The World Bank estimates that over the past 15 years, clothing demand and purchasing has almost doubled while the corresponding utilisation - the amount of times an item of clothing is used before it is discarded - has significantly decreased. The New Textiles Economy report, released last year by circular economy experts at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, found that as a global average, the number of times a garment is worn has decreased by 36% since the early 2000s.
A recent study by Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) found that three quarters of the fashion companies interviewed have improved their environmental and social performance since this time last year, and the business case for doing so has never been stronger. The findings are the outcome of an annual poll of over 90 senior managers responsible for sustainability issues across some of the world’s biggest names in fashion, as well as small and medium sized enterprises.
Waste in the Fashion System
Over 300 million people are employed throughout the value chain of the USD 1.3 trillion dollar clothing industry, making it an indispensable contributor to the global economy. However, according to the Ellen MacAuthur Foundation’s report1, more than USD 500 billion of value is lost every year due to the lack of recycling and clothes being thrown away, which consumers could continue to wear.
Largely to blame are industry trends towards fast fashion, which have expanded since the early 2000’s - creating untold amounts of waste and single-use garments. In some European countries such as Germany, almost three quarters of un-used garments are collected for re-use, however in China and countries in Africa where recycling infrastructure does not exist, garments will typically end up in a landfill (Figure 1). In Hong Kong alone, an average of 217 tonnes of textiles are estimated to enter Hong Kong’s landfills every day, according to a 2011 study by the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department. Hong Kong’s municipal solid waste has contributed to an astronomical waste problem in the fourth most densely populated region on the planet.
Figure 1: Depiction of the fashion industry’s linear flow of materials in 2015
Source: A New Textiles Economy 2017 Edition; Ellen MacArthur Foundation
A Promising Approach: Closed Loop Fashion Systems
Traditionally, companies have worked on enhancing sustainability in the garment value chain with changes to product packaging and alternative transportation methods for distribution. This year’s GFA report shows evidence of a new trend, where companies are moving away from the garment industries’ linear model and integrating sustainability considerations into the design and development phase. Educating fashion stakeholders about the opportunities that end-of-use schemes can present, has been another significant development (Figure 2). Designers are offering more durable, high quality clothing, and brands are creating services to repair and refurbish as an incentive for consumers to re-use. Greenpeace’s report Fashion at the Crossroads, points to education as key to slowing the flow of materials through the fashion value chain by ‘designing out’ waste from the system2.
Figure 2: Areas of action taken by companies in the fashion industry to improve value chain processes. Manufacturing, transportation and processing are the strongest areas of improvement. In 2018, advancements began in ‘End-of-use’ and ‘Design & development’.
Source: Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018 Edition; Global Fashion Agenda
Educating Key Stakeholders
A closed-loop system – which puts back into the system what it takes out - can only be built if designers and consumers are educated to consider the impact of their designs and subsequent purchasing choices on the value chain. New education models with a focus on social and environmental change are rising up to inform not only designers but consumers as well.
Educating the Consumer: UK born initiative, Fashion Revolution, is one of the most impactful initiatives focusing on generating a dialogue between consumers and garment producers. Through their online social media campaign, Fashion Revolution is educating consumers worldwide to recognise that their wardrobe is a fundamental component of a supply chain, and consumers are responding by demanding increased end to end supply chain transparency and accountability.
Educating the Designer: Designers have the potential to change the social and environmental implications of their designs while increasing profit margins. Sustainable Fashion house Kering, which sells world class design houses including Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, are offering designers across the world the chance to self-educate through an open-access digital course. The course entitled Fashion & Sustainability: Understanding Luxury Fashion in a Changing World, has been developed in association with the London College of Fashion. Kering upgraded the course this year, from a classroom based approach in response to a call from designers, brands and consumers worldwide who want to incorporate sustainability into their approach to fashion.
While education alone may not be sufficient to redesign the global fashion system, when combined with consumer education, it is likely to slow down the flow of materials and help ‘close the loop’ on the linear ‘take-make-waste’ pattern of clothing consumption.
Taking Action Towards a New Paradigm
The GFA’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry, an annual deep dive into the fashion industry’s environmental and social performance, provides concrete actions for companies to embark on or improve upon in their sustainability journey. The following actions detail how a company can successfully embed sustainability while developing alongside industry best practice:
- Set a strategy with measurable targets: Develop a clear strategy and integrated targets which reflect and support the organisations core business model. Strategies should be led or signed-off by senior decision makers and communicated to staff and business partners to ensure internal buy-in and recognition.
- Collaborate: Work alongside industry peers in multi-stakeholder initiatives to improve supply chains. The Higg Index, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is one such initiative designed to empower brands, retailers and manufacturers to measure their environmental, social and labour impacts at every stage of their products’ lifecycle and value chain. Working with partners along the value chain scales up improvements in environmental protocol, production and manufacturing processes, labour rights and working conditions.
- Leverage disruptive technologies: Innovative technologies can create fundamental change towards a closed loop fashion system. Using 3D printing technologies, sensors – which enable mapping and tracking technologies – as well as the Internet of Things (IoT) can help to create ‘smart’ collection and recycling systems that facilitate recycling and reuse of post-consumer materials. Development of materials with sustainable and recyclable material-mix, such as bioengineered leather and kelp fibres can counterbalance the environmental impact of water intensive materials like cotton. Such advances in biodegradable material mix will also support the transition to a closed loop fashion system by reducing the amount of textile waste entering landfills. When embracing innovative technologies, organisations are encouraged to collaborate with stakeholders across the public and private sectors to scale-up their impact and avoid infrastructure and resource issues, which can prevent progress.
Closing the loop on textile waste is a promising approach to enhancing sustainability in the global fashion system. To achieve a truly sustainable fashion system, approaches to improve the livelihoods of people making our clothes, will also need to be enhanced, to balance the developments made in environmental sustainability. The GFA report concludes that despite the developments in environmental sustainability, gaps relating to social issues such as worker wellbeing remain in need of transformation. Collaborative efforts will be imperative to bringing a voice to garment workers and providing brands with accurate and timely information into the people issues which remain hidden within supply chains.
As specialists in corporate sustainability and supply chain consultancy CSR Asia and parent company ELEVATE have extensive experience in designing as well as repurposing strategies, which reposition sustainability a part of an organisation’s value proposition. You can find out more about CSR Asia’s work in strategy development here http://www.csr-asia.com/services-expertise/services/strategy.
Fung Global Retail & Technology, (2017). Deep Dive: An Overview of Digitalization of the Apparel Supply Chain. [pdf] Available at: <https://www.fungglobalretailtech.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Digitalization-of-the-Supply-Chain-Overview-March-3-2017.pdf>
Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group (2018), Pulse of the fashion industry 2018. [pdf] Available at: < http://www.globalfashionagenda.com/pulse/>
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