“The fashion industry accounts for over 10% of global emissions, more than the maritime shipping and aviation industry combined.” You mean to say that my long-suffering anxiety over flying due to its emissions profile could be better served worrying about… my clothes?
It seems so — and while the deep, dark, destructive nature of garment production is not new, demographic shifts such as a growing middle class with more spending power, globalization of fast fashion brands, and social media perpetuating newer-better-different image ideals are pushing this behemoth production machine into overdrive. If overproduction is the problem, it could be countered by hyper-inflation which should undercut consumer demand, right? Sadly, not really. The Global South base of most clothing production means that manufacturers will seek to cut costs (and cut corners), while consumers hunt for cheaper options, rather than not buy clothes at all.
While we could look to fast fashion buyers and make this a consumer-blame-game, it is one of the most complex challenges which applies to every person who buys clothes and every stakeholder along the supply chain. And if knowledge is power, knowing what the problems are is the first step to changing the game. For starters, we buy more than we need, resulting in an enormous amount of textile waste. The materials many garments are made from are fossil-fuel and chemical based, such as polyester, which not only has high-carbon supply chains but also results in microplastic waste during washing and huge amounts of toxic landfill waste. When these clothes are donated and given a second life and donated, many of these garments enter supply chains in the Global South, replacing locally made garments in terms of ease and cost (nothing is cheaper than “free”), both toppling local suppliers and piling up in landfills. The 430 million person garment workforce, who are mostly female, producing these clothes has little to no protection from the harmful chemical exposure of these processes, and are also often paid below a living wage, working in very subpar factory conditions.
Thankfully, the world of impact investing puts us in front of real game changers disrupting the fashion industry and investing in its evolution — highlighting companies across the spectrum of solutions to what clothes are made from, how clothes are produced, how clothes are worn and purchased, and how they are disposed of. Too niche of an investment thesis, you say? Alante, a women-led venture capital firm, built an entire thesis around the sustainable future for fashion production and retail, and see no shortage of pipeline. If consumers and producers alike begin to join this movement (see our “Ideas” below!), that opportunity will only continue to grow.
Hayley Mole, Vice President
The final installment of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report was released this week, which did not paint a happy picture and highlights a drastic, immediate need for carbon emissions reduction. CDP estimates that most of the garment industry’s emissions and pollution impact are supply chain related, meaning that as much as this is a fashion issue, it’s a broader (block your ears!) ESG and social justice issue too. Disclosures, transitioning planning, data reporting, and governance models are all part of the solution, and the fashion industry ranks incredibly low across them all.
How can consumers do this fashion thing differently?
Rental: Companies such as Rent the Runway (US) and Rotaro (UK) are making it possible to use garments for that one-off occasion and enjoy the newness of clothes, without the same footprint.
Pre-loved: The world of secondhand resale has exploded, growing to an estimated $96 billion in 2022, and while this should just be an excuse to buy more, an early entry point to my sustainable fashion journey was via ThreadUp and Vinted which highlight the sheer volume of clothes out there. The evolution of more bespoke, quality controlled pre-loved retail points to a real future for this industry. For example, Saritoria focuses on pre-loved South Asian couture, making it possible to buy high-end, occasion specific garments of true quality and craftsmanship.
Use What You Have: The most sustainable clothes you can wear are already in your wardrobe. We all want the dopamine hit from buying a new item and to look and feel fabulous in our clothes — and platforms like Whering help consumers digitize their wardrobes and optimize their garment usage through AI-driven outfit suggestions, and extension support such as access to local repair services.
Sustainable Alternatives: To quote Vivienne Westwood, “We have to buy less, but better.” If you must buy something new, do your research. Apps such as Good On You provide a viewpoint on brands’ attributes and factors on which they over- or -underperform. From Rothy’s shoes, which are 3D printed from recycled plastic, to Bottletop’s handbags, artisan-made from upcycled ring pulls of cans and “zero deforestation leather”, there are options out there.
Finally, Be Responsible With Disposal: Could your clothes be mended? Could an old stained t-shirt be used as a cleaning rag? Can you donate an item in good condition to a reputable charity, as those closes become seasonally relevant? Can the item be sold via a secondhand marketplace? And last of all, can you find somewhere for it to be recycled. It sounds like a hassle but once this becomes your norm, you’ll realize there are always local options.
Fashion Reimagined, a documentary film about the journey designer Amy Powney embarked on to take Mother of Pearl towards sustainability, accurately highlights so many fashion industry challenges in very relatable storytelling. Proving this is not a new issue, The True Cost (which changed my life in 2015!), similarly uses documentary storytelling to get behind the curtain of the industry.
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