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The Future of Fashion is Sustainability – It's Time for the Industry to Step Up

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

The fashion industry has been notorious for its unsustainable practices, particularly in the fast fashion sector. These companies prioritize low-cost production and quick turnaround times over ethical and environmentally conscious practices. They have relied on a take-make-waste model that exploits labor and produces massive waste and pollution. This has led to severe environmental degradation and human rights violations, such as exploitative working conditions and low wages for garment workers.


In recent years, consumers have become more aware of the consequences of fast fashion on people and the environment. There is now a growing demand for sustainable and ethical fashion. Consumers want to know the truth behind their clothing and its global impact.


To meet this demand, apparel companies must take urgent action to build green supply chains. This means implementing sustainable business practices, such as reducing waste and pollution, using renewable energy sources, and ensuring fair labor practices. By doing so, they can help protect the environment, improve the lives of garment workers, and meet the growing demand for sustainable fashion.


The Problems with Today's Fashion Industry


The fashion industry today is based on an overproduction and overconsumption business model. Trends move quickly from runway to retailer, with fast fashion brands constantly releasing new collections. The average consumer buys 60% more clothing today than 15 years ago but only keeps half as many garments. A large portion of this waste ends up in landfills.


The fashion industry's fast-paced production has serious environmental consequences. It accounts for over 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the emissions from maritime shipping and international flights combined. Additionally, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water. Synthetic materials like polyester release microplastics into waterways, while cotton cultivation requires numerous pesticides and water, and soil overuse depletes nutrients.


The human cost is also enormous. Most clothing is produced in developing countries, with low-wage and oppressed workers working in hazardous factory conditions. Child labor is also still prevalent in some areas.


This linear economic model of taking resources, manufacturing products, and quickly discarding them is unsustainable for an industry that produces trillions of garments each year. Transitioning to a circular system that maximizes reuse while minimizing waste is now a moral and business imperative.


Sustainability Must Enter the Fashion Supply Chain


Sustainability is a critical concern in the fashion industry, and materials are at the forefront of this issue. The choice of materials can significantly impact the environmental footprint of the fashion supply chain. Opting for materials that are grown organically, such as cotton, or sourced sustainably, like wool, can make a significant difference. By doing so, the environmental impact of these materials can be reduced, as the production process is less resource-intensive and less polluting.


Recycling is another way to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Using recycled textiles, for instance, can help reduce waste and limit the strain on natural resources. Renewable materials like bamboo and plant-based fabrics offer an alternative to synthetic materials, which are often non-biodegradable. These materials can be grown and harvested sustainably, and their production process is less polluting than that of traditional synthetic materials.


Brands should also inspect manufacturing facilities to ensure that worker rights and fair wages are being protected. Using renewable energy for production can reduce the reliance on fossil fuels. Reducing material waste and using non-toxic dyes can improve efficiency and benefit both profits and the environment. Additionally, it is crucial to consider the impact of transportation. Companies can reduce their carbon footprint by sourcing locally and minimizing shipping distances. Optimizing logistics is critical in reducing the distance traveled by apparel, which significantly reduces pollution.


Policy and Investment Must Align with Sustainability Goals


Several policy tools can be used to hold fashion brands accountable for recycling their products, such as extended producer responsibility laws and voluntarism. Tax breaks can also be given to encourage using environmentally friendly materials and processes, which can hasten the shift towards sustainability.


Investors and shareholders can play a significant role in promoting sustainability in the fashion industry. By demanding corporate sustainability strategies and setting science-based emission reduction targets, they can pressure companies to take action. Investing in companies with a poor track record can also encourage them to reform and adopt more sustainable practices.


Consumers Must Support Sustainable Fashion


When making purchasing decisions, it's essential to consider the impact they can have on the market. It's important to conduct thorough research and support companies that prioritize sustainability and ethical practices. By choosing eco-friendly brands over fast fashion, we can promote progress towards a more sustainable future while encouraging businesses to adopt responsible practices. Supporting socially responsible and environmentally conscious brands can lead to a more sustainable future for everyone.


Fortunately, some fashion leaders are pointing the way:


- H&M provides recycled clothing collections as well as in-store recycling.

- Patagonia uses renewable energy and offsets its carbon footprint.

- Levi's has an active denim recycling program.

- Stella McCartney makes use of vegan organic materials.


Although every brand has flaws, their efforts demonstrate that progress is attainable. Fashion companies that prioritize sustainability can lead the way in shaping the industry's future. Achieving this goal will require coordinated action throughout the complex supply chain of the apparel industry; nonetheless, the benefits will be substantial: restoring the planet, safeguarding human rights, and meeting evolving customer expectations.


The time for sustainable fashion is now, for both people and the planet. To survive, the industry must adapt, and we must hold brands accountable with our voices, votes, and wallets. Together, we can effect real change and help runways and retailers transition to a cleaner, kinder future.


 

Recommended Readings


Brown, C. (2019). The sustainable and ethical manufacturing practices of today's leading fashion brands. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brookerobertbrown/2019/01/17/the-sustainable-and-ethical-manufacturing-practices-of-todays-leading-fashion-brands/?sh=258b7e4d2f94


Business Insider. (2022). Trendy fast-fashion brands face backlash as consumers become more eco-conscious. https://www.businessinsider.com/fast-fashion-environmental-impact-pollution-emissions-waste-water-2022-10

Chakraborty, S. (2019). How H&M, Patagonia and Levi's are paving the way for a green fashion revolution. Entrepreneur. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/338189


Claudio, L. (2007). Waste couture: Environmental impact of the clothing industry. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(9), A449–A454. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.115-a449


Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2017). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion's future. http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications


McKinsey & Global Fashion Agenda. (2020). Fashion on Climate. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/industries/retail/our%20insights/fashion%20on%20climate/fashion-on-climate-full-report.pdf


The Conscious Challenge (2019, May 15). Water & Clothing. https://www.theconsciouschallenge.org/ecologicalfootprintbibleoverview/water-clothing

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