Despite a growing appetite for sustainable clothing, a new report has found that we are still buying too much to slow fashion’s environmental impact.
Cheap manufacturing, frequent purchases and short-lived items are all factors that contribute to the 92 million tonnes of waste created by the industry every year. But it isn’t just waste that poses a threat to the planet. The way our clothing is made also uses trillions of tonnes of water, many harmful chemicals, and emits more than 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2.
A team of experts have published a paper in online journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment that looks at how this impact is affecting our planet. In the last 20 years, the amount of clothing produced by fashion brands had doubled. Fast-moving trends that rely on low-prices and novelty compel consumers to buy more than they need, creating an artificial demand for more clothing. The paper explains that this massive amount of unnecessary production needs to stop in favour of a slower-moving approach to fashion.
Most environmental pollution occurs in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia where textiles and clothing are made. While a lot of clothing is made in the Global South, the head offices of many brands are in the EU or the USA. This disconnect between where an item is designed and where it is made vastly increases the chances of mistakes being made, which also contributes to the waste problem.
Consumers need to change their habits if environmental concerns are to be addressed. In the US, the average person is now buying a new piece of clothing every five and a half days and evidence from the UK suggests we are wearing our clothes for a lot less time before we throw them away than we used to.
“Ultimately, the long-term stability of the fashion industry relies on the total abandonment of the fast-fashion model, linked to a decline in overproduction and overconsumption,” states the paper.
What can we do?
“From consumers’ side, the most important thing is to slow down the consumption; buying less, using longer (extending the lifetime), taking good care of your garments, laundering more seldom, and investing in better quality and more classical garments,” says Kirsi Niinimäki, Associate Professor in Design at Aalto University, Finland. Equally, the co-author of the report suggests trying to invest in more sustainable, recycled materials and looking for brands that are making clothing locally.
The ultimate goal is for businesses to shift to a more circular business model, one that brings back materials to be used again. This would obtain the most value from the resources used and stop the extraordinary amount of waste being produced. In the meantime, "there are good examples of repair services, made to measure services, renting/leasing services, crowdsourcing to support local production," Niinimäki explains adding that businesses must get creative with ways to manage environmental damage.