Stella McCartney’s Future of Fashion exhibition at COP26 has sparked vital conversations about how the fashion industry can be more nature-positive. At the same time, a coalition of fashion industry leaders have come together to call for collective action across the industry.
These conversations are not before time. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, and with this expected to surge to more than 50% by 2030 if its impact remains unchecked, there is a responsibility for urgent action.
Fast fashion culture has conditioned consumers to believe that every item is disposable and for single-use. The need to keep up with trends has only been amplified in recent years with the rise of social media, and nowadays cheaper fashion brands can recreate designer looks for a fraction of the price.
Behind lower prices, one aspect of the value chain is being compromised: its visibility. The tragic incident at Rana Plaza, a factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in 2013, claiming the lives of 1,134 people, exposed the poor working conditions in the fast fashion industry. And yet despite some steps to combat this, much of the fashion value chain remains opaque, while human and environmental exploitation thrives with impunity.
Fast fashion is 21st century consumer waste culture at its worst. And it is destroying the planet. In fact, around 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment, with a single pair of jeans using 1,800 gallons of water. On top of this, 85% of textiles end up in landfill each year, with the incineration of clothing further contributing to the carbon emissions produced by the fashion industry.
Brands themselves need to take responsibility for this, with some already stepping up to confront climate change. Patagonia – long seen as the model of a purposeful business – launched the Common Threads Recycling Program, encouraging customers to fix damaged clothing by publishing do-it-yourself repair guides or charging an affordable fee to have garments shipped to their repair facility. Other brands must follow suit and place the planet before profit, to encourage consumers to lengthen the lifespan of their garments.
Whilst high street and fast fashion brands are not doing enough to make their items more sustainable, are they entirely to blame? Insofar as consumers demand low prices, retailers will continue to provide it. There is a need for a mindset shift towards more sustainable purchasing habits, so consumer demand can fuel sustainability from the bottom up.
This shift is starting to take place. With Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index exposing the sustainable practises of brands, consumers are becoming more aware of the impact their everyday purchases have on the environment.
Staffordshire University’s fashion course engages students to learn about sustainability through zero waste pattern cutting techniques, lectures on sustainability and ethical fashion and garment deconstruction exercises, to appreciate the longevity and quality of sustainable clothing. Students are encouraged to reuse all aspects of a garment and are challenged to leave as few scraps as possible. Having projects like these integrated into university fashion courses will ensure students acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to drive the sustainable transformation of the fashion industry.
While the fashion industry continues to put profit before the planet, consumers must reflect on how sustainable their wardrobe truly is and make tangible impact towards more sustainable purchasing habits. Next time you want a new pair of jeans, or a dress for a singular occasion, consider whether the environmental impact is worth it. The industry must change, but it is us, as consumers, who must lead it.
Rachel Heeley is a senior lecturer and course leader in fashion at Staffordshire University