What can producers, retailers, consumers and policymakers do to combat overconsumption in the fashion market? Dr Helen Goworek explores our options.
The fashion industry has faced various sustainability-related issues in recent years: from social and humanitarian concerns such as accusations of modern slavery in factories (including locations in the UK), to a range of environmental considerations such as the high volumes of water required in growing cotton. Additionally, clothing is often not recycled due to the expense and complexity of dismantling its component parts, thus leading to much of it being disposed of in landfill. A pitifully small amount of material from clothing is recycled to make new clothing, estimated at less than 1% by the Environmental Audit Committee in 2019.
Whilst the clothing sector is clearly not alone in dealing with problems relating to sustainability, it is a significant contributor to climate change due to its sheer size and importance to the economy. Clothing is the UK's second largest retail sector (food inevitably being number one). The longevity of clothing was singled out in a report by WRAP (the sustainability charity formally known as the Waste and Resources Action Programme) in 2012 as a particularly significant sustainability issue to be addressed, with lifecycle assessment being viewed as the most effective way of lessening the industry's negative effects on the environment.
WRAP found that increasing the average lifespan of clothing lifetimes by a third could reduce its environmental impact by around 20%, so this is potentially the most effective way to reduce the fashion industry's overall impact. Consequently, the UK government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) awarded funding to Nottingham Trent University for a research project to investigate methods of prolonging the lifecycle of garments. I worked on that project as a member of a research team, combining our academic and industry knowledge to investigate product development processes and opinions of manufacturers and retailers in the fashion industry as well as consumer perspectives. The result was a report by Cooper et al. (2016), published by Defra, which contained a number of sustainability-focused recommendations for both policy and practice to consider, and actionable tools to help the industry create positive change.
Since the selection of materials, components and styling at the design stage has a major impact on making products usable for longer, one of our outputs was the creation of a design-orientated toolkit to assist employees in the fashion industry in developing clothes with longer lifespans. It is debatable whether fashion, in its truest sense, can ever be considered sustainable. The toolkit's aim therefore is to embed 'slow fashion' principles to enhance the sustainability of garment production, in contrast to the prevailing notion of 'fast fashion'.
Whilst the negative impacts that mass production and consumption of clothing have had on the environment and on society have been focused upon both by academia and the mass media, there are various other stakeholders who can also be held responsible. Industry bodies, such as the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Ethical Fashion Forum, can influence their member organisations. However, to enact change with more force and speed, governments and policymakers need to take the lead. For example, the imposition of a charge for carrier bags in shops in recent years was able to significantly reduce their usage extremely rapidly in China, Ireland and the UK; similarly, regulations could be applied to clothing purchases. However, policies need not be limited to punitive measures but could incentivise purchases to 'nudge' consumers' behaviour, e.g. by lowering or removing taxes on items that are considered to be more sustainable, such as those manufactured from Fairtrade cotton.
Current steps to avert the fashion industry's contribution towards climate change have clearly been insufficient, as we continue to produce and consume more clothes than we require. An estimated 300,000 tonnes of textile waste is being sent to landfill or incineration in the UK each year, thus creating greenhouse gases. We as consumers have an important role to play, by choosing to take more sustainable actions such as only purchasing clothes that are made responsibly, resisting cheap or 'throw-away' clothing or by recycling or repurposing unwanted garments. Research by the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing found that the maintenance, use and disposal of clothing by consumers had a more extensive impact on the environment overall than did clothing production and distribution, so we have the opportunity to improve our actions towards garments as individuals. These actions can be further supported by producers (retailers, brands and manufacturers) 'choice editing' by offering a wider selection of environmentally sustainable garments from which we can choose. Again, government policies can be used to help encourage this behaviour - from manufacturers and consumers alike.
Additionally, social sustainability in clothing manufacture needs to be addressed urgently. In 2020 the media finally shone a spotlight on the illegal working practices of some factories in the UK, said to be an 'open secret', when such working conditions were linked to Covid outbreaks.
At a time when even the Chief Executive of the British Fashion Council has recently been quoted in the press as recommending that we should buy half the amount of new clothes that we do currently and that fashion companies should sell used products and repair garments in store, we can be sure it's time for producers, consumers and policymakers to take responsibility jointly for a more sustainable fashion system.