By Rachel Owen
Clothing that is hardly worn and rarely recycled represents a global opportunity worth $500 billion a year. As customers call for the fashion industry to clean up its act, new entrants and existing players are causing major disruption in this fast-moving sector.
Today’s fast fashion business model would have us think of the clothes we wear as disposable items, to be acquired often, enjoyed briefly and replaced frequently. It offers us multiple collections every year with ‘must have’ new ranges hitting our high streets and inboxes every few weeks. On average, in the mature economies of the west, we buy 60% more clothing than we did 15 years ago and we use them for half as long. Here in the UK we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe.
This highly globalised industry has a huge and increasingly visible negative impact, from the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 to the destruction of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, Central Asia caused by intensive cotton production. The global textile industry contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, consumes vast amounts of fresh water and creates chemical and plastic pollution.
According to the latest ‘Fixing Fashion’ report to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, around 300,000 tonnes of textile waste in the UK ends up in household black bins every year, sent to landfill or incinerators. Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing at the end of its life.
The backlash against this appalling record is very much underway. Fashion brands are under pressure from customers to take an active stance on social and environmental issues across their complex global supply chains. Policy makers and campaigners are calling for the industry to come up with radical new approaches.
McKinsey’s The state of fashion 2019 report puts a value of more than $500 billion / year on the missed opportunity represented by clothing that is seldom worn and rarely recycled. Industry players will need to have the courage to self-disrupt to realise this potential and win over new generations of customers, says the report.
Clothing manufacturers are experimenting with new materials. For example, Econyl is a ‘regenerated’ nylon made entirely from waste. It is used for swim wear, sports wear, accessories and outerwear by brands including Davy J, addidas, Breitling, Finisterre, Phoebe English and many more. Using Econyl in place of conventional oil-based nylon reduces global warming impact of the material by 80%, says the manufacturer. Similarly, recycled polyester such as Sequal is made using plastic waste collected from the oceans and beaches.
Designers are setting the trend. The Kitty Ferriera label uses natural and up-cycled materials, while up and coming designer Bethany Williams makes her collections using materials and textiles that others would regard as waste. Elvis and Kresse bags and accessories are handcrafted using rescued raw materials, including decommissioned fire hose.
Circular business models
There has been an explosion of circular business models in fashion. Buying pre-loved, renting, sharing and swapping clothes, are all becoming the new normal, especially among young customers.
Of course, the most sustainable item of clothing you can find is the one that is already hanging in your wardrobe. One of the most effective ways to reduce the overall impact of the industry is to extend the active life of the clothes we own by using them for longer ourselves or passing them on to someone else. When a garment is used for just three months longer, its carbon and waste footprint is lowered by 5-10%.
Green Angel Syndicate has invested in BuyMeOnce, the retail site that identifies the best longest lasting products available and encourages mindful, sustainable shopping. It sells carefully selected ranges of clothing (as well as a wide range of household and other goods) all designed to last considerably longer than fast fashion equivalents. This is the first step in reversing the tide of fast fashion.
According to thredUp, the US-based fashion resale marketplace, millennials and Gen Z are adopting second hand 2.5 times faster than other age groups. The company expects the second hand market to double from $24 billion in 2018 to $51 billion by 2023.
Second hand is big in the UK too, and not just on eBay. Vinted, Depop and Asos Marketplace are all popular with young people, and for designer gear visit Rebelle or Vestaire Collective. Loopster resells grown-out-of second-hand children’s clothing.
Tapping into the trend with a positive mission is social venture Thrift+, a next generation on-line charity shop that is using technology to help individuals turn their unwanted clothing into cash for good causes.
The rental market is also growing with Girl Meets Dress, My Wardrobe HQ and the like offering occasion wear and much more for hire. For true fashonistas, Nu Wardrobe allows people to share clothes for free with others in their community.
Teenagers are the target market for many of the new business models and they are also taking action themselves. SwopItUp, a venture started in London by 16-year old Zaqia Cajee, empowers young people to run their own clothing exchange events in schools as positive action on climate change.
Where entrepreneurs lead, policy and big brands follow. Resource London, LWARB’s partnership with WRAP, has been targeting 16-24 year olds with its Love not Landfill campaign to promote donation and second hand shopping.
Many of the established brands are experimenting in this area too, setting up re-sale operations, recognising the customer loyalty benefits to be gained and cashing in on the extended value of their products. Addidas has launched its Infinite Play service allowing customers to return used clothing in return for vouchers and Ted Baker promises to have a scheme for ‘pre-loved Ted products’ up and running by summer 2020.
Luxury men’s fashion brand Asket and leading European brand Lindex are both part of the Switching Gear project aimed at accelerating re-commerce and rental business models in the clothes industry. Along with other brands, they are working on circular models to help them tap into new opportunities. August Bard-Bringeus, Co-founder at Asket, says: “We want to continue to lead by example and see that a recommerce or rental business model would allow us to take our mission to change the way we consume clothes and reduce waste even further.”
Supply chain transparency and natural capital accounting
Complex supply chains are the norm in fast fashion. Clothing is typically produced using multiple steps carried out in different countries and run through middlemen companies that have no direct relationship to either the raw material or the end customer. Since the supply chain is where most of the environmental impact occurs, this complexity is a real challenge for the brands who are looking to take responsibility and reduce impact.
‘Clothing production is a murky business’ says Asket in a recent post Confronting the Fashion Industry’s Murky Accountability Problem. The brand sees the business potential of honesty and transparency as a response to growing scepticism at fashion’s impact on the planet.
Luxury fashion group Kering has been taking brave steps on transparency and sustainability since 2015, when it first published its ground breaking Environmental Profit and Loss (EP&L) measuring carbon emissions, water consumption, air and water pollution, land use and waste production of activities along the entire supply chain.
Kering uses the results to guide its strategy. “It highlights where there are environmental impacts and also business opportunities, to then enable informed strategic decision-making that will underpin a more resilient business in the face of current and future environmental challenges resulting from climate change,” says Chairman and CEO said François-Henri Pinault
In an effort to shift the industry towards more positive practices Kering has made its EP&L methodology openly available to other brands. Members who attended the Green Angel Syndicate event in November with Jonny Hughes Chief Executive Officer, WCMC will have heard him point to the growing strategic importance of accounting for natural capital alongside traditional assets, not just in fashion but across the board.
On the current trajectory, global clothing sales will increase five fold by 2050 with potentially devastating environmental consequences. As bleak as that may sound, it is encouraging to see so much disruption taking place already in all areas of textiles, clothing and fashion, from materials to business models and accounting.
The fashion industry is, by definition, always reinventing itself. There is huge opportunity to be gained right now by capturing this innovation and creativity for positive impact.
Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability, Environmental Audit Committee, House of Commons, February 2019