I’m not being dramatic when I say that the fashion industry is contributing to our planet’s demise. It’s hard to imagine how a sock or a T-shirt could be partly responsible for climate change, but I assure you, it is.
Over the past few years, research has quantified exactly how bad the problem is. The fashion sector accounts for more than 8% of all global climate impacts—more than all international airline flights and shipping trips combined—and consumes 104 million tons of nonrenewable resources every year. Between 2000 and 2015, the fashion industry doubled its production, from 50 billion items manufactured annually to 100 billion items. Consider that there are only 7 billion humans on the planet. And yet we cycle through clothes so quickly that a truckload of textiles is either dumped in a landfill or incinerated every single second.
Consumers are becoming aware of fashion’s pollution problem, thanks to reporting in the media, a spate of new books on the topic including Fashionopolis and The Conscious Closet, and brands such as Patagonia and Everlane that are embracing sustainability in their supply chains and their marketing. A report from the sustainability nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda found that in 2019, 75% of consumers viewed sustainability as very or extremely important. Consumers are unhappy with the status quo and would like to push for a more sustainable future.
But fashion is a $2.5 trillion global industry, with consumers in every corner of the world. Its supply chains are vast and international, going from the production of raw materials (cotton, wool, oil-based plastic) all the way to the factories where people cut and sew clothes to the warehouses where they’re stored until we buy them.
The big question in 2020 is this: Can we begin making the big, structural changes necessary to build environmental stewardship into this enormous industry? Here are four reasons to be hopeful.
Comprehensive change will be good for business
Over the past few years, some eco-friendly brands have tried in various ways to reduce their impact. Everlane, for instance, led the charge in replacing traditional virgin plastic in synthetic clothing with recycled plastic, and many other brands, including Paravel and Reformation, have followed suit. Gucci began accounting for, and offsetting, all of the carbon emissions in its supply chain, all the way down to the raw materials, and Marco Bizzari, Gucci’s CEO, urged other business leaders to join him. Brands such as Christy Dawn and Dorsu use dead-stock fabrics that were ordered by other brands but never turned into clothing (and thus are destined to be thrown out).
These measures are a step in the right direction. And many of the brands that have embraced them are seeing benefits to both their image and their bottom line. In 2020, we’ll likely see more brands develop best practices that encompass everything from materials to carbon emissions to logistics.
Brands will share best practices
Fashion supply chains are tremendously complex, particularly at large companies such as H&M and Zara, and cannot be revamped overnight. To nudge the entire industry forward, brands will have to share their knowledge.
Luckily, this is already happening. Allbirds, for instance, shifted from oil-based EVA foam in its sole to sugarcane-based EVA foam and made its proprietary formula available to other shoe brands in the industry. Gucci’s leadership is chatting with other business leaders about how exactly to become completely carbon neutral. All of this can help create a new baseline standard for sustainability.
Consumers will drive change
Of course, the best way to decrease the fashion industry’s environmental footprint is simply to decrease the amount of clothing produced.
Consumers can drive some of that change by resisting the urge to buy fast fashion and instead buying fewer, more durable clothes.
There is some evidence that this is already happening. A recent study found that the number of items in the average American woman’s closet has been dropping for the past three years, from 164 items in 2017 to 136 in 2019.
Technology will make factories more efficient
But a lot of clothes that are produced every year aren’t actually worn by consumers at all. Fashion brands typically design and manufacture clothes months in advance, and they often don’t accurately predict consumer tastes. The result is that lots of clothes don’t get sold or are sold at discounted prices to consumers who will wear them a few times before throwing them out. Brands sometimes manufacture too much fabric and don’t use it, or they make clothes in an inefficient way that results in a lot of unused fabric scraps.
There are technology solutions that can reduce a lot of this waste.
Data analytics, for instance, allow companies to figure out such things as how much fabric is required for a particular garment and how much is wasted. Cloud computing has meant that it’s much faster and easier to send information from design studios in New York or Paris to factories in China, so it is now easier to make clothes on-demand, or at least closer to when they will be sold. “The challenge now is to apply all of these technologies to the issue of manufacturing clothes more sustainably,” says Frederic Gaillard, vice president at Lectra, a French company that creates machinery for cutting fabrics more efficiently.
Some brands are large enough to force change at the factories they use. Others are too small to wield much power. But Gaillard believes that improved technology can lead to wider change in the industry. As he tells it, reducing waste is not just better for the environment; it is also more cost-effective for manufacturers and brands. And once the factories themselves change their practices, the benefits trickle down to all the brands that rely on them.