Do we really believe fast fashion can be easily overthrown in the name of the environment? We need to be realistic; the answer is most likely NO! Fast fashion is an economic model that employs millions of people and in which billions of dollars are routinely spent on machinery, factories, and human capital. What we can do is reduce the environmental impact of this model by introducing recycled materials, efficiency, and renewable energy. In the long term, we must invest in cultural change whereby approaches based on durability, reparability, sustainable inputs, and recycling will replace what will eventually become the old, deceased fast fashion model.
Fast fashion model has propelled fashion into becoming one of the most polluting industries on the planet, responsible for emitting between 1 and 2.1 billion tons CO2-eq.
“Globally, 56 million tons of clothes are bought each year, and this is expected to virtually triple in the next 30 years, increasing to 93 million by 2030 and 160 million by 2050.”
The relocation of production to countries with lower energy and labor costs and the advent of online shopping have certainly triggered increased production but, paradoxically, buying more does not necessarily mean spending more. In Europe in the 1950s, spending on clothing accounted for 30% of household finances; in 2009 this proportion decreased to 12% and today is just 5%. Is not it ironic, as Alanis Morissette used to sing?
So, assuming that the fast fashion model will continue to run for the next 20 years – the time it will take to recoup investments made in favor of sustainability – how can we approach the transition from fast fashion to a sustainable fashion model? Here are 5 trends that could change the rules of fast fashion:
Trend 1: Introducing metrics, traceability, and certifications
While companies may refer to the principal standards and guidelines (EU Ecolabel, Global Organic Textiles Standard, and Fairtrade Textiles Standards), which all contain elements relating to traceability in the textile sector, these do not cover all materials and types of production used in textile and leather value chains. This means that they do not encompass every stage of the value chain, therefore do not provide a sufficiently articulated guide to achieving full-scale transparency.
“The lack of a well-defined regulatory framework, the complexity of data collection and management, as well as the lack of awareness make it difficult for companies to use traceability technologies such as blockchain, RFID, and AI.”
This makes it challenging to choose which model to use, which standards to adopt, and how and what to report and communicate. Therefore, concrete efforts are currently in place to identifying standardized KPIs to measure sustainability throughout initiatives and processes as the monitor for circular fashion, then the second phase should concentrate on investments in R&D and collaborations with institutions to ensure supply chain traceability according to guidelines that are as standardized and unambiguous as possible to ensure their applicability.
Trend 2: Increasing use of sustainable materials and end-of-life recycling
Approximately 2.2 million tons of textile waste were produced in Europe in 2018 (twice as much as 20 years ago). Due to the strong impacts of this waste (greenhouse gas emissions and release of toxic substances), textile recycling is becoming increasingly important in Europe and remains one of the key issues in the clothing industry.
“The fashion industry produces around 53 million tons of fibers a year, of which more than 70% becomes waste and only 1% is used to make new clothes.”
The use of recycled rather than virgin materials means drastically reducing non-renewable resource inputs and negative industry impacts such as CO2 emissions, water consumption, and chemical use. Rethinking processes to further increase the share of recycled inputs, including recovering supply chain waste, would also help mitigate the impacts of waste loss, which in Europe amounts to more than $100 billion worth of materials each year.
Trend 3: Incentivize renewable energy and increase efficiency
If we turn our attention to emissions connected to energy vectors, it is interesting to note how electrification and energy efficiency processes, both fundamental to a comprehensive energy transition, can reduce emissions by approximately 1 billion tons by 2030. We can therefore state that 48% of GHG emissions can be mitigated by working on the sector’s energy-related aspects and in particular:
“45% of energy can be saved by making processes more efficient. A further 39% derive from the transition from fossil fuel to renewable sources. The remaining 16% via the electrification.”
These impacts could be achieved immediately by working on energy efficiency, the electrification of thermal consumption, and the transition to renewable energy. These solutions are already available on the market as well as being mature, ready to be implemented, and economically sustainable.
Trend 4: Developing the second-hand market
The second-hand market is growing and must continue to do so! It is estimated that globally it will reach a value of $218 billion by 2026, growing three times faster than the clothing market overall. Buying and selling second-hand goods has become increasingly easy thanks to the development of digital platforms and the overcoming of ‘social shame’ linked to their purchase. These factors are strongly contributing to this growth.
This phenomenon also goes hand in hand with two key factors: buying second-hand clothes is cheaper and greener
The second-hand market is no longer confined to the mere buying and selling of goods between private consumers. This market is booming as consumers realize its benefits: it is cheaper and greener. In response, major brands and companies are increasingly entering this market:
Zalando allows customers to buy and sell second-hand clothing on its proprietary platform Zircle and buys used clothing directly from its customers through the Pre-Owned initiative.
Etsy has forked out $1.6 billion for Depop, a British second-hand clothing app 90% of whose users are under the age of 26.
H&M has acquired a 70% stake in Sellpy, a sustainability-oriented second-hand platform, and intends to expand into 20 new markets as part of a strong international drive.
COS has launched a digital platform called Resell for consumer-to-consumer resale of COS items.
Kering (a luxury conglomerate) is also involved in this trend with the acquisition of a 5% stake (€237 million) in Vestiaire Collective.
Trend 5: Introducing Product-as-a-service models and Repair options
The propensity to buy new clothes, the shortening of their useful life, and the consequent increase in production are a direct cause of the fashion industry’s environmental impacts, including growing natural resource exploitation. To respond to these issues immediately, the industry must consider introducing new business models, such as Product-as-a-service.
“On average, each rented garment can lead to reductions of 24% in water use, 6% in energy consumption, and 3% in CO2 emissions compared to buying new items.”
These numbers may seem modest, but if we imagine that a garment can be rented several, for example 50, times, we must consider that this will meet the needs of 50 or so people who will not have to buy something new. Obviously, some rental categories are better from an environmental point of view: it makes more sense to rent a dress for a special one-off event, rather than a pair of jeans or a coat that, once bought, can be worn repeatedly for years to come.
For ‘non-rentable’ clothes, one solution that is starting to make its way onto the market are Extended Warranties and Repair Services. It is worth mentioning the well-known ‘Patagonia Worn Wear’ repair initiative.
This allows Patagonia customers to have their garments repaired free of charge, thus extending their clothes’ useful life and avoiding, or at least delaying, the moment when they become waste and new garments must be produced and purchased.
The worldwide contest is definitely reacting as never before, if passed, New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (‘Fashion Act’), announced earlier this year, would be the first of its kind in the United States to attempt to impose sustainability-related obligations on the biggest brands in fashion.
Starting in January 2022, the UK is set to audit businesses for greenwashing, with a focus on fashion and textile brands with the objective of achieving transparency about sustainability claims.
At a European level this issue is also becoming increasingly central, and the European Commission is working on a transition path for the textile ecosystem to successfully achieve green and digital transitions and become more resilient.
Within the EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles, the 2030 vision aims for:
- All textile products on the EU market to be durable, repairable, and recyclable, largely made from recycled fibers, free of hazardous substances, produced with respect for human rights
- Profitable reuse and repair services to be widely available
- Producers to take responsibility for their products along the value chain
A circular rather than throw-away approach to clothes to become the norm, with sufficient recycling and minimal incineration and landfill disposal.