Can fashion ever be fully sustainable?

In order to produce what’s estimated to be between 100 million and 150 million garments per year, the fashion industry – along with the footwear industry – is producing over eight per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. More than 200 million trees are cut down each year to make cellulose fabric and plastic microfibres shed from synthetic clothing account for 85 per cent of human-made material found along ocean shores. The industry’s CO2 emissions are projected to rise by more than 60 per cent by 2030, and if it doesn’t take action, fashion could be using more than a quarter of the global carbon budget by 2050.

As a result of the proliferation of damning research in recent years, the industry has responded with eco-friendly collections, The Fashion Pact, self-set sustainability targets, social media self-flagellation, carbon offsetting schemes, and tree-planting initiatives. But is it enough? Will the fashion industry ever meet the ultimate goal of being fully sustainable?

Planetary boundaries

Firstly, it would be helpful to establish what sustainable even means. It’s used so broadly – plastered across the hoarding of brand-new building developments and printed onto the labels of T-shirts – that it’s beginning to lose meaning. Luckily the planetary boundaries framework, a concept led by Johan Rockström, exists to illustrate and quantify the conditions which will maintain a “safe operating space” for humanity. There are nine boundaries which include climate change, freshwater use, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss. In some categories, we’re still in the “safe” zone, while in others, we’re already in either “uncertain” or “high risk” territory.

It’s not necessary for every single person who wants to buy a pair of jeans to know how planetary boundaries work but what’s important is that it provides a guide of sorts for what the fashion industry – and other industries – need to do to maintain a safe, habitable planet. Kering, the fashion giant behind brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, released a paper in 2019 which discussed how business sustainability goals can be linked to planetary boundaries. It conceded that it won’t be an easy task but that it’s necessary for a focused approach towards a sustainable future rather than blindly tackling whatever issue happens to be trendiest at the time.

In March 2021, a report was released by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (of which Rockström was former director) which outlined how fashion can work towards a “circular economy which respects and responds to planetary priorities”.

“The situation is growing urgent,” reads the report. “In 2015, the world’s nations agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)… Yet by 2020, progress remains uneven, and the world is not on track to meet the SDGs by 2030.”

In response, the report lays out six priorities for business “in order to maintain the stability and resilience of the Earth system.” They are: cut carbon emissions, halt the loss of biodiversity, minimise the change of land use, use water wisely, improve nutrient use efficiency, and avoid releasing harmful substances.

One key way to achieve them, the paper states, is by adopting a circular economy: recapturing and reusing existing materials to reduce – or even eliminate – waste. This can mean anything from repairing and reselling a holey jumper to reusing the effluent water created during the dyeing process.

Slowing down

Aja Barber, author of Consumed: The need for collective change; colonialism, climate change & consumerism, says that a fully sustainable, circular industry would look very different to the one we know now. “The entire industry would absolutely need a massive overhaul,” she says. “A sustainable future would be working with what we already have. We would ban the idea that you can burn unsold merchandise. Use of virgin polyesters would disappear and brands would have to pay taxes on their waste.”

The ‘haul’ tag on TikTok now has over 10 billion views, suggesting consumers’ behaviour doesn’t necessarily reflect their idealistic beliefs.

“There would be fewer seasons,” she continues. “And there would be fewer ads, especially through social media, which I think is a big part of what keeps this machine really churning at the speed at which it moves.”

While research from Bazaarvoice’s Influenster community reveals that 78 per cent of consumers “feel it’s important to use brands or products that are described as ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’”, the ‘haul’ tag on TikTok now has over 10 billion views, suggesting consumers’ behaviour doesn’t necessarily reflect their idealistic beliefs.

Consumers’ behaviour doesn’t necessarily reflect their idealistic beliefs.

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“It is not just the need for the latest colour or style that is driving the younger generation to continue investing in fast fashion purchases, but the dopamine hit of endless parcels arriving concurrently in the post,” says Andy Woods, director at Rouge Media. “Some of the shift needs to come from the platform-driving influencers. Impressionable viewers often copy their style and ‘hauled’ items, so if they are continually driving fast fashion, their viewers’ purchasing patterns will follow.”

Barber agrees. “We need more people not selling things online. We need them giving information and encouraging people to rewear their clothing. We need more people shouting against the message. We have to overpower that message, and [over-consumption] has to stop being cool,” she says.

Sustainability campaigns and shopping features may lead people to believe that buying differently is the answer. An organic cotton T-shirt rather than a new one, a pair of recycled polyester cycling shorts rather than ones made out of virgin polyester. But, as Barber notes, “if you’re over-consuming, even if it’s sustainable garments, it’s still over-consumption”.

If you’re overconsuming, even if it’s sustainable garments, it’s still overconsumption

The issue is that modern brands flourish on over-production and over-consumption. Weekly, even daily, stock drops keep customers buying at a lightning-fast pace. The average consumer bought 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than they did in 2000, but kept each garment for half as long. Given that, in the seven years since 2014, the likes of Boohoo, Shein, and Pretty Little Thing have boomed, that figure may well have trended upwards.

H&M reportedly sells around 3 billion items of clothing per year, although like many other brands it doesn’t officially disclose its total figures. However, a number did for Fashion Revolution’s 2021 Transparency Index. Adidas/Reebok’s annual product volume was 528 million units for apparel, Mango made 158 million units, while Inditex produced 545,036 tons of product (in the previous report it revealed that it had made 1.6 billion items during the annual reporting period).

Production levels will need to significantly reduce, and alternative revenue streams that don’t rely on making new products, such as rental, recommerce, repair, and digital, will need to be explored. But the issue, Barber explains, is that “very few well established brands are willing to do that”.

Getting brands on board

Many shoppers have been impressed by brands making commitments such as using certain percentage of recycled materials within their ranges by 2030, or going organic by 2040, for example, but the issue is that brands are picking and choosing what to tackle and, importantly, what to leave out. And there are few, if any, consequences if they miss their self-set goals.

“From my perspective, policy and legislation that’s binding is how we get to a sustainable industry,” says Libby Annat, director and co-founder of Due Diligence Design. For Annat, accountability is key. Policy and legislation that doesn’t hold companies accountable for their actions isn’t worth having, she says.

“Accountability looks like legislation which includes specific provisions which could relate to either fines on companies for not abiding by the legislation or stronger action such as criminal penalties for directors and/or board members,” Annat explains. “And accountability also needs to include remedy.”

Remedy is about safeguarding against future harm to ensure the same errors are not repeated. Remedy should be a “full package”, says Annat. It needs to make companies think about what they could to do to prevent the issue happening again using similar measures across their entire supply chain. “That then becomes a sea change,” she says.

Annat points to a number of upcoming pieces of legislation that will have a significant impact on the fashion industry. They include the European Due Diligence Act which will ensure that companies are liable when they harm human rights and the environment and guarantees that victims can access legal remedies; and the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, which means companies must report on their impact on people and the environment.

“I see so much legislation, recognising the changes that we need to make,” says Frank Zambrelli, Executive Director of the Responsible Business Coalition (RBC). “As usual Europe is streets ahead of the rest of the world” but Zambrelli continues, in the US, lobbyists which are “typically always pushing Congress to advantage their business” now realise that supporting what consumers want and making sustainable change is becoming a business advantage in itself.

Where the money goes

Again, the average shopper doesn’t need to be a legal expert and know the ins and outs of every piece of legislation but what may be reassuring is how it’s affecting brands. While the threat of a legal battle was once a reputational worry, Annat explains that legislation is having a financial impact too, as investors are reconsidering financing brands who aren’t on track to comply with the new rules on the horizon.

A person shops at a fashion store

(Getty Images)

Even when legislation isn’t involved, financial incentive is proving vital for progress. Zambrelli provides an example of members of the RBC (of which 47 CEOs representing about 15 per cent of the industry are members) looking at the impact of pre-packaged shirts. 12-14 pieces of packaging came from five different countries, not including the country of origin of the shirt. “When you spend a little bit of time reorganising the issue, you save 8 cents a shirt,” he says. “So, they radically reduced the greenhouse gas footprint of the shirt but, at 8 cents for 55 million shirts, they saved $4.5 million. Suddenly, stability got very sexy, right?”

In order to get the CEOs of the future considering sustainability alongside or even above profit the RBC, which is part of Fordham University, has embedded sustainability into its curriculum. “We’re pulling that line of sustainability education across every discipline in the school,” says Zambrelli. “It’s a fundamental shift at the student level, which is probably the most encouraging thing about the work that I do.”

While future CEOs may have different worldviews, Zambrelli is open that some member CEOs are more environmentally-motivated than others, so it’s important that the RBC, which collaborates with NGOs such as the International Labour Organisation and Fashion for Good, blends environmental benefits with financial ones. “I can say in nine years, especially in the last three, there has been a sea change in attitudes. The same way [CEOs] look at their whole supply chain and say, how do we increase efficiencies, they now understand that in some cases, efficiency is a synonym for sustainability. So, when they try to reduce carbon, to reduce water, and try to find some more sustainable or even regenerative raw materials, they’re actually improving their business prospects.”

Of course, as seen by the enormous successes enjoyed by the likes of Shein and Boohoo, consumer or even financial incentive isn’t always enough when you have a customer base happy to part with cash and overlook your environmental indiscretions. That’s why there’s no single answer to the question of whether fashion can ever be sustainable. Theoretically, yes it can. But it will take a circular economy, reduced production, targets set according to planetary boundaries, binding legislation, a cultural shift, an overhauled education system, significant and difficult strategic efforts from brands, and a collaborative, global effort. As Barber puts it, “it has to be all parts moving together”.