Long gone are the days when clothing was purely functional, contemporary fashion is a multi-billion-dollar industry comprised of various competing brands, designers, promoters, advertisers and also considered a core tenant of individualistic self-expression.
Like the fast-food industry, fast fashion is another phenomenon that has emerged since the industrialisation age which is now quantifiably threatening the health and stability of our planet.
Fast fashion operates on the premises of mass-marketing, enticing consumer persuasion towards fleeting trends and mass-production by pumping out billions of clothing items per year.
In current times of ‘trend culture,’ once a trend reaches the end of their lifespan, or once a new one comes along, many consumers take to purchasing more new clothes and simply discard and dispose ‘out-of-style’ garments resulting in a significant amount of waste.
Back to basics: textile manufacturing
Clothes and fashion more broadly, tend to emphasise focus on the design and creativity processes whilst less is said about the actual textile manufacturing processes required to cultivate the fibres and raw materials used by brands and designers to imprint their flare on an item before they’re displayed in stores for sales.
The basics of fashion extend much further then neutral colour palettes or staple pieces in one’s wardrobe and originates in agriculture, the cultivation of fibres.
Of all natural fibres required to manufacture garments, cotton is the most predominant, accounting for approximately 30% of all textile fibre consumption. The cotton crop is heavily water dependant and use of various fertilizers and pesticides are common techniques used to grow cotton. The necessity for such copious amounts of water for mono-cropping of cotton indicates some relative instability for continued heavy reliance on cotton fibres for the garment industry.
Creating a diversity of textiles to be used as well as focussing on more sustainable fibres are what garment manufacturers are now aiming towards for decreased production costs as well as ability to produce more environmentally sustainable products to align with increased consumer awareness.
Of all textiles used in the garment industry globally, over 60% are manufactured in China and India. In these regions, there is a predominant reliance still on fossil fuel power energy which in turn increases the carbon footprint of each garment.
It’s estimated that to make 1 kilogram of fabric creates approximately 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases totalling to approximately 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas annually; which equates to close to 10% of the world’s carbon footprint – more than the entire aviation or transport industries.
Pollution is also a problem. Other processes within textile manufacturing also see the use of chemicals, dyes and other synthetic products which may seep into water supplies and natural bodies of water.
Is there such thing as too much of a good thing? Waste….
There are around one hundred billion items of clothing manufactured globally every year.
By the end of these garments’ lifespan, 85% of them, or three out of five garments, are incinerated or end up in landfills as there currently is a gap in industry’s knowledge and capacity to recycle and re-use textiles.
Current technologies have struggled in conceptualising ways to recycle discarded apparel into fibres that can then be turned into new goods. Majority of recycling technology such as chemical digestion or shredding was created to breakdown harsher, durable goods such as glass or cardboard; these technologies don’t operate practically for the recycling of sensitive apparel fibres.
For this and other reasons including lack of consumer awareness, it has been reported that consumers are purchasing 60% more textile garments than what was purchased in 2000.
When it comes to nation State’s ability to regulate the fashion market and assist in recycle of textile fibres, most fail in this regard. Globally, Germany have been the best performers, collecting approximately three quarters of discarded textiles, re-using half of that and recycling one quarter of that percentage.
Modern day garments are being worn for less time and so are disposed of earlier. The garment manufacturers then double down on their greenhouse gas emissions as they mass-manufacture more and more clothes.
What can be done? Are there any alternatives?…
Commendably and true to their creativity, the fashion industry has made attempts to reform the entire garment industry’s procedures and processes rather than just create slogans to appease the rise of conscious consumers.
Participants of circular fashion attempt to create and contribute to a regenerative clothing system seeks to reduce waste by encouraging designers and distributers to think about the next use of any piece; maximising an item’s use and value and mitigating waste.
Common Objective identifies some main elements of the circular fashion concept as:
Designing with circularity in mind
This includes everything from use of single fibre blends instead of mixed blends to ensure discarded items can be more easily retrieved, recycled, and re-used.
Using sustainable renewable energy for production processes and considering the sustainability of raw materials and fibres and what best alternatives are out there that are more environmentally friendly i.e. recycled fibres and plant-based fibres.
Closing the loop
Perhaps most importantly, is the need to close the loop of waste and create systems whereby a garment that’s reached the end of its lifespan can be collected, recycled, upcycled and/or at the very least, the raw materials, re-used.
Initiative by companies such as massive fashion brand H&M who’ve committed that, by 2030, all clothing in their stores will come from sustainable sources are examples of what will lead to closing the loop.
To do this, they’ve ensured collection points at all their stores, where consumers can leave all types of clothes regardless of brand or condition. Once collected, the items are sorted into either re-wear, re-use or recycle categories to minimise waste as much as possible.
Some ideas of things you can do today to assist the planet and people:
- Take an inventory of your wardrobe. Anything you think you’ll never use again or have lost interest in, take to your nearest garment recycling spot to contribute to the next round of the cycle
- Research who you’re buying your clothes from. If they’re transparent with information about their supply chains and design processes, chances are you’re buying from the right people. If not, perhaps look for alternatives
- Boutiques are back. Take a wander around your hometown, pop into your local fashion stores and tailors who more often than not are sourcing their textiles from regional manufacturers and are creating the garment themselves. Support local businesses whilst finding something unique for your new look
- Recycling Your Fashion for a Better Future – Impacting Our Future
- Why Recycling Won’t Solve Fashion’s Sustainability Problem | British Vogue
- Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula | McKinsey
- A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future (ellenmacarthurfoundation.org)
- Moving Towards a Circular Fashion Economy – MOTIF
- The price of fast fashion | Nature Climate Change
- What is Circular Fashion? | Common Objective
- The European market potential for recycled fashion | CBI