Catwalk protest highlights impact of 'fast fashion' on environment

The fashion industry is responsible for an estimated 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions and has the fifth largest carbon footprint of any industry, according to the World Economic Forum.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the climate impact of clothes, particularly cheap fast fashion, and brands are making changes for the better.

But is it enough? Will fashion houses ever stop feeding our voracious appetite for closets filled with throwaway garments?

  1. Why is fashion so bad for the environment?

    Every second a truckload of garments is going to landfill or incineration, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

    A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found some 93 billion cubic metres of water - enough to meet the needs of five million people - is used by the fashion industry annually, and around half a million tons of microfibre, which is the equivalent of three million barrels of oil, is being dumped into the ocean every year.

    Meanwhile, clothing factories in developing countries dump harmful chemicals such as dyes and bleaches into waterways.

    A 2021 report by a coalition of green groups accused the global fashion industry of developing a "dangerous addiction" to synthetic fibres made from fossil fuels in order to supply shoppers with rapidly increasing quantities of throwaway clothing.

    Fossil Fashion: The Hidden Reliance of Fashion on Fossil Fuels, says the use of synthetic fibres, especially polyester, has doubled in textiles in the last 20 years.

    The research revealed some brands are now releasing as many as 20 collections per year and people are buying 60% more clothes than 15 years ago, but wearing them for half as long.

    There also concerns about the conditions endured by garment workers in developing countries such as Bangladesh.

  2. What are clothing brands doing about it?

    Major manufacturers have introduced pledges and initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint.

    Nike, for example, has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions in owned and operated facilities by 65 per cent, to recycle or donate 10 times the amount of post-consumer waste, and to increase the use of environmentally preferred materials to 50 per cent by 2025.

    And Adidas have been increasing their sustainability and usage of recycled materials. The brand aims to only use recycled polyester from 2024 onwards to decrease their effect on the environment and is set on reducing water consumption in production.

    However, Greenpeace says many of these sustainability initiatives either are inadequate or an attempt at ‘greenwashing’ – where corporations celebrate their ethical and environmental initiatives in advertising and PR to placate consumers and divert attention from more dubious activities.

    For example, H&M’s World Recycling Week, in which their aim was to collect and recycle 1,000 tonnes of used clothing, was heavily criticised as an “illusion” of what true sustainability is as only one per cent of collected clothing can be used as recycled fibres.

    Viola Woghlemuth, consumption campaigner at Greenpeace Germany, said: “Instead of offering hope to their young customers by taking bold, transparent action to change the fast fashion system, more often than not, fashion brands are marketing ‘sustainability’ initiatives which do not go far enough, or even worse, resorting to greenwashing with claims of recycled and recyclable clothing.

    “This window dressing creates the illusion that something is being done, and encourages guilt-free overconsumption.”

  3. What challenges do fashion companies face when trying to be sustainable?

    Geoff Van Sonsbeeck is the founder and CEO of House of Baukjen, the first-ever fashion brand to win a United Nations Global Climate Action Award.

    He says the industry must change its mindset to produce less, but higher-quality clothes, and implement a circular economy where waste is not produced in the first place.

    He said: “Systemic change is needed. They need to understand that slow fashion is the way forward – buy less, buy better, wear much longer.

    “It’s hard for most companies to even imagine how they can change from a conventional linear model to circular – for them, it’s a fundamental shift in thinking and operation.

    “Most fashion businesses run on low margins and this naturally leads to resistance to make any change. Responsible fabrics are more expensive, and fashion generally doesn’t make large profits.”

    He adds that there are sourcing and supply chain challenges and sometimes it is unclear what the “best” environmental choice is.

  4. Why is it important to be sustainable in the fashion industry?

    Consumers are increasingly turning their back on fashion companies that are not committed to protecting the planet and governments are increasing regulatory penalties and taxes. Interventions are costly and will continue to rise and eat into already slim margins

    Van Sonsbeeck adds: “With everything that is going on, namely in terms of industry reporting, I don’t think companies can afford to fully ignore sustainability.

    “Companies that haven’t woken up on this issue are also going to lose business. Many consumers are consciously shifting towards more quality and responsible garments and the sharing economy. This is the future.

    “The race to net-zero transition is accelerating – the fashion industry needs to get on track quickly or risk lagging behind other industries that are already innovating.

    “If nothing else, because resources are getting scarcer, cost of materials has been rising and – as we’ve seen – the consequences of climate change are dire and severely impact logistics and our ability to carry on with work as usual.

    “So whether or not companies want to publicly acknowledge it, they already exist in a changing world and it’s in everyone’s interest to make changes for the better.”

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