The fashion industry is a €2.8 trillion behemoth that includes everything from clothing to bags, shoes to sportswear. But the big moneymaker is fast fashion: the rapid production of clothes sold at rock bottom prices.
Fast fashion has a high environmental cost
The market is flooded daily with thousands of new designs, making it a lucrative segment. But it all comes at a high environmental cost.
Common fast fashion brands include Zara, H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21, and TopShop. The equivalent of one garbage truck of clothes is dumped in landfills or burned every second in the U.S., according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K.-based charity working towards a circular economy. According to the report, an estimated €475 billion is lost annually because of clothing that’s hardly worn or not recycled.
In total, the industry dumps 92 million tonnes of textile waste each year. And it consumes 93 billion cubic metres of water - enough to meet the needs of five million people.
One of the most effective ways of creating ethical clothing is by sourcing eco-friendly fabric, and one company that’s been in the fibre and textile business for more than 50 years is Lenzing Group. You may have noticed while buying a piece of clothing, that it comes with a TENCEL tag. That’s Lenzing’s main fabric brand, produced with circularity in mind to minimize impact on the environment.
Stephan Sielaff, the CEO of Lenzing Group, believes there is a long road ahead for the industry to become sustainable.
“I think it's always good to think in numbers and zero is, of course, a target: when you talk about being carbon-neutral, zero carbon…” he says. “But think about where we are today. We are today in an industry which has a recycling rate of one percent one, right? We as an industry have a long journey in front of us, and that also starts with you and me as consumers. We need to take the right decisions: buy less, buy good quality, wash less. I mean, the clothes, not us, and go that way. And then we can together move that industry towards a very small amount of waste.”
Cutting waste in the fashion industry, then, needs both brands and consumers to make conscious choices.
Transforming plastic bottles into clothes
In Qatar, sustainable fashion is gaining traction in an industry that’s looking to put Doha on the map as the fashion capital of the region. There’s a growing community of eco-fashionistas aiming to strut their way into the spotlight responsibly with clothes that are comfortable, functional, stylish and sustainable.
RSPR is Qatar’s first clothing brand with a collection made entirely from recycled plastic bottles.
Founder Rina Saleh first used the anti-microbial fabric to make masks at the start of the pandemic. Orders from the Qatari royal family catapulted her brand into popularity.
Thousands of masks later, Rina launched the activewear line, RSPR, that’s hit the shelves of Harvey Nichols and Galéries Lafayette in Doha.
“It’s our responsibility to educate consumers about what the advantages are,” she says. “And make them understand that making eco-friendly, ethical fashion choices doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be fashionable and you’re not going to be cool.”
Finding a cost-effective way of turning bottles into clothes has been no easy task, but Rina is already set to release a second collection, pledging the proceeds to social causes around the world.
Sustainable fashion in Qatar is taking shape in other forms too. High school students are running Project Upcycle: their initiative recently won a Global Impact award from THIMUN Qatar for breathing new life into old clothes. There’s more to be done to cut out fast fashion for good, and they’re showing that they’re fit for the challenge.
Virtual clothing in the Metaverse
As we’ve seen in the world of art and investment, NFTs and the Metaverse are all the buzz in the fashion world too. Brands and big retail companies have been jumping on the trend by offering exclusive apparel in the virtual world: the clothes don’t exist in a physical sense, but buyers can for example obtain images of themselves in the virtual outfits. Digital platforms have been identified as key drivers of growth, but can it also help put an end to fast fashion?
Achim Berg is a Senior Partner at McKinsey and Company and co-editor of McKinsey’s yearly State of Fashion report. He says the test of this new market will be sustainability.
“I think that the big elephant in the room, as you know, is growth and sustainability: is that comfortable first,” he says. “I think the metaverse is very clear. That could be very sustainable because it's digital. I think there is growth opportunity clearly on the digital side, but it needs to be in a sustainable way. And sustainability on the other side, you know, needs to come in a way that, you know, is appreciated by the customers and is still a viable business opportunity for the brands.”
Fashion spending returns to pre-pandemic levels
After a tough couple of years, the fashion industry is well on its way to returning to pre-pandemic spending patterns, which bodes well for overall sales. But the rapid rise of ultra-fast fashion is not only causing alarming levels of environmental damage, it’s also widening wage gaps and worrying shoppers. Clothing brands, then, must start taking ethical practices seriously for the sector to grow sustainably.