Producers are the least to take the blame when high consumer demand could very well be the reason why the fashion industry’s fight for a greener and a more sustainable planet could fail—big time.
Big names in the fashion industry are already pledging their effort to help in reducing the destruction of the environment; Versace and Armani discontinued their use of controversial materials like fur, and Burberry pledged to stop destroying unsold stocks. Prada even goes to as far as saying that it will make its iconic nylon accessories from recycled materials which includes ocean waste by the end of 2021. We also saw in the most recent G7 Summit held in Biarritz, France, where French President Emanuel Macron via Kering chairman Francois-Henri Pinault prompted for 32 fashion companies—from Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Hermes to Zara & H&M—to sign a non-legally binding agreement that would not only emphasize sustainability in the industry but also combat greenhouse gasses known as the Fashion Pact.
On the other hand, the fashion industry’s effort to reduce pollution so far is still unconvincing when the World Economic Forum is reporting 10% of the world’s total carbon footprint (with 6% of it being global greenhouse gas emissions, another claim by French Ministry of Ecology) are from the apparel industry—while in comparison the busy aviation global traffic only makes 2%. The World Economic Forum also states that it’s the second largest polluter of fresh water globally, contributed from 10 to 20% of their pesticide usage, washing solvents and dyes used in its manufacturing, as well as 20 to 35% of the micro plastic into the ocean. Those overwhelming data and everything we read on the news have most often blame the production side and its producers, but what if we turn our heads and start to also question the consumption side of the industry?
The whole “how fashion is destroying the earth” hysteria isn’t just for the big fashion houses or fashion producers to put the blame on. The real problem isn’t also about the materials used for a clothing. But as it turns out, the process of producing fashion at massive rate and at a very high speed—all thanks to high and even higher upcoming consumer demands—is actually the bigger problem. With the industry on their way or already working to reduce its environmental footprint, the problem is now shifting towards the consumption side. Hence, consumers could very well be the bigger if not, the, reason why the fashion industry and the world’s fight for a greener and a more sustainable planet could fail—big time.
The Problem with Fashion Consumer and Its Demand
One of economy’s basic saying goes that there is no supply without demand. The Ellen McArthur Foundation in their most recent report stated that due to growing middle-class population across the globe and increased per capita sales in developed economies, fashion and clothing’s 1.5 trillion euro-a-year business has “approximately doubled” in production for the last 15 years. The report also states that world GDP are expecting a 400 percent increase in world by 2050, which will mean even greater demand for clothing. It’s no surprise that Millennials and Generation Z (aided by of course social media and online shopping) are to be accounted for it, who Flavio Cereda of fashion analyst firm Jefferies says in a July report will contribute to four-fifth of the luxury industry’s growth in the coming years quoting from Bloomberg. Imagine how those high demands would add up or multiply the aforementioned effect to the environment its causing, by…400%? Or even twice, thrice much?
“A big part of the sustainability question is just how many garments are being produced, and having to slow that down. There will always be a natural tension for a fashion company between sales growth and addressing these issues,” says Maxine Bédat, co-founder of the “poster child of the ethical fashion movement” brand Zady. Quoting from a BBC article, environmental journalist Lucy Seigle claims that 100 billion new garments from new fibers are being produced every year, and “the planet cannot sustain that.” Take for example making a simple t-shirt, which is mostly made from cotton. Cotton is a very thirsty crop, requiring 2,700 liters of water—what one person drinks in two-and-a-half years—to make one cotton shirt. Switching to another piece of clothing, a pair of jeans can take over 15,000 litres of water to grow the cotton to make it, so that’s worth two-and-a-half years of water for another four person.
With the process excessively consuming one of earth’s most important natural resource, it’s no surprise if it also produces an excessive amount of waste. Pesticides, toxic textile-dying chemicals to petrochemicals for making polyester and nylon are just some of the dangerous waste caused by the production line. Ever wondered why the world got so hot? Circular Fibres Initiative reported that in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production totaled as much as 1.2 billion tons of CO2 globally—more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime industry combined. Global Fashion Agenda predicts that by 2030, the industry’s water consumption will grow by 50 percent to 118 billion cubic meters (or 31.17 trillion gallons), its carbon footprint will increase to 2,791 million tons and the amount of waste it creates will hit 148 million tons.
That’s not even the harshest part caused by the over production. Fashion—or clothing in the most basic sense—is one of human’s primary needs, but it’s not that like we need so many of it, especially when it’s at a rate where it gets discarded increasingly quicker than it’s produced as fashion houses as well as its consumers chase the latest fashion trends. In the United Kingdom, it was reported by environmental and economic research firm WRAP that there is an estimated more than £30 billion ($38 billion) of clothing sitting in wardrobes that has not been worn for over 12 months. On a larger scale, with the global clothing production doubling, more than half of fast fashion items are thrown away in less than a year according to the consultants McKinsey. Do they end up to going to charity for poverty-stricken society? Maybe, but one thing’s for sure: It’ll most likely be destroyed and not recycled.
One of fashion’s, especially big fashion house’s, open dirty secret is that they destroy whatever’s left of their production to prevent them from being stolen or sold cheaply in their continuous fight against counterfeiter. High end British fashion label Burberry was under fire for destroying unsold clothes, accessories and perfume which according to BBC is worth £28.6 million last year (and since they’ve been doing it since the last five years, its already reached more than £90 million) which undoubtedly caused an outrage—even to its stockholders. While on the other hand, an article from The Guardian reports that only less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing globally is recycled into new clothing, whereas 12% are recycled into other products such as insulation or mattress stuffing—which albeit having the same importance may well be less of importance lifestyle-wise, one of present days driving economical factor.
Unless people had the time to weave their own wardrobe of clothes given today’s circumstances of much activity that requires different clothing option, its hard to argue that we don’t need these producers. With such high demand, we also can’t expect them to not see an opportunity where and why they can’t make more profit out of it with lesser concerns about not destroying the environment. When the biggest problem is about the production, their pledges on using more environmental friendly materials won’t make the radical change and impact our planet needs now when the high consumption demand would drive the production to even more destructive heights. It all comes down to the big question: So what can and should consumers do to create a shift in the industry’s production side?
Stop Over Consuming and Over Demanding
Given the previous context, the easiest and most sensible thing to do would be aware about how there’s just already way too much clothes in this planet called earth for the people and even the planet itself to handle, and to stop over consuming (or demanding) which hopefully would stop stimulating the creation of more clothes. One of the findings in Greenpeace’s latest fashion consumption report titled “After The Binge, The Hangover” is that people buy (or demand) far more clothes than we need and use, with 60% coming from the population of China—contributor of the world’s largest population (representing 18.9% of the world’s population at 1.420 billion people) and fashion’s highest influential market.
Ethical fashion movement warriors should also be aware that creating new sustainable lines as well as new clothes from environment friendly materials are “not going to have the hugest impact in terms of supply chain” and that “it’s not necessarily like we need all this new clothing” as Factory45 founder Shanon Lohr puts it. But credit to where the credit’s due, she also argues that small sustainable brands have helped spread the message about sustainability, have given customers more sustainable options and have proven to bigger companies that customer demand for consciously-made clothing exists. On the other hand, big names in the sustainability movement as exposed by Fashionista in one of their articles are convinced to pursue their noble fight for the cause in other ways. Maxine Bedat for example left her perfect startup to start New Standard Institute, a non-profit data hub intended to “right misinformation wrongs” in the ethical fashion space by supporting research and publishing findings on best practices that would help the cause.
Thanks to them among other things, today’s consumers are taking note of fashion brands’ sustainability focus as well. It’s also partly because shoppers have begun to demand more transparency. In a 2014 Nielsen survey of more than 30,000 people across the globe, more than half said that they are willing to pay more for items made by companies “committed to positive social and environmental impact.” Another report by The Pulse showed that shoppers are increasingly interested in fashion brands’ eco-friendly efforts when 75% of consumers are indicating that they view sustainability as either extremely or very important to them, hence demonstrating their concern by making more purchases from fashion brands that have a focus on sustainability. The same report indicates that over 33% of consumers have switched brands to support those that take a public stance on environmental change. Last but not least: 50% of shoppers plan to switch brands in the future to support fashion brands that are environmentally-friendly, which only means one thing for modern and especially upcoming fashion brands: Being eco-friendly is no longer a choice.
Environment-related fashion issues have caught the eye of the world even more than ever since Stella McCartney launched her sustainability-emphasizing clothing line. Before initiating the “Fashion Pact”, Kering appointed a “Chief Sustainability Officer” and has focused on combating climate change since 2012 (probably thanks to France themselves for spearheading the movement). Even way before then, LVMH has had a Corporate Environment Director since the early 90s. But as always, those supposedly acts of kindness are countered with findings like the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update report that indicates the fashion industry—as a whole—is slowing down on sustainability efforts. The joint operation between Global Fashion Agenda and Sustainable Apparel Coalition in partnership with Boston Consulting Group showed that while the fashion industry have improved its overall score to six points in 2017, 2018 saw its score decreased to only four points.
It’s easier to blame the industry and the government as they could’ve and should’ve done so much more especially given those findings, but (sadly) until the cool kids of social media and the world really started to care for the environment (which then the industry would also really follow) and when its expensive price starts making more sense, it’s up to the consumers to force a change. Kering hints out that there will always be tension between needing to sell “a dream of excess and indulgence while assuring consumers it can be done without hurting the planet”—and the least that they and every producer could do is minimalize it. With the overloaded amount of clothes due to higher than ever demand, consumers as well as producers should start thinking that instead of creating ready to wears, they should try and utilize what’s available and make it ready to re-wear.