About to embark on one more festive shopping spree? Perhaps you should think twice before buying yet another Christmas jumper for loved ones this holiday season…
In this blog, Dr Patsy Perry – Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing, invites you to spare a thought for the environmental consequences of fashion as she examines the damaging waste and pollution costs of this growing industry.
- A new Environment Bill is expected to enter the Houses of Parliament in early 2020 and one of its aims is to ‘set a new trajectory for environmental improvement’. It recommends the establishment of an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to ensure government delivers on its obligations under environmental law post-Brexit. As part of this, the OEP should have the appropriate remit to ensure that clothing stock is appropriately reused and recycled.
- Retailers should be held accountable for their role in contributing to the textile waste problem in the fashion industry. The introduction of an extended producer responsibility scheme for textiles which incentivises companies to take positive action should be considered.
- Population growth and increasing global consumption levels are causing widespread environmental damage. The exploitation of our environment to the detriment of biodiversity cannot continue – changing business models which promote the sharing economy are required.
- There need to be clear economic incentives for retailers to minimise their environmental footprint. WRAP estimates that a one pence levy on every garment produced for sale in the UK could raise around £35 million for investment in clothing collection points, sorting and recycling.
- Finally, in light of the 2019 general election, politicians must prioritise these issues and ensure that fashion retailers are held to account. To support the above, the UK needs policy measures that sustain the prospering fashion industry, but also support the development of the sharing economy and ensure manufacturers and retailers are held accountable for the social and environmental consequences of their practices.
Fast fashion has revolutionised the industry and democratised style at prices within everyone’s reach. Through effective supply chain management, retailers focus on reducing cost and lead time in order to rapidly deliver frequent new collections inspired by catwalk or celebrity trends. Manchester, once the centre of Britain’s cotton industry, is now at the core of the online fashion trade. Brands’ success in delivering irresistible trends at affordable prices is evidenced by their phenomenal growth, far outpacing established traditional high-street retailers. According to the Office for National Statistics, online sales as a proportion of all retailing increased to 19.2% in October 2019.
However, the fast fashion business model has encouraged hyper-consumption and overproduction of ‘throwaway’ clothes. Low prices and frequent drops of new collections generate a growing hunger for newness, and there is less impetus to ‘make do and mend’ as a new garment may cost less than having an existing garment repaired. As corners are cut to meet increasingly pressured production timescales and cost targets, so the social and environmental impacts become more damaging. In environmental terms, fast fashion has become synonymous with single-use plastic.
What are these impacts?
The 2019 Environmental Audit Committee report on ‘Fixing Fashion’ highlights the environmental impacts of fashion. These include water pollution from pesticide run-off; microfibres and hazardous chemicals used for textile dyeing and finishing; the carbon footprint of extensive global supply chains; and textile waste (much of which is non-biodegradable). These issues are exacerbated by brands such as H&M and Nike burning unsold stock or sending returned stock to landfill rather than redistributing it. For example, in 2018 Burberry faced backlash when they reported that a staggering £28.6M worth of stock had been destroyed over the course of the year.
Fast fashion retailers also tend to lack transparency in their supply chains which suggests they may not be formally monitored. “Over 90% of workers in the global garment industry have no possibility to negotiate their wages and conditions, according to the global trade union IndustriALL” (SFI0073). Pressure on suppliers to offer unrealistically cheap prices has continued to feed unethical practices and poor worker conditions in the garment manufacturing trade.
What about consumer attitudes?
Consumption of new clothing in the UK is 26.7kg per capita, higher than any other European country (WRAP valuing our clothes 2017). That’s the equivalent of everyone in the UK using more than their entire EasyJet flight luggage allocation on new clothes – Every. Single. Year.
Public opinion is shifting and calls to clean up fashion come from a number of perspectives: from Extinction Rebellion protesters’ call for a fashion boycott, including the infamous ‘funeral for our future’ held at London Fashion Week, to the Environmental Audit Committee’s 2019 report on ‘Fixing Fashion’.
What can be done?
Solutions to the fast fashion problem will be interdisciplinary as there is a need to understand the science behind alternative production methods, the viability of alternative business models and the potential for scaling such solutions. All of this must be considered alongside an understanding of the consumer psychology of our addiction to constant newness. Although some fast fashion brands are engaging with the sustainability agenda by producing capsule collections made from recycled content, the elephant in the room is the sheer volume that is produced. WRAP 2017 estimates over 1.1 million tonnes of clothing are produced every year. We often hear the consumer blamed for their irresponsible behaviour, but the consumer only buys what is presented to them. There is a need for brands to offer us fewer, better things which are not seen as disposable and encourage circularity to preserve value in resources. Earlier this year, the Environmental Audit Committee called on government to take action to ensure that fashion brands and retailers take responsibility for the waste generated by the industry. Mary Creagh, former chair of the committee, said: “Fast fashion means we overconsume and under use clothes. As a result, we get rid of over a million tonnes of clothes, with £140 million worth going to landfill, every year.” Consumer education around the damaging and lasting consequences of overconsumption should also be deepened to enable the public to make informed choices and adjust their consumption behaviour.
The analysis in this article is based on the 2019 House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Report on Fixing Fashion: Clothing consumption and sustainability.