This year’s Covid-19 crisis has brought the need for a more sustainable fashion industry into even sharper focus. Conversations that have been gathering momentum for a long while — from the cruel treatment of garment workers to excess textile pollution — have exploded their way into not just industry but also mainstream consumer consciousness.
What’s clearer than ever? Fashion needs a paradigm shift, and that means more than tokenised marketing campaigns or the occasional conscious collection. For too long, the system has exploited people and planet in pursuit of maximising profits. This industry doesn’t just need systemic change, it needs an ethics overhaul, and all of us — from brands to media to consumers — play a part in making it happen.
So, how could we clean up fashion’s act? Can we make it a force for good? How could it be regenerative and uplifting rather than destructive and oppressing for those involved in its supply chain? Big questions, but here’s our take on how the industry can reimagine itself for a more stable, sustainable future.
1. Put planet first
It’s no secret that the creation of fashion has a profound effect on our planet. Textile production alone contributes 1.2 billion tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. The journey of our clothes pollutes rivers with toxic dyes, oceans with invisible microfibres and landfills with piles of garments that won’t biodegrade.
From this point, we hope more brands move to minimise the impact of their sourcing and production methods. Thankfully, there are existing blueprints to help them benchmark this like the SDG’s (Sustainable Development Goals) set out by the UN. There’s also Kering’s EP&L system; a framework which guides companies to establish, track and measure their environmental impact. With consumers increasingly more inclined to support brands they can believe in, it’s something that makes sense for more companies to get behind.
Beyond its enormous environmental impact, fashion infamously compels consumers to follow a continuous cycle of buy, wear and throw. Today, a dress can cost as much as a coffee, so it’s easy to be enticed into purchasing even if you don’t really need something. While fashion companies need to make big change, there’s steps shoppers can take too to consume more mindfully, like buying less but quality, choosing secondhand or renting instead.
2. Reassess growth
Any discussion of sustainability in fashion today often circles back to the industry’s thirst for scale. It exploits resources to perpetuate a cycle of rampant consumerism in the West while taking advantage of labour in poorer, developing countries. It also makes us spend money that we don’t have, on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. That’s capitalism, folks.
To create solutions, we need to address the fact that our current fashion system operates based on the expectation of continual growth. Ultimately, you can’t have infinite expansion on a planet with finite resources, however we can’t just ‘cancel’ fast-fashion. We need these companies, who employ millions worldwide, to truly prioritise the welfare of people and safeguard our diverse ecosystems. To do that, many have argued they need to find a way to slow things down.
This idea of questioning growth is currently in circulation. However ‘degrowth’ is a hard pill for big brands to swallow because it means putting Earth before industry, business and economic growth. Earth Logic by Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham lays out the most meaningful action plan for this we’ve seen so far.
“Degrowth is a hard pill for big brands to swallow because it means putting Earth before industry, business and economic growth.”
3. Reform the treatment of garment workers
2020 has seen a massive humanitarian crisis unfolding in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia. As Covid-19 escalated, international brands cancelled and withheld payments for over 2.8 billion dollars worth of orders. This is still impacting the already unstable livelihoods of millions of garment workers, with many now facing abject poverty. To date, brands like Primark, C&A, Topshop and Gap and even well-known celebrities still haven’t paid up.
What’s more, this is happening in an industry already notorious for human rights abuses, like not providing safe working conditions. Non-profit Fashion Revolution was born in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013. Caused by the factory management’s disregard of safety protocol, it took the lives of over 1,100 workers and injured 2,500 more. It should go without saying that no-one should have to suffer to make the clothes we wear in the West. However, 7 years after that fateful incident (just one of a slew of tragic factory accidents), not enough has changed.
Thanks to the reach of social media, more of us are waking up to the lack of responsibility brands are taking to solve these matters and they’re being called out for it. Organisations like Remake and Labour Behind the Label are driving awareness of this significant social justice issue. We’ll be watching closely to see which brands step up to create reform and provide fair pay for their workforces.
4. Slow down seasonal fashion weeks
While seasonal shows have been the hallmark of the fashion industry for decades, many have started to voice out about their wastefulness. A recent report by fashion tech company ORDRE, called Zero to Market, uncovered that the industry emits 241,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year just from travel costs around key quarterly fashion months. That’s an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of a small country. Cutting or reducing these events could mean a substantial reduction in fashion’s carbon footprint.
What’s more, breaking the cycle of fashion weeks also means disrupting the fast-fashion cycle. Trends set at shows in London, New York, Milan and Paris and the image-making that follows are the fire that fuels the production of mass copycat designs. Speed, not originality, is fast-fashion’s strength; putting the breaks on one will slow down the other.
With luxury behemoths like Gucci announcing it is slashing the number of shows it does per year from five to two, we anticipate this will set a precedent for other brands, big and small, to question business as usual. What they could be replaced with (if anything) is up for debate. Suggestions range from smaller, local presentations to online and digital runway events. Even using AI technology to animate garments is becoming reality. Whatever the case, change is in the air and we’re here for it.
“Trends set at shows in London, New York, Milan and Paris and the image-making that follows are the fire that fuels the production of mass copycat designs. Speed, not originality, is fast-fashion’s strength; putting the breaks on one will slow down the other.”
5. Make circularity mainstream
To reduce its environmental effects, the fashion industry should make going circular business critical. Circularity can take many forms, but the end goal is always to reduce waste while remedying the ‘disposable’ culture fast-fashion has created.
But in order to do away with waste, we need to reimagine what it is and could be. For brands, it begins with considering a product’s whole lifecycle from the start of the design process. That could mean choosing biodegradable fabrics or upcycling deadstock, or using label or button inputs that are renewable or recyclable. As a solution to non-biodegradable synthetic fabrics, fashion companies have also started to use recycled alternatives, like ECONYL or Repreve, made from recycled plastic bottles cleared from oceans and landfills. Organisations like Hong Kong-based Redress are even making upcycling cool, while putting sustainable design talent in the global spotlight.
“In order to do away with waste, we need to reimagine what it is and could be.”
Circularity also means finding creative ways to keep clothing in circulation. Companies advocating renting, swapping and subscription services are all circular business models of the future (between London and Singapore look up Style Theory, The Fashion Pulpit, By Rotation, Rentadella and Hurr). Brands could even look into ways to develop in house second-hand strategies. With resale set to expand 21 times faster than traditional retail, it’s a proposal not to be sniffed at. Fashion technology companies like Reflaunt are helping existing businesses get on board with this.
Some fast-fashion brands have responded to the global climate crisis by creating closed-loop systems, like in-store collection and garment recycling initiatives. Although this is a good start, some argue that the more fast-fashion brands recycle (which in itself is misleading, as a lot of clothing ends up in second-hand markets in India and Africa) the more they can get away with not addressing the elephant in the room: overproduction. These schemes also don’t do much to remedy our attitudes towards consumption. If we want recycling initiatives to go mainstream, we should also hold brand’s accountable to the other two ‘r’s — reduce and reuse — to drive meaningful change. Which leads us on to our next point…
6. Less greenwashing, more transparency
Is greenwashing becoming the new black? Every other week we find ourselves eye-rolling at another fast-fashion brand’s hypocritical and misleading sustainability statements. An example? Boohoo.com’s ‘For The Future’ recycled clothing line, which has designs ranging from just 10 to 20 pounds. Were their workers paid living wages? With a lot of the online retailers’ clothes made in the UK (Leicester) for quick turnaround time, it seems unlikely. What’s more, undercover documentaries by Channel 4 have found that garment workers in the UK employed by the retailer are regularly paid less than half of the national minimum wage (8.21). What about their future, Boohoo?
Brands also need to move away from making sweeping statements like “shop and save the planet!” Let’s be clear: we cannot tap, swipe or Apple pay our way to a more sustainable future. Supporting more responsible brands is important, but so is slowing down consumption and reducing what we buy in the first place.
“Let’s be clear: we cannot tap, swipe or Apple pay our way to a more sustainable future.”
We acknowledge that sustainability is a journey for brands of all sizes and no-one is perfect. It can take time (and the right budgets) to find the right supply chain partners, from sourcing to manufacturing. But those that gain the most respect communicate authentically about where they are and where they want to go. Many smaller, emerging brands are doing this in the right way — by keeping conversation open with their communities, crowdsourcing ideas and backing up their intentions with action. On the other hand, transparency can often be used as a greenwashing tool for big companies. See H&M’s response to topping Fashion Revolution’s 2020 transparency index, which went viral earlier this year for all the wrong reasons.
The lesson? Transparency doesn’t equate to sustainability, but its a crucial first step towards accountability and responsibility. Ultimately, when it comes to communicating green efforts, consumers want facts, not empty promises.
“Transparency doesn’t equate to sustainability, but it’s a crucial first step towards accountability and responsibility. Ultimately, when it comes to communicating green efforts, consumers want facts, not empty promises.”
7. Consider regenerative systems
Regenerative agriculture is fast becoming fashion’s new buzzword, and for good reason. The current conversation around sustainability hinges on not causing further damage to the planet. However, regenerative agriculture looks to renewing and rebuilding, specifically soil health.
Many of us are unaware of the effects of the common materials we wear every day, like cotton. Traditional cotton production uses toxic pesticides that can eventually kill off soil, rendering large crops of arable land barren. Regenerative farming aims to nurture soil ecosystems instead through techniques like using compost instead of fertiliser and avoiding synthetic pesticides. Organisations like Kering, Patagonia and Prana have already invested in this environmentally conscious way of producing. For more insights, look to Fibershed.
8. Embrace digitalisation
With staying at home more becoming the new normal for their customers, brands need to better embrace all things digital. Having an intuitive e-commerce website is now the bare minimum. From livestream shopping events to 3D avatars on the catwalk, there’s plenty of creative ways to grow engagement post Covid.
What’s more, new digital technologies could be the tool needed to fast-track the fashion industries sustainability efforts. One of these is digital sampling to reduce textile waste. Whereas traditional production methods may see a garment get sampled up to 20 times, digital samples can be so lifelike they eliminate the need for a physical one completely. TAL Group, an apparel company based in Hong Kong, is making bold moves in this arena.
Others advancements include ocean plastic clearing machines, democratised technology for chemical recycling, improved infrastructures for clothing recycling, digital clothing (an interesting concept!) and more. Designer Anifa Mvuemba blew our minds with her recent virtual fashion presentation — could this be the future of runway fashion?
9. Do more for diversity and inclusivity
Beyond size discrimination, brands, whether directly or indirectly, has not done enough to be anti-racist. From image-making that excludes minorities, to the racist structures of colonialism the fashion industry continues to perpetuate, we need systemic reform on so many levels.
In the wake of the recent protests that have swept through the United States after the tragic death of George Floyd, the #blacklivesmatter movement saw many companies share their stance. The black squares and vague statements of support hashed out by fast-fashion brands seemed performative and inauthentic to many. This galvanised many black and non-black POC individuals to call out brands for acts of racism that had gone on behind closed doors.
One of them was Leslieann Elle Santiago, who made a statement on Instagram about her experiences of discrimination and bigotry while at Reformation as a general manager. Since then the founder Yael Aflalo had issued a public apology and stepped down. British trans model Munroe Bergdorf also called out L’Oreal for dropping her from a campaign after she spoke up about systemic racism in 2017. Now, after some mediation, she sits on their UK Diversity Board.
BIPOC voices should have equal opportunity to shape the landscape of fashion. We need to do away with cultural appropriation, tone-deaf blackface incidents (believe it or not, these are still recent occurrences) and whitewashed marketing campaigns that promote only a Eurocentric notion of beauty. At the heart of it all, we must work to dismantle the colonialist, capitalist and misogynistic systems that underpin the fashion industry. That means becoming more inclusive by giving a seat at the table for all, not just the white and privileged.
“At the heart of it all, we must work to dismantle the colonialist, capitalist and misogynistic systems that underpin the fashion industry. That means becoming more inclusive by giving a seat at the table for all, not just the white and privileged.”
10. Engage, inspire and educate youth
It’s heartening that the next generation is demanding sustainability in the fashion industry more than any other. Research has shown that Gen Z (ages 18 – 24) consumers today are more inclined to want to support brands that match their values, being more aware of how the climate crisis and world issues will affect them more than others. The rise in use of online resale sites like Carousell, Depop and Vestiaire Collective or clothes sharing apps has shown they’re more open to dressing creatively while reducing waste by choosing secondhand.
Despite this, there’s more that still needs to be done to educate the next (hyperconnected) group of consumers from 8+. As it stands, the fashion education of our kids is currently handled by the marketing departments of big brands. The information they receive about the way they should look is powerful in shaping their future consumption habits. Not enough is being done to address it.
Children today spend a huge portion of their waking life in schools. Could big fashion brands put their marketing budgets to good use by rolling out programmes that help educate youth in the classroom? Understanding materials, consumption and craft from a young age instils certain values that can potentially impact the future of consumption. If Jamie’s School Dinners helped reform food served in the British system, we think fashion organisations could achieve something similar.
11. Do away with heavy discounting
The fast-fashion cycle, predicated by heavy discounts and regular sales, has forced us to forget the value of our clothes. The rise of the internet has meant consumers are more price savvy, comparing prices and creating a deal-driven culture. This means that over the last ten years, brands have leaned on frequent markdowns and annual sale events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday to clear excess stock.
As consumers, there’s a lot of things we need to try and unlearn when it comes to our mindsets like that cheaper is better (someone somewhere is paying the price for your low-value goods). But at the same time, brands need to take braver steps to transform how they approach sales events. Improving product quality, raising prices slightly while communicating their sustainability efforts could help create a more stable retail environment.
Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.