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Understanding Sustainable Fashion

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Fashion plays a major role in the global economy with annual revenues totalling over £1 trillion. However, it is also one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world. What is sustainable fashion and why is it important?

Sustainable fashion is about meeting today’s needs while ensuring that the way we go about meeting those needs meet future needs as well.

If you dig down a little deeper, sustainable fashion is also about benefitting the people involved throughout the fashion supply chain – from farmers through to consumers and everyone working in end-of-life facilities such as recycling factories.

Why is it so important? It literally is as simple as it’s a matter of life or death. I know that sounds intense but fashion has such a significant impact on communities around the world.

It also has a huge climate change footprint, and if we’re going to tackle the existential threat of climate change, the fashion industry needs to urgently address its unsustainable practices.

If we don’t start to address the negative impacts of the fashion industry soon, we’re not going to have an industry in the future.

The fashion industry is one of the largest polluting in the world, however, some brands have announced that they are aiming to become 100 per cent ‘circular’ by 2030. Do you think it is possible to achieve a zero-waste fashion industry?

It’s essential that we work towards a fashion industry that is working in a sustainable way. However I don’t think zero-waste is going to be a panacea for all of the problems in the fashion industry. As an industry, and as a culture, that spans across the world we’re going to have to look at reducing our consumption alongside moving towards more circular models of production. But the circular economy is an extremely exciting area that we need to be exploring further.  

This year, London Fashion Week prohibited designers using animal fur on its catwalks following pledges by brands such as Burberry, Gucci and Versace to go fur-free. Meanwhile, companies such as Adidas and G-Star RAW have developed apparel made from ocean plastic, with Adidas selling over a million from its ‘Parley’ range last year. Why is sourcing sustainable materials important?

As you’ve mentioned, large numbers of the materials that are commonly used today in the fashion industry are resource-intensive.

Cotton, for example, requires a huge amount of water and synthetic materials like polyester are made from non-renewable resources such as oil. Then there are other materials, like viscose, which on a massive scale is leading to deforestation and is therefore affecting the habitats of endangered species and ancient trees. So it’s crucial that we move towards researching and developing more sustainable materials because it’s critical to the future of the fashion industry as well as the planet.

The truth is, we can’t keep using resources the way we are because we won’t have those resources left.

It takes almost 3,000 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt. How large is the problem of waste, particularly water waste, in the clothing sector and how can it be reduced?

Waste is one of the most pressing problems in the fashion industry. 100 billion products are being pumped out of factories every year. We now buy more clothes then we have ever bought before disposing of them in the bin. In North America alone, consumers throw out what is the equivalent of the Empire State building in weight every year. This waste is then either being burnt or going to landfills which is not a sustainable way of doing business.

If you have to burn your product in order to dispose of it, that’s extremely inefficient, and it shows you’re not using your resources well and that desperately needs to change. We can’t keep filling up our landfills either, or sending our second-hand clothes to other countries, because there is eventually going to be no space left. Waste is our collective responsibility and it has to be addressed quickly.

Water is particularly an important issue. One of the most striking examples of this is the Aral Sea which was once the world’s fourth largest lake but has essentially dried up largely because of cotton farming. Fortunately there are now innovative ways to dye clothes without having to use water which is extremely fascinating. 

Cotton harvested in Cukurova district in the southern Adana province of Turkey. Photo: Getty Images

Can you give us examples of some of the latest technology being used to transform the start-to-end life of clothing?

Some brands are doing simple things like accepting their old products in store which is great because it shows that these brands are taking more responsibility for the waste they are contributing to.

There are also some new technologies being developed around recycling fibres although none of them are commercially viable yet but hopefully they will be soon. These technologies will be able to disrupt the way materials are used and eventually the way we buy clothing. For example, there are processes that are being trialled where fibres can be broken down to their original chemical components and then re-spun into different fibres to make a garment again at the same quality meaning we don’t have to keep relying on virgin fibres.

Some companies are also developing new materials, like leather made from grape skins and orange skins, which means leather you can grow in a laboratory rather than relying on animals who are often subjected to horrible conditions.

There are also lots of new business models too, for example, perhaps we don’t have to own every piece of clothing that we wear but we could rent it or swap it? This is interesting as there is a growing market for second-hand clothes in the developed world.

There’s lots of amazing things going on but we just need to move a lot faster.

Over 300,000 tonnes of clothing were discarded in the UK in 2016 and the UK Environmental Audit Committee has announced that it is going to investigate the rise of ‘fast fashion’ and its impact on the environment. With the global demand for clothing rising, how difficult is it to change consumer behaviour?

It’s not easy. We, at Fashion Revolution, love fashion because fashion is our chosen skin. It’s fun, it’s how you celebrate your individuality, it’s the face you show to society, it says something about who you are as a person. We would never want to take that away from consumers. We want to continue to celebrate fashion in this way.

The problem is that information about the impacts of our clothes is not available to us. We’ve had the organic food movement for such a long time but for clothes it’s a relatively new topic. We’re finding that most people just don’t know about the issues, but once they do, they are likely to change their behaviour.

I’ve had lots of people tell me that they started to think about sustainability when shopping after seeing information I posted on social media and now they ask themselves why they are buying a product, whether they really need it, do they know who has made it and do they trust that the brand that has made it has done it the right way. Once informed, these questions start to bubble up inside of them every time they go shopping.

It’s important to capture people’s attention in a way that doesn’t make them feel guilty because that’s not fun. But it’s hard because there’s a lot of noise out there but hopefully we can inform people in a way that’s digestible and visually compelling.

If the growth of the fashion industry continues along its current trajectory, by 2050, it could account for around a quarter of the world’s total carbon emissions. How could water scarcity, land use challenges and climate change affect the future of the fashion industry?

The fashion industry is one of the most globalized industries in the world in terms of the flow of goods, services and people but it’s only over the past couple of years that the social and environmental impacts have been taken seriously by decision-makers because fashion always seems so frivolous. You see the catwalk shows thinking it’s not a serious industry but it really is because we all engage with fashion because of the simple fact that we all wear clothes. Whether you work in the government or you are a fashionista we’re all involved in the world of fashion.  

Climate change is here – and it’s accelerating. Over 100 billion products are being pumped out of factories every year and many of those products are made from synthetic materials that frankly take hundreds of years to biodegrade. But we don’t have hundreds of years to address climate change so we need to tackle unsustainability in the fashion industry now.

We are starting to see sustainable fashion being discussed at the talking tables of decision-makers in many countries. There are a lot of leaders investing in innovation but there are also a lot of laggards. Unfortunately I think the only thing that is going to get the laggards to act is to introduce regulation, although governments move a lot slower than businesses, which could prove a challenge.

We also need more companies to put their heads above the parapet and start talking about these issues to their customers. Yes it will open up your practices to scrutiny but if you want to be a more sustainable business you have got to bring your customers along with you.

Find out more about sustainable fashion at Fashion Revolution

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