Waste Watch: Fashion Stumbles on Sustainability

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

More than one thousand members of the fashion industry met last week at the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit to discuss sustainability.

Fashion is a notoriously dirty industry – and the problem is getting worse. As Fast Company reported in Bad news: The fashion industry is actually slowing down on sustainability:

Fashion is a massively polluting industry that is accelerating the pace of the predicted climate disaster. In 2015, the sector generated 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. (It also responsible for a fifth of the global water pollution, and a third of the microplastics in the oceans.)

As more and more attention is focused on fashion’s polluting ways, an increasing number of companies have announced sustainability initiatives. But while some sensible changes have been implemented, these lag the rate of growth of the fashion sector, as documented in the 2019 update of Pulse of the Fashion Industry, an annual assessment of the fashion industry’s environmental and social performance in terms of the Pulse Score, produced by the Global Fashion Agenda, the Boston Consulting Group, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

That means the sustainability situation is deteriorating overall, despite the modest gains. According to Fast Company:

“The industry is still improving when it comes to sustainability,” says Morten Lehmann, Global Fashion Agenda’s chief sustainability officer, and a coauthor for this report. “The problem is that the pace of improvement is slowing down, while the industry as a whole is growing between 4% and 5% every year.”

I think this isn’t assessment isn’t nearly critical enough.  As Fast Company also reports:

… The fashion industry is still far from sustainable. In fact, the report finds that 40% of all fashion companies have not even begun to take sustainability seriously by setting targets and rethinking their supply chain. Among the rest of the 60%, a lot of the improvement is happening with small companies (or those with less than $100 million in revenue a year, which includes many startups) and mid-sized companies (which make less than $1 billion in revenue a year). Among the biggest players in the market, which make billions in revenue every year, the pace of improvement has basically stalled out.

Findings of Fashion Sustainability Report

The Pulse report found consumers are aware of sustainability – which is a factor driving some purchasing decisions – particularly those of millennials. Yet the report acknowledges that consumer sentiment alone isn’t powerful enough to force changes in how the industry operates:

This awareness is beginning to have a greater effect on consumer purchasing decisions, with more than a third of survey respondents reporting they have already switched from their preferred brand to another for reasons related to responsible practices. More than half of the respondents said they anticipate that their next purchase decision will be based on these practices. For the first time, this data confirms that most consumers include sustainability considerations in their decision-making framework. …

However, consumer considerations of sustainable practices are not yet powerful enough to be the most important driver of purchasing behaviour. Quality and aesthetics still dominate decision making. Nevertheless, for 7% of consumers sustainability is the most important decision-making criteria. Yet, the industry cannot wait for the consumer to lead this movement—it is up to fashion leaders to take bolder moves today to transition to a sustainable industry. (Pulse report, p.2; citations omitted; emphasis added).

To put this in even starker terms, a recent article in the Business of Fashion, 5 Takeaways From Fashion’s Sustainability Summit, makes clear that although a concern, sustainability alone doesn’t motivate the purchasing decisions of most consumers – including millennials:

Even though there’s increasing demand from consumers for brands to operate more sustainably, that’s still not what’s driving their purchasing decisions. In fact, for the average consumer, the biggest considerations remain style and price, “everything else is way down on the scale,” said PVH Chief Executive Emanuel Chirico.

To move things forward, brands need to be more vocal in educating their customers on their initiatives, while continuing to push for change.

“It’s on us as an industry to drive this change,” the [Global Fashion Agenda’s Eva] Kruse said. “We cannot expect consumers to drive this forward.”

This is just the latest example I’ve seen of excessive hand-wringing over the failure of magical shifts in consumption patterns to materialize and solve these difficult problems (see my earlier post, Fast Fashion: Magical Shift in Consumption Patterns Will Save the Planet?).

So, What Should Companies Do?

I won’t recap here any of the individual efforts some companies are making to address sustainability concerns here. These by themselves are insufficient to fix much of anything.

The situation may be changing, with the industry moving to take a more comprehensive approach to act collectively to address sustainability. As Vogue reports in At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Kering’s François-Henri Pinault Shares a Radical New Vision of Sustainability: “Kering chair and CEO François-Henri Pinault revealed he’s been hired by French president Emmanuel Macron for a first-of-its-kind role: to create a “coalition” of CEOs and top brands in the fashion industry to join forces and set ambitious sustainability targets together” – a mandate   he discussed in his opening address to the conference.

According to Vogue:

What’s significant about this is that it could mark a new era of collaboration and open-source cooperation across the fashion industry, and eventually other industries, too. In an exclusive interview after his keynote, Pinault explained that fashion’s long-held values of competition and exclusivity simply aren’t conducive to serious change. Instead, he believes brands should be sharing ideas and sources (and, in Kering’s case, working with suppliers to bring down the costs of new technologies to make them accessible to mid- and small-size brands).

“Despite what we’re doing, things are not moving,” Pinault said. “I could understand it if we were the only company working towards this, but we aren’t. It’s amazing what some of the biggest companies are doing. But the results don’t work.” Evidence suggests that the current way of doing things—i.e., brands working alone, defining what sustainability means for their own purposes, and setting different goals—simply isn’t adding up. That’s where Macron’s mandate comes in: “We really need to define targets together. The first stage is to choose three or four objectives that are top priority for the industry and commit to working towards them together to find solutions,” Pinault explained. “I’m [confident] we will reach a level that none of us individually could reach by working alone.” (Later in the morning, his friend Paul Polman summed it up with an old African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”)

Forbes featured an article today, Sustainability Is Linked To Privilege – Teasing Out The Truths From Copenhagen Fashion Summit, that suggested the problem may be untrammelled, unregulated competition in the fashion industry. What’s needed is government regulation in order to get companies  to act in ways that may not be in their individual competitive interest to pursue if others fail to act similarly.

The Forbes article emphasized:

Two key areas needing action were identified throughout the two days of panel discussions at the summit. The first was government and legislation, and the second was brand competition. Without legislation (or taxation), restrictions that will deliver the reduction in carbon emissions urgently needed are not a business imperative. Implementation of carbon-reducing initiatives is not currently rewarded. A brand CEO I spoke to said that operating more sustainably is costly and squeezes a company’s profitability, so what is the incentive? No company wants to give their competitor an edge by doing things in a more expensive way without justification, and it seems that the fear of climate doom is not a strong enough carrot, hence Paul Polman presenting the stick.

… …
The other area that needs addressing is that brands want to maintain their competitive advantage and will continue to do so unless a level playing field is established across the industry. Achievement of a level playing field is linked strongly to trade unions and governments establishing industry standards and regulation. Currently, if one factory chooses to pay its workers a fair wage, for example, that will drive the price of their goods up and brands will simply move their production to a cheaper factory. The lack of collective bargaining is reinforcing the problems discussed each year at the summit around fair wages and exploitation in the supply chain. [Jerri-Lynn here: emphasis added.]

Throwaway Culture

It’s all very well and good to talk about more sustainable fashion. But if we were really serious about confronting the industry’s environmental costs – especially its climate change impacts – I think more attention must be paid to our throwaway culture. For clothing, this is not just limited to the “fast fashion” segment – cheap, of-the-moment clothes, never meant to last – but the overall deterioration in the quality of clothing over recent decades (to which readers often attest in comments). (For more on fast fashion see Fast Fashion Juggernaut Rolls Along and The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion for an introduction and overview).

McKinsey addressed this disposability issue in a 2017 report for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A NEW TEXTILES ECONOMY: REDESIGNING FASHION’S FUTURE:

Worldwide, clothing utilisation – the average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used – has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago. While many low-income countries have a relatively high rate of clothing utilisation, elsewhere rates are much lower. In the US, for example, clothes are only worn for around a quarter of the global average. The same pattern is emerging in China, where clothing utilisation has decreased by 70% over the last 15 years.

Globally, customers miss out on USD 460 billion of value each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear, and some garments are estimated to be discarded after just seven to ten wears.Clothing users are acknowledging this as a problem, with, for example, 60% of German and Chinese citizens admitting to owning more clothes than they need. (McKinsey report, p. 19; citations omitted).

Another issue conspicuous in its absence from the Business of Fashion’s Five Takeaways report (as well as the other press accounts I’ve seen) is the globalization of fashion production, and supply chains. The long distances clothing is shipped, from producer to consumer, is a major contributor to the industry’s carbon footprint. Now, there’s a long history of trade in textiles and apparel – a very long history indeed. Pliny the Elder decried the appetite of his fellow Romans for Indian textiles – and the costs to Rome of those appetites. The Silk Road was named after one of the most important products transported from Asia westward. But it wasn’t so very long ago that most textiles were produced locally – or regionally. And if they were shipped, it wasn’t via air. At the start of the Kennedy administration, IIRC, one of every eight American jobs was in textiles and apparel production. So shipping everyday clothes halfway around the world, more or less immediately, in large quantities, is a relatively recent phenomenon. And even if it weren’t, if climate change is indeed the threat it appears to be, do we really need to continue to do this?

What Is to Be Done?

I don’t have any particularly wise words of wisdom to impart here. As in so many areas, it seems to boil down to: reduce, reuse, recycle, and repair (see Four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and…Repair ). To which I suppose I could add another R: Refuse. Just say no.

This would be easier to do if clothing producers again offered high quality clothing, intended to last. The disposability problem isn’t restricted to the low-end of the fashion spectrum. I’ve been shocked and amazed when I look at many high-end “designer” duds to see the shoddy textiles from which they’re made.

If we ever hope to stop accelerating the pace of climate change – not to mention curb global water pollution and stop the proliferation of microplastics everywhere – it’s necessary to get serious about fashion and sustainability. Waiting for millennials to shift their clothing consumption patterns won’t cut it.

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  1. zer0

    Could fashion’s lack of sustainability stem from the fact that it uses slave labor?

    That’s rhetorical of course. People think car companies are bad, but in actuality, I’ve never seen anything worse in my life than my visit to a sweatshop in India.

  2. Chris

    Sounds like there’s a market opportunity for long-lasting clothes that can be reworn more times than normal.

  3. Harold

    Every year the textiles seem to get shoddier and shoddier. It’s very upsetting. Less thread used on buttons and seams. No hems—and on and on.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    Of all sustainability problems to ‘fix’, clothing must be the most complex of all. Retailers and customers are in a dance where the customers demand quick good looking clothing up to trend and the retailers die very quickly if they don’t supply them. Its not just about cost – the US fast fashion chain Forever21 launched into Europe with a big splash a few years ago and quickly retreated – its a fiercely competitive market and the established players simply knew their customer better – F21’s very cheap prices just wasn’t enough. And now the online specialist players are making it even more competitive – they are literally selling disposable one-use clothing at super low prices. That’s great for a 19 year old with little money going out for a party, but not great for anyone else.

    The problem of course is that if any one retailer genuinely tries to change, they’ll probably get trampled underfoot by competitors who will just undercut them. Only a few companies can genuinely grow big and make a profit while making quality, sustainable clothing, and they can do it only by changing a big premium (such as Patagonia).

    So either governments force them to change (bring back tariffs?) or consumers stop caring about up to date trends. I’m not sure which is less likely.

  5. Synoia

    They need a new material, which turns to recyclable slime when washed (Congress could do with a similar product).

    Coupled with your home computer or cell phone clothing program and computer controlled shears and sewing machine, would both resolve the problems and change the industry.

    Maybe Google could focus on the task. Might need a few ladies on the requirement and test parts of the development cycle.

  6. 3.14e-9

    The growth in the clothing resale market is huge and, by some estimates, projected to overtake the growth in retail fashion at some point (I don’t have the stats at hand, but I suspect Jerri-Lynn does). This is how millennials are going to make a difference – which makes sense, given the dismal job market, college loans, etc.

    Many in the NC commentariat already buy used. And really, I think that’s the key to the whole sustainability question. Trying to “educate” consumers about the environmental effects of the clothes they buy is, IMNSHO, a losing prospect. “These pants make me look 10 pounds thinner and they’re on sale, but I simply can’t buy them, because they were made by exploited labor and polluted ten rivers” – said no woman, EVER. It will be far easier to convince her that she can find flattering clothing at a thrift shop for a fraction of that “sale” price, if she knows how to shop. There definitely is a strategy to it, but once she sees how much money she can save, on much higher-quality clothing that makes her look like a million bucks, she’ll be won over (same for guys).

    Anyway, this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I began sewing my own clothes at 10 years old and went to fashion school in New York before doing a 180, switching majors and transferring to journalism school in D.C. Although I no longer sew, I do like nice clothing, and I’ve found time and again that the quality I find at thrift stores is superior to the utterly and completely crapified fast fashion found even in nicer department stores.

    1. alethiea33

      i shop at thrift shops. unfortunately my large bone structure means i very rarely find anything in a thrift shop that fits me. some quality online vendors have tall size pants that do. guess where i go for pants.

      if “everyone” converted to thrift shop buying, would there still be enough clothes in the thrift shops? just wondering.

      with the race to the bottom accelerating at an apparently accelerating rate, just keeping warm may be the only practical sartorial concern most people still have, sooner than we think.

      1. 3.14e-9

        Similar problem here, alethiea33. Only one brand of pants fit, so I do buy those new, sparingly, when they go on sale. Likewise, I’ve never found shoes for my problem feet at thrift stores. But, again, I buy good quality, take care of them, and keep them for a long time. An additional benefit of buying used when you can is that you have more to spend on better quality on the occasions when you do have to buy new.

        I didn’t meant to suggest that everything in my closet is used, but I’d estimate conservatively that 75 percent is from thrift and consignment shops. The trick is going often and being patient. I tend to know what I’m looking for — what colors and styles work for me — which helps a lot. Then I don’t end up with a closet full of stuff that I never wear.

        1. aletheia33

          thank you 3.14e-9. i do know someone who, as you mention below, seems to have a gift for thrift shopping and enjoys going on quests to match friends’ specific requests. i have asked her to look for very specific things i did not think would be out there, and she has found those exact items, usually very quickly. and they fit. extraordinary.

          it may be of interest to note that her grandfather, who emigrated to the USA in the 1930s as a jewish refugee, was a highly skilled clothing maker. her interest in clothes is part of how she cherishes the history of her forebears, most of whom died in the camps.

          thank you also for the encouragement on spending more $$ for things that will last. i would chime in in favor of owning a lot fewer clothes altogether and wearing the same sturdy and favorite items over and over. not a new idea, but i’m now finding it the most economical. that goes for thrift shop items, too, with some items costing quite a bit more than you might expect, especially in brand name, high-end type secondhand shops. more is not better when it comes to clothing, IMHO.

    2. wilroncanada

      Ironic 3.14e-9, my second daughter too is a journalist. She can go into one of many thrift stores in our area, and come out with clothes that, with the right combination and a few minor alterations, make her at formal events, or to work, as a fashion leader in her early 40s. She can buy clothes for her sisters, also from thrift stores, as she did for one of them last week. They nearly always fit well and suit her sister’s personalities and style choices.
      We all shop thrift for clothing. More expensive-looking, and importantly more durable and wearable clothing.

      1. 3.14e-9

        What’s ironic to me, wilron, is that thrift shopping seems to be a talent of some sorts. Sounds like your daughter has it in spades, and good for her for being willing to share it. I don’t claim to be a thrift “fashion leader,” but I manage to look a lot more pulled-together on the outside than I am on the inside.

    3. Summer

      If you made any connections in fashion and are still in contact, ask if “skinny” jeans can not be the largest selection. Options please, please.
      I’m not big by any means, but damn already.

      1. 3.14e-9

        Nope, Summer, no connections. But it wouldn’t make any difference, anyway. FWIW, our local thrift store doesn’t have a lot of skinny jeans. Maybe because they fly out the door as fast as they come in? Dunno. Options are better online.

    4. eg

      My teenage daughter is an avid thrifter; my teenage son not so much.

      I have purchased used clothing sparingly for specific kinds of outerwear (overcoats; corduroy coats and tweed jackets) and a couple of pairs of durable dress shoes.

      Unfortunately, it is easier to source more durable clothing if you have more money — I am thinking here in particular of tailored menswear and men’s dress shoes. A willingness to be “unfashionable” is also helpful, and I recognize that this is generally easier for men than women.

  7. Summer

    7 to 10 wears then discarding could have as much to do with not enough clothes at one time as too many clothes.
    Single stitch crap amomg other issues….

    Jeans that are paper thin among other issues….

    1. Pespi

      Prada was famous for using the cheapest possible thread in its pants, causing exploding trousers earlier in the 2000s.
      The big Kering/LVMH brands need to stop dumping unsold stuff in landfills to promote exclusivity. Fast Fashion is going to copy it the second it hits the factory anyway, there’s no value lost in people wearing last season’s, if they’re already going to wear a low rent copy.

  8. JBird4049

    This would be easier to do if clothing producers again offered high quality clothing, intended to last.

    It is hard to find quality clothing. It is hard to find quality clothing for the “large boned” like me. If by the grace of God I do find them, the price will both astronomical and also often not American made. This is partly due to the relatively small production runs, I think. There are some American manufacturers, but it is made mostly for the young and skinny with oversized wallets.

  9. Merf56

    I would like to find this ‘quality’ clothing so many mention. In thrift stores or other places. I am normal weight but short. Jeans buying is awful. I have bought some really expensive ones I have been told are good only to have them, in less than a season go into a hole just below the crotch. For the price I paid I should have gotten a number of years of wear. On the other hand I bought everyday low end brand jeans for weekends and after work in which I do yard work, clean, go hiking etc and they are rubbed a bit whiter at the knees but otherwise are in near perfect shape after three years…
    Price used to dictate quality for the most part when I started buying my own clothes years ago. I used to buy the best I could afford and keep them for years. Now I almost feel it’s nearing the opposite. I obviously do not know fabric anywhere near as well as Jerri-Lynne but so much of the really expensive stuff in, Nordstrom’s for example, seems of really inferior quality. I have actually ripped things trying them on and I am a careful person.! I park my car at Nordstrom’s and walk through it to get to other places I shop at and so do a little window shopping and trying on for fun occasionally!)
    I do try to buy used when possible but I buy new modest priced also. I do take a bit of extra time to wash things carefully, dry things flat, cool iron but it takes time and space I know a lot of people are short of, but it is a huge help in preserving the look of clothing.

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