By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recently launched an inquiry into the social and environmental impact of disposable fast fashion and the wider clothing industry (see Sustainability of the fashion industry inquiry launched).
Regular readers might recall that the fashion industry is the second dirtiest industry there is–a topic I first explored in The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion. The environmental costs it imposes in the UK are huge– with more than 300,000 tonnes of textile waste ending up each year in landfills, not to mention the microfibers produced by washing synthetic fibers polluting rivers, other waterways, and entering the food chain.
As The Guardian reported in MPs to examine environmental footprint of UK fashion industry:
Last year the fashion designer Stella McCartney condemned her own industry as “incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment.”
A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation put the annual cost to the UK economy of landfilling clothing and household textiles at about £82m. It warned that if the global fashion industry continues on its current growth path, it could use more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050.
Stuffing landfills is only part of the total global environmental impact of the UK’s fashion consumption patterns: as the country is no longer a major producer of textiles and apparel, most environmental costs of the production of textiles and apparel consumed in the UK are borne elsewhere.
Closer to home, competition from the global fast fashion industry has hurt working conditions for the country’s remaining domestic producers, according to the committee:
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in clothing that has been made in Britain. However there are concerns that the need for quick turn-around in the supply chain to facilitate the demand for “fast fashion” has led to poor working conditions in UK garment factories.
Broader Trend: The Empty Sustainability Mantra
The committee’s enquiry is part and parcel of a broader trend to examine the sustainability in fashion– an issue which has, I should point out, the industry itself has highlighted. Yet as this British Vogue account, How Sustainable Is Your Wardrobe?, recognizes:
Much like the word “healthy” in relation to food, there are few trading standards that define what “sustainable” or “conscious fashion” actually mean. And until there are, greenwashing – the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice – is likely to be widespread across the industry and beyond.
Leaving aside the serious and legitimate concern as to exactly what sustainability means– one to which I may return in a future post– I’m pleased to see greater political attention to the problem. Otherwise, I fear that as I wrote in Fast Fashion Juggernaut Rolls Along, “[t]he fast fashion juggernaut just keeps rolling, rolling, rolling along.” According to The Guardian:
Despite recent troubles on the UK high street, the fashion sector has continued to grow. According to the British Fashion Council, the UK fashion industry contributed £28.1bn to national GDP in 2015, up from £21bn in 2009. But the globalised market for fashion manufacturing has facilitated a “fast fashion” phenomenon; a proliferation of cheap and cheerful clothing, with quick turnover that encourages consumers to keep buying, the [Commons] committee warns.
I noticed that one central committee focus appears to be on recycling and I’m afraid that emphasis is wrong– and this problem is not limited to analysis of the fashion industry. As I’ve written in the context of criticising the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy– mere recycling won’t solve plastics management problems (see EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late? and Plastics Pollution Policies– “Bold” or Pathetic?).
With respect to textile and apparel recycling, if anything, the problems are even more acute. First, there are significant technical problems involved in trying to reuse or recycle fibers. Second, most of the fast fashion articles are shoddily produced, and not intended to be long-lasting. The garments fall apart, meaning they cannot be passed along. Finally, as I discussed in my High Hidden Costs post, dumping of excessive fashion into developing country markets has harmed their domestic textile producers– so much so that some countries themselves say: enough already. These countries don’t want to participate in more recycling. The committee’s press release suggests it’s at least tangentially aware of this last point, “Charities have complained that second hand clothes can be exported and dumped on overseas markets.” That seeming awareness leads me to ask, why then, so much emphasis on recycling as a solution to the problems fast fashion creates?
Industry to the Rescue?
As for the fashion industry itself, some producers are betting on millennials expressed willingness in surveys to pay more for quality products to solve some of problems posed by fast fashion. But expecting that fairy to mitigate the industry’s destructive impact is itself not realistic. We may clap our hands, but Tinkerbell may elect not to appear. Or, as I said more prosaically in my Fast Fashion Juggernaut post:
There’s too much magical thinking going here along the lines that changed consumption patterns– whether based on geography or demographics– will somehow magically make the problem disappear…. just because Chinese and Indian consumers currently rank sustainability as a major concern does not mean that the global appetite for low-priced apparel that embeds huge environmental costs will necessarily shift much when these consumers account for a larger proportion of global demand.
Nor are the espoused preferences of millennials taking the bloom off of the fast fashion rose and shifting consumption patterns either…
The Bottom Line
Commitment to “reduce, reuse, recycle” might mitigate the fashion industry’s environmental impact– particularly that of its fast fashion segment. While I’m pleased to see the Environmental Audit Committee’s commit to assess sustainability in this industry–much better to see some attention paid late, than never at all– undue emphasis on the third element in that triad– recycling– is misplaced. The problem is real, and serious, and warrants a more ambitious response.