Fashion’s impact is a well-known fact in terms of waste, plastic pollution (polymers, microfibers, etc.), animal cruelty, water needs and health issues (dyes and chemicals). We know as well that fashion is a synonym for consumption, especially in the UK, where the amount of purchased clothes is the highest among all European countries. (UK Parliament, 2019). The reason for this over-consumption is mostly the phenomenon of fast fashion, defined as ‘clothes that are made and sold cheaply, so that people can buy new clothes often’ by Cambridge dictionary.
Given the urgent need to reach zero carbon emission, we should have a closer look at the carbon footprint of fast fashion, which is huge and apparently not expected to reduce.
Status and consequences
In 2015, the fashion sector represented between 2% and 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (1,2 Gtonnes CO2eq). (United Nations, 2019) (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017) (Brewer, 2019). If the fashion industry wants to comply with the +1,5°C scenario, it should take a drastic shift in its ways of production and in its mindset.
Fortunately, companies are already trying to cut down their emissions with solutions such as recycled materials from plastic materials or water-saving textile. It is indeed possible to produce polar fleece from PET bottles. This solution could solve the waste problems of both the plastic industry and the resources of the fashion industry (O’Driscoll, 2015). Another example is Pretty Little Thing, which wants to rebrand its image thanks to recycled clothing lines and a partnership with ReGAIN app to foster second-hand clothing, offering discounts to customers who give back their old clothes.
However, the solutions still struggle to leave the prototype stage and bring new problems such as microplastics released by polar fleece when they are laundered. We should also take with a pinch of salt the great brands’ initiatives because it can also be an excuse for them to sell more and can be some greenwashing.
Indeed, companies are yet to take the lead expecting legislators to take the first step as they want to maximise profit and hence push consumption. Thus, our consumption rate is a skyrocketing trend, and so is our carbon footprint.ice6363
Fashion by 2050
According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation's report about fashion, this industry could represent more than a quarter (25%) of our carbon budget in 2050. Those figures are surprising, since clothes aren’t the heaviest part of our personal carbon footprint at all. For example, in France, clothing weights around 7% of our carbon budget as an individual. Thus, it is the 7th over 9 posts of carbon emissions, above both energy and housing, but far below food and transports. (Malliet, 2020)
The main cause is our consumption rate: it has been skyrocketing. Indeed, in the past 15 years, the use of clothes per capita grew up by almost 50%. We're used to wearing less and less our clothes and we prefer to wear many clothes few times, rather than few clothes many times. The world average number of times clothes are worn has been decreasing from 200 to 130 in under 15 years. Therefore, this led to a one-third rise in sales between 2000 and 2005. (IPCC, 2014).
Worse still, our consumption rate has erased the progress made in garment eco-efficiency. The British group Boohoo – is one of the least engaged fashion brands in the UK in terms of sustainability. (UK Parliament, 2019) –, to which the brand PLT belongs, is a telling example of the rebound effect. Indeed, in their report, we can notice the improvement in carbon efficiency, since their 2020 total emissions divided by the revenue has decreased by 7% compared to 2019. However, the rise in carbon emissions has reached 33% compared to 2019 level (780,000 tCO2eq in 2020), which cannot be a good thing, even if carbon efficiency has been enhanced. (Boohoo Group, 2021).
Contrary to what one might think, the transport of clothes has quite insignificant energy consumption and carbon footprint. (Peters et al., 2021) The worst parts are the extraction of resources and the fabrication, because of the electricity used for the sewing machines. The main problem is then the growing production of new products. One reason is the impact of brands, influencers, and advertising: they make us believe this insatiable consumption is a need, so that we consume each time more. (Brewer, 2019).
To counter this overconsumption, Slow Fashion has recently emerged in opposition to fast fashion. It brings people to consume less, with products of better quality. It also fosters a circular economy, such as second-hand clothing and repairing. However, the latter has strong limits in today’s garment of fast fashion. Clothes and accessories are made cheap, of low quality, and quickly old-fashioned on purpose so they are hard to repair or sell. This is called planned obsolescence, defined as “suppliers of durables in imperfectly competitive markets producing goods with uneconomically short useful lives, so that consumers will have to repurchase more often”. (Philip et al., 2020). A telling example is the story of pairs of tights: initially, one pair could last for decades, which wasn’t good for business. Since the 1940s, tights are made thinner and weaker, so the brand can sell each year more pairs. (HOP, 2018). Moreover, those cheap prices are made to discourage customers from repairing. Thus, it becomes easier and less expensive to buy new items.
However, to comply with the commitment of net-zero GHG emissions within 2050, the fashion sector should not follow that trend. The figures show we must reduce the production of new clothes if we want that pathway to be avoided. Hopefully, we can then underscore 3 main lines of action: reducing the amount of purchased items, designing with more responsible textile and less consuming devices, and foster a more ethical end-of-life.
Truly circular economy and shift in the behaviour
Although their poor condition is not the main reason for clothes disposal, a big step ahead to cut down GHG emissions should be to drastically enhance garment quality. First, it could increase the possibility of reparation, with specialised shops like Repair Cafés – local workshops organised about the repairs of objects. It would make second-hand market easier and widely enhance the current solutions of recycling. Indeed, in 2015, at most 13% of the clothes could be recycled, and most of them were downcycled, which means recycled with a great loss of use or quality (e.g.: clothes to insulation). (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).
We should also enhance recycling techniques, to make the textile more cost-effective. A solution can be the upcycling of the textile: “reuse in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original” (Oxford language). As an example, textile from a curtain could be reused in garments, or garments could be reused as napkins. This tackles both issues of lack of resources and end of life, providing more resistant and less contaminant textile.
If we manage, in the future, to create more durable clothes, then we could improve solutions to reduce esthetical obsolescence: clothes are disposed of while still perfectly wearable in over 80% of the time. Instead of throwing them away, we could think about selling, sharing, donating, or renting them to put them back in the use loop.
However, those innovations cannot be the solution if there is no consumer to change his way of consuming, which means there is an urgent need for a shift in individuals’ behaviour too. Indeed, consumers are aware of the climate issues: around 2/3 of the consumers would pay more for more sustainable clothes and more ethical companies. (United nations, 2019). This is a good point, since brands cannot afford sustainable and ethical clothes at fast fashion prices.
Nevertheless, there are still too few individuals who are ready to change their behaviour. Advertising and influencers did not help, since they made us believe we had to consume to get social value. Moreover, consumers might not be equally informed about fashion's impact on climate, which can let some brands take advantage of it through some greenwashing marketing. That's why laws and policies are required if we expect a significant change by 2050. We could imagine that advertising for highly polluting garments, such as leatherwork or jeans, should be reduced, except for ethical small producers. Laws could also be set up to avoid greenwashing: governments could compel brands ensure traceability and to put a detailed carbon life cycle on labels to enhance the transparency. (UK Parliament, 2019).
In a nutshell, fashion is nowadays a heavy sector in the balance of carbon footprint since it represents up to 10% of global emissions. Furthermore, those emissions do not seem likely to decrease: our fast-paced rhythm of consumption requires each year more items, which implies more raw resources and energy to produce them. At that speed, we may make fashion weight for a quarter of our emissions by 2050.
Nonetheless, both individuals and companies hold the cards to cut down the emissions not to follow this pathway. Although we know carbon-efficiency is not sufficient, it is still necessary and must be coupled to sobriety in our consumption, circular economy, thight laws, and shifts in our behaviours. Finally, we should also be reminded that the environment is not only affected by carbon, so it is vital to also tackle the issue by the view of waste, workers’ conditions, social issues, animal suffering, land use and water needs.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
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Gabrielle Piot is a climate activist and MSc student in Environmental Management, specialised in waste treatment and energy technologies. She focuses on topics about circular economy, social and environmental justice, the rebound effect and degrowth. She is involved in the preparation and organisation of a national forum for students (Student COP3 in France) and runs workshops like The Climate Fresk.