What does the Future of Sustainable Fashion look like?
Textile waste, carbon dioxide emissions, water consumption and unethical labour are just a few of the criticisms levelled at the fashion industry. Consumers are becoming more conscious of the true price of fast fashion on people and the planet. This growing concern has placed increased pressure on companies to transition to more sustainable practices. This begs us to ask the question, what exactly is sustainable fashion and what does the future of sustainable fashion look like? The two-part series examines the future of sustainable fashion, starting by unpacking what sustainable fashion is, followed by how consumers and brands are shaping the industry by implementing circular economy models.
The true cost of fast fashion
The true cost of fast fashion poses a major threat to people and the planet (Read: Waste Couture: Fashion vs the Environment). The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters globally. The industry produces between 80 to 150 billion garments every year, with 50% of fast fashion pieces discarded within a year. Clothing has become more disposable than ever with severe impacts on the environment. Research shows that the fashion industry contributes to over 4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and approximately one third of all microplastics found in the ocean. Built on a take, make and waste model it comes as no surprise that there is increasing pressure on fashion brands to transition to more sustainable practices. Over and above the environmental degradation caused, the industry has been touted as unethical due to poor working conditions, low wages and health and safety concerns for garment workers.
(Source: Used clothes discarded in the Atacama Desert in Chile)
What is sustainable fashion?
There is a lot of debate around the definition of ‘sustainable’ fashion and there is no universally accepted definition. Globally, we know that there has been a dramatic decline in clothing utilisation rates. The average number of times a fashion item is worn before it is discarded has decreased by nearly 40% compared to 15 years ago. With this in mind, sustainable fashion needs to embody circular economy principles and prioritise quality over quantity. It should take into account the social and environmental impacts of fashion choices and focus intently on extending the life cycle of garments.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation the idea of circularity in fashion should focus on three principles:
- Designing out waste and pollution (Read: Redesigning for the Environment)
- Keeping products and materials in use, and
- Regenerating natural systems
(Source: Circular Economy Principles, Ellen MacArthur Foundation)
Drawing on the illustration highlighted by Fashion Revolution, sustainable fashion is about more than simply purchasing new clothing from sustainable brands and collections. While this holds some importance, sustainable fashion should also focus on changing the way we consume entirely. On a more practical level for consumers this means wearing what you already own, thrifting, renting, mending, upcycling and washing with care.
(Source: Fashion Revolution, 2022)
The rise of rental, repair and resale
The fashion industry wasn’t built with sustainability in mind, but with the future of the planet at stake, there has never been a better time to push towards circularity to collectively make a difference. Some of the ways consumers can do this is by purchasing second-hand clothing, renting clothing and prolonging the life of what they already own.
- The booming resale market
The resale market is growing at a rate 11 times faster than traditional retail due to consumers becoming more mindful. ThredUP is a U.S resale platform challenging the status quo within the fashion industry. The company is one of the largest resale platforms and aims to change the way consumers shop by encouraging more sustainable behaviour.
According to a global report conducted by ThredUP with analysis from GlobalData firm, it’s estimated that the second-hand clothing market is set to be twice the size of fast fashion by 2030. There are several other resale platforms such as Depop, Vinted, and Yaga which are encouraging the resale of preloved items. Platforms like ThredUP believe second-hand clothing will make the future of sustainable fashion more accessible to the majority. Second-hand clothing combines consumers’ financial demands with their environmental values. Moreover, buying used extends a garment’s life by about two years, which cuts its combined carbon, waste, and water footprint by 82%.
- Rent the Runway
The UK’s resource efficiency agency, WRAP, identified rentals as an innovative circularity model that extends the life of clothing while simultaneously reducing material use and carbon emissions. Clothing rentals are not a novel concept. They have, however, been given a renewed focus since consumers have a growing consciousness of the true cost of fast fashion. Clothing rentals give consumers the opportunity to have ‘partial ownership’ and keep up with the ongoing “new trends” without purchasing new clothing. Platforms like Rent the Runway and My Wardrobe HQ have seen a dramatic growth in the clothing rental market. It is projected that the global Sustainable Clothing rental market will be worth $2.08 billion by 2025.
There are, however, a few environmental drawbacks of renting including the transportation to and from the consumer and the substantial dry cleaning needed. The severity of the environmental impacts of renting will depend on how it is practised. If a local and collaborative approach is taken, where factors such as transportation, cleaning method and re-wears are prioritised, renting can provide a sustainable alternative to consuming new clothing.
With the environmental impacts in mind, it’s worth thinking of renting as an alternative to buying new clothes on occasion for special events, rather than a frequent occurrence. Just as companies like Uber and Airbnb have changed transportation and accommodation habits from ownership to use, renting offers a unique platform to change consumption habits. Renting offers a cultural shift towards a shared economy for use where waste can be reduced, and garment lifespan increased.
- Make do and mend
The truth is, the most sustainable fashion item is the one already in your closet. At a consumer level, loving the clothes you already own, mending, upcycling and washing with care is an easy way to support sustainable fashion. You don’t need to buy a sustainable product to become a sustainability superhero, sometimes all it requires is a needle and thread. Repairs and alterations are a powerful way to extend the life of your clothing and keep textile waste out of landfill sites. It also provides an accessible way to support sustainable fashion without having to purchase anything new. When you do buy new, support clothing brands making a conscious effort to create high quality, long-lasting items and taking responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products. Buy less, choose well and make it last.
Mending the Future of Fashion
At its core, overconsumption is at the heart of the global fast fashion problem. While supporting sustainable fashion brands is important, the future of sustainable fashion is about more than buying new items. What is equally, if not more important, is loving the clothes you already own, repairing, renting and reselling items to keep them in the loop and mend the future of fashion. In the words of Ellen MacArthur, we need to redesign fashion’s future by creating a regenerative, restorative and revolutionary system that puts the health of people and the planet first. Any circular strategies which contribute to this cause play a critical role in transitioning to the future of sustainable fashion.
In our follow up piece, we examine some of the pioneering brands shaping the future of sustainable fashion, by implementing circular economy models.
At Don’t Waste, our systems and technology support circular economy models, aligned to the waste hierarchy. We work with large retail brands to ensure waste is separated, collected and recycled into a closed loop system. Through our advanced tracking system, clients can easily trace the final destination of their products to ensure their environmental impacts are minimised.