For me, Christmas is a special time to reflect on the year and to enjoy a peaceful time with family and friends. However, it is hard to ignore the fact that it is also a time of overconsumption when it comes to clothing, among other things. Guilty as charged! In previous years, I too have fallen into the trap of online gimmick of 2 for 1s and various click baits. But not this year my friend, not this year…This year, I have made a commitment not to buy any clothes for Christmas. At first, I thought “what a shame – shopping for clothes has never been easier, cheaper, and let’s face it – more entertaining”. Yet, letting go of my old habit feels good for two reasons. First, I reduced my environmental footprint which makes me happier and motivated to make further improvements. Second, less time shopping means more headspace and money for things that really matter in my life.
The good, the bad and the ugly of clothing
A couple of quick hard facts about the industry.
On the upside, the clothing industry is a major contributor to the economies of many countries. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the global clothing industry is worth US$1.3 trillion and employs more than 300 million people. Textile and garments are among the key industries allowing developing countries such as Haiti, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan or Ethiopia to reap the benefits from global trade. In the same way, trade affects developed countries, this industry allows developing countries to connect to global industries, enabling them to create jobs and reduce poverty.
On the downside, the reported human rights violations involving instances of child labor, discrimination, forced labor, non-compliance with minimum wage laws, among other things, are alarming.
Moreover, it is incredible how wasteful the industry is. The emergence of fast fashion – inexpensive, trendy clothing delivered fast by mass-market retailers – has started a vicious circle of quicker turnaround of new styles, leading to an increased number of collections offered per year and even lower prices. The volume of clothing production is rising exponentially and translates into a throwaway culture with huge environmental impacts.
According to statistics, clothing is underutilized and less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. If nothing changes, by 2050, the fashion industry is expected to use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Clothes production can also be extremely water-intensive, while synthetic clothes release microfibers into the ocean every year equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.
The industry is not changing fast enough despite its disastrous impacts on the environment. Part of the challenge is that production is scattered across countries, making it harder for governments to regulate. Most businesses lack incentives to incorporate environmentally-friendly practices, which has to do with the highly competitive nature of the industry, but let’s face it – also their corporate cultures. Finally, consumers fall into the trap of overbuying or find it difficult to make well-informed shopping choices. The solution needs actions by all these stakeholders, and frankly, these need to start happening very soon.
What it will take to make the industry less damaging for the environment
Industry experts agree that a real change will require a paradigm shift. In essence, a transition needs to take place from a linear “take-make-dispose” model to a “circular economy approach” where clothes, fabric, and fibers are kept at their highest value during use, and re-enter the economy after use, never-ending up as waste.
While this concept may sound a bit theoretical, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation offers some food for thought for what such as transition could look like in practice: (1) phasing out substances of concern (e.g. chemical and hazardous materials) and microfiber release, (2) transforming the way clothes are designed, sold, and used (e.g. through scaling up clothing rental, producing more durable cloths), (3) radically improving recycling by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing (e.g. by aligning design and recycling, or stimulating demand for recycled materials), and (4) making effective use of resources and moving to renewable inputs (e.g. using renewable feedstock for plastic-based fibers and regenerative agriculture to produce any renewable resources).
From a company perspective, the business case is yet to be backed up with data, but there are significant opportunities that are cost-neutral or that generate financial benefits due to enhanced brand reputation.
One example is the Jeans Redesign Project, in which over thirty leading brands, manufacturers and fabric mills are using circular economy guidelines to make jeans. The guidelines tackle waste and pollution practices, establish the minimum requirements for durability, material health, recyclability, and traceability, ensure that all clothing is made from safe and renewable materials, and that improved business models increase the use of clothing items, and old clothes are turned into new. Over time, fabric mills must also implement ZDHC (Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemicals) wastewater guidelines.
The projects participants include some major brands so let’s keep an eye on the release which should happen in Autumn 2020!
What can be our role in all of this…
Despite the overwhelming facts, it is encouraging that even you and I as a single consumer have a say in the workings of fashion.
We can ask our governments to foster new circular economy type of approaches in the local economy. Governments can influence firms and consumers by incentivizing collaboration and innovation in the industry (similar to the Jeans redesign Project!), by promoting transparency in the use of materials and requiring clear clothes labeling, by structuring public procurement to include recycled materials, or by investing in research, among others.
We can choose brands that truly care about the environment and workers. Consider Patagonia, a champion thanks to its in-house repair and resale model by buying back their own products and selling those used items at a discount price. Luxury brand Stella McCartney has partnered with the resale company The RealReal, to encourage their customers to sell their items once they do not need them anymore.
And finally, the quickest way to see results is by hacking our own shopping behaviors. Here are some options based on a quick review of research and some useful insights that I gathered at a recent event in Vienna organized by iamgood:
- Make a personal commitment to not to buy any clothes (unless you really need them) for this Christmas. This is not just about reducing our own consumption, but potentially sparking a large-scale change through your circle of friends and social media followers. Imagine the 2,700 liters of water that is required to produce one new T-shirt!
- Revisit your longer-term shopping habits. Only buy things if really needed (when contemplating a purchase ask yourself, in a months time, will I still need this or notice it is not there?), with a dose of mindfulness (are you shopping because it’s a habit, or because you are bored, hungry or frustrated?), and get creative to curb your shopping behaviors (how will I swap, repair or donate old clothes so they don’t end up in the trash?).
- Research “eco-friendly fibers” and “sustainable clothing brands”. There are many ways to educate ourselves on the choice of clothing materials, the truth behind companies’ marketing strategies, or the working conditions of employees. Researching the personal values of the CEOs and corporate cultures are often the best way to determine if companies are serious about their proclaimed commitments.
As I said, this year I am not buying a pair of jeans for Christmas, not because I don’t like jeans, but because I choose not to. Nevertheless, I am pretty excited to see what the jeans business will look like once the circular economy kicks in!
Picture credits: @onesaveaday, accessed at Unsplash.com