come from producing a single garment because the supply chain for clothing is, in most cases, fairly complex, hence hard to trace back step-by-step. Also, the supply chain does not factor in the environmental impact of transportation and the consumers’ disposal of the garment.
However, the UN provides a good example for visualisation of the industry’s ecological damage in its study of denim. It has been estimated that a single pair of jeans require one kilogramme of cotton, and as cotton usually grows in dry environments, producing that kilogram for the jeans will require around 7,500-10,000 litres of water. This is the equivalent of about 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person.
Fashion designer Stella McCartney who, for decades, has been raising awareness on the industry’s breach on environmental and human rights agrees that the phrase ‘sustainable fashion’ has lost its value, thanks to the term’s liberal use in marketing and PR for any brand that produces their products locally or uses organic cotton, even though its environmental impacts are still widely debated within the scientific community.
“The majority of people who say they’re doing a sustainable thing, if you ask one question, it will pretty much fall down at the first hurdle. It’s a bit tiring to see people’s overuse of these terms and really not have any substance to back it up,” McCartney told the Financial Times.
This statement has also been backed up by a London-based retail analytics company Edited, which reported that in the last four years, the number of clothes and accessories labelled as “sustainable” has quadrupled amongst online retailers both in the UK and US.
“I think now in 2020, particularly young consumers are definitely aware of how the fashion industry is harming our planet, especially when talking about fast fashion. What needs to happen though, is a change in the behaviour. I know so many of my friends who are extremely environmentally conscious, but when it comes to buying for example a basic T-shirt, they still head to Primark to get it as cheap as possible,” a climate activist Sophie Forrest who is also currently doing a master’s degree in Applied Psychology in Fashion, told us.
“In the past few years we’ve already seen fast fashion brands like H&M and high end brands like Burberry attempt to make a change, but it’s widely agreed that a ‘conscious collection’ or a carbon neutral fashion show doesn’t go far. And although the ongoing pandemic has forced brands to change the way they do business by making fashion weeks digital and slowing down the supply chains, I’m not sure if it means the industry is any more environmentally friendly now.”Forrest could be correct. As a consequence from Covid-19, fashion shows have been forced to go virtual, and one might automatically think that it means that these digital shows are more sustainable – however it is not that simple. A recent article in Vogue has investigated the sustainability of viral fashion shows explaining that in spite of the shows being digital, it does not mean that a carbon footprint won’t be created.
“The preparations are much heavier in carbon footprint during the digital event than the physical events,” Morten Rosén, the head of partnerships and sales at tech company Normative, told Vogue. Factoring in that, according to the UN, the information and communications sector accounts for two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the same as the aviation industry, it is clear that digital fashion weeks are harming the environment as well.
The question of whether digital or physical fashion shows are more sustainable is complicated, because each burdens the environment and contribute to the industry’s carbon footprint in their own way, be it the damage done by all the travelling to the show destinations or emissions created by video production and vast data centres and servers.
What also seems to be the popular opinion amongst many, is that the post-pandemic fashion industry will bring back physical fashion weeks. This is understandable though, as anyone who has ever attended a physical show knows how different the whole experience is compared to a digital one. In addition, as garments are a form of art that is mainly intended to be experienced in person, a digital show simply might not do justice to the collection.
On the mission for a more eco-friendly fashion industry, an important key player is the second-hand clothing business. Unfortunately, the global pandemic has taken its toll on this area as well, significantly slowing down the industry’s efforts to become more environmentally friendly.
A recent analysis in Business of Fashion has examined the crisis the multi-billion-dollar trade is facing as exporters, traders and customers are all struggling around the world, with poorer nations having been hit the hardest.
The grim irony in this crisis is that while clothing banks and sorting warehouses are mounting with clothing that has been donated more actively than ever due to the virus, exporting these clothes has slowed down so drastically that countries who rely on it, like Kenya, are facing serious hardship.
“Before coronavirus came in, I would manage to sell at least 50 [pairs of] trousers a day, but now with coronavirus, even selling one a day has become difficult,” a Kenyan trader Nicholas Mutisya who sells jeans and hats, told Business of Fashion.
This seems absurd, as at the same time the donated clothes keep piling up faster than ever in places like London, New York and Los Angeles, and because of the decelerated exports, these clothes end up in landfill sites, polluting the environment even more.
On the other hand, things slowing down can be seen as a positive consequence of the pandemic, when looking at how countries placed in lockdown delayed or completely made receiving new fabrics impossible. This resulted in designers having to re-think their future collections and Stella McCartney is yet again, a great example, she created a 26-look collection, completely made from leftover stock.
Other high end fashion houses such as Michael Kors and Yves Saint Laurent responded to the pandemic by showing their collections aside from the usual seasonal schedule, which is heavily connected to the toxic overproduction that the industry calendar generates: this pressure for consumers to stay on trend drives them to purchasing more clothing when each new season, or micro season, arrives.
Time will tell whether the post-pandemic fashion industry will be any more eco-friendly than right now. Throughout 2020 we have experienced some positive changes and some setbacks. Some argue that the industry will never be sustainable – if that word can still be used within the clothing business.
What seems to be universally agreed upon though, is that actions do speak louder than words. Rather than labels, what consumers and brands need is full transparency and honesty, which will hopefully lead to a change in behaviour and a greener future for fashion.
Featured image by Edward Howell via Unsplash.
Edited by Jussi Grut, Betty Wales-Hulbert and Susu Hagos.