If you’re worried about the planet, clothes shopping can feel like navigating a minefield. There are so many things to worry about when buying a T-shirt—from the carbon emissions to the wastewater generated during its manufacturing. But imagine a world where fashion labels cleaned up their act and the industry actually made the planet greener?
That’s the premise of a new report from Bain and Positive Luxury, a company that offers sustainability certifications to brands. The report explores the many initiatives brands are currently working on to become more eco-friendly and considers what the world would be like in 2030 if these became norms. At a time when many consumers are just beginning to reckon with the fashion industry’s devastating impact on the planet, the report offers a hopeful glimpse into the future—if the industry makes some changes.
Hello, leaner closet!
So how might your closet look a decade from now? For one thing, it will be a lot less packed. You’ll have a few favorite items that you’ll return to again and again. But you’ll likely rent evening wear or super fashion-forward outfits. And anything you don’t love in your wardrobe, you’ll just sell back to the brand, which will resell it to another customer.
All of this is great for the planet, because it will cut back on fashion’s biggest problem: overproduction and overconsumption. Over the past two decades, the fast-fashion movement has made clothes so cheap, consumers can wear them a few times and then throw them out. To generate profits and keep growing, brands try to sell consumers more and more clothes—and it’s working. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of clothing items manufactured annually doubled from 50 billion to 100 billion.
To make the fashion industry more sustainable, brands need to “decouple growth from volume,” the report says. This means they need to find a way to generate profits without selling more clothes. That’s not as impossible as it sounds. In fact, nonprofits such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have been advocating for it for years. Brands can create new revenue streams by offering rentals, resale, and repair services—all of which generate income without actually putting new products into the world. In fact, Bain calculates that brands can increase their profit margins by 40% by investing in these business models.
We’re already seeing this at work. I just wrote a story about how Hermès is using repair workshops around the world to extend the life of its products. H&M is tinkering with clothing rentals for kids. Kering, the parent company of Gucci and Balenciaga, has just invested in the resale platform Vestiaire Collective. Meanwhile, ThredUp, an online thrift store, is growing explosively and is poised to go public. In 10 years, platforms such as these could be the norm.
Your T-shirt won’t accelerate climate change
The fashion industry is currently responsible for between 4% and 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, depending on how you calculate. Consumers are increasingly aware of how problematic this is, particularly as many of us experience natural disasters that can be attributed to climate change.
A few brands are now paving the way in their attempts to become carbon neutral. Brands such as Allbirds and Gucci are tracking their carbon footprints throughout the supply chain—including the extraction of raw materials, which is where most of the emissions are generated—and then offsetting this through reforestation efforts and renewable agriculture projects. Nike is investing in its own renewable energy sources to power factories and offices.
This is just the start. By 2030, Bain hopes that it will be the norm for fashion labels to be carbon neutral. Indeed the hope is that brands will offset their emissions, then invest further so they are carbon negative. Of course, offsetting carbon isn’t enough, since manufacturing clothes in the first place creates a wide range of problems. But paired with a real reduction in volume, it’s possible to imagine a time when our purchases actually help fight climate change.
Bad behavior will be taxed
Governments around the world regulate old, established industries that pollute—such as the oil and auto sectors—by offering tax cuts for sustainable behavior. And yet, the fashion industry faces very little regulation. This is beginning to change: In Europe, for instance, fashion brands will soon face financial consequences for wasting materials. The U.S. has been slower to act, which is why last month I suggested that President Biden appoint a “fashion czar” to support the industry’s efforts to become more sustainable. As everyday citizens, we have some power to influence this: We can tell elected officials that we want more oversight of this highly polluting industry.
If lobbying efforts are successful, Bain says that by 2030, fashion brands will face much more scrutiny. As governments continue to lay out goals for reducing climate change, there could be tax incentives for brands that reduce carbon emissions. Investors, too, could hold brands to higher standards. Rather than just judging a company on its profit-and-loss statement, they could start assessing how sustainable they are. Ideally, this will be baked into the business, with roles such as the CFO empowered to advocate for sustainability as a business imperative.
The Bain report offers an encouraging and optimistic look at what the future could be if the fashion industry takes real steps to curb its toxic behavior. But it’s not just up to them: We also play a part in turning this vision into a reality. We can buy less and shop secondhand, putting our money behind eco-friendly business models. We can also put pressure on our favorite brands to clean up their business practices. And we can ask our elected officials to hold the sector responsible for the damage it is wreaking on the planet.