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The True Environmental Cost Of Fashion: What Can We Do?


With 80 billion items being manufactured every year and growing, the fashion industry is one of the top polluting industries in the world. We all have the responsibility to make the planet a better place to live for future generations. This edit looks at status quo, what are the initiatives by brands and retailers and few actions which we could take as consumers and brands.

The problem is further accentuated by the projected increase in per capita consumption of apparel in the coming years. The developing countries with the thicker growing middle class will have significantly higher growth in consumption.

Growth in Apparel Per Capita Consumption 2015-2025

image courtesy: statista

While the consumerism to stay relevant and own clothing continues, awareness of  about the kind of natural resources fashion consumes can open new doorways to actions.

It is shocking to know how long it takes for what we throw in landfills to get decomposed. Shoes and Synthetics take many years to get decomposed. Think ten times before buying your next shoe and synthetic item.

This documentary by Economist (one of the most watched on fashion sustainability) on “the cost of fast fashion” brings alive the key challenges and some actions. Key take aways from the documentary include,

a) Consumers are wearing the clothes less often and disposing at unprecedented rate

b) Clothes recycling plants process the collections from recycle bins in some countries. The quality of clothes are coming down and they are mainly directed to Africa from developed markets.

c) This is the fastest growing category of waste in most parts of the world and significant amount going into landfills.

d) The key question is

“How can the fashion industry continue to grow when the environmental need is for people to buy fewer clothes?”
e) In the high end fashion market retailers like Rent the Runway are taking the ownership paradigm of fashion to a sharing economy. This does make sense as only 20% of the clothes bought are worn on a regular basis.f) Brands like Patagonia are promoting anti consumerism and the need for consumers to buy less. Their famous ad of “Don’t Buy This Jacket” on Black Friday is a standing example of this. Their philosophy flies in the face of fast fashion “Buy Once, Buy Well and Mend Clothing” 

You can watch  6 minute Economist video by clicking the image below or here.

Where do our used clothes end up?

This video by CBS news (a longish one,22 minutes, takes you through to Africa where most of the used clothes end up). The recycle bins you see in many brand stores distribute them through middlemen who sell them to developing countries. The traders who buy in these clothes share many of the clothes are not wearable and end up in landfills there. Are we not just pushing the bubble from one place to another on mother earth? You can watch the video by clicking the image below or here.

That brings us to What can we do as consumers and brands? 

Look Good with a clear Conscience

Apart from Patagonia mentioned above, this article “20 of most sustainable brands” by Harper’s Bazaar gives a good amount of ideas for any brand to look at. Few ideas that impressed us
a) Make more looks with less – “Easy 8” by Misha Nonoo,
you can make 22 different looks with 8 pieces.
b) Sustainable Footwear – The Allbirds brand is serious about its sustainable ethos – its soles are made from sugarcane and its upper fabrics from either eucalyptus trees or naturally-made merino wool.

What can we do as consumers?

Buy less (rent where possible) and only what is needed from ethical brands, repair when broken and donate.
United Nations has come out with a Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDG 2030). Through sustainability initiatives in fashion we will contribute significantly to many of the goals. Key ones impacted will be 1,3,6,9,12,13 and 17.

One simple way as a consumer we can contribute is to give away (donate) as many pieces of clothing as we shop the moment new clothing enters our wardrobes. We can keep empty bags in the wardrobe ready to remind us as and when we add any clothing. This will ensure circularity in what we do.

Sometimes, simple principles can create huge impact. Two such principles are,

1. Prevention is better than Cure and
2. Open is better than closed.

Fashion industry today is a lot more closed and every brand owns their information and considers them their differentiation. If we take an open view to this and shared with a trust worthy source, the world will benefit a lot in making repeated mistakes across various partners in products, store locations etc. Fashion can a learn a lot from the airline industry.

This is what happened in the airline industry. Back in the 1930s, flying was really dangerous and passengers were scared away by the many accidents. Flight authorities across the world understood the potential of commercial passenger air traffic, but they also realised flying had to become safer before most people would dare to try it. In 1944 they all met in Chicago to agree on common rules and signed a contract, a common form for incident reports, which they agreed to share, so they could all learn from each others’ mistakes. Since then every commercial passenger plane crash has been investigated and reported; risk factors have been systematically identified; and improved safety procedures have been adopted, worldwide. The result of the collaboration can be seen in the airplane crash reduction since then as depicted below.

Annual Deaths per 10 billion passenger miles by commercial airlines. Five-year averages

This Chicago convention is one of the most impressive human collaborations ever. It is amazing how well people can work together when they share the same fears.

From the fashion context, the analogy of deaths in air plane crash can be the products we make which do not meet the customer demand. This is a common problem across fashion brands globally.

A lot of sustainability initiatives by brands have been so far in the choice of raw materials, method of manufacturing or educating consumers. One statistic that will throw all of us out of balance is,

“50% of fashion made in the world is not wanted by Consumers and sold at a discount”

This is an area related to planning the fashion demand. There is no other area that has so much leverage to make the planet sustainable. Stylumia’s solutions are aimed at reducing the supply-demand gap to make the right product at the right time in right quantity and sell in the right location, using a unique demand sensing technology powered by Artificial Intelligence with public data at internet scale adopting an “Open” way to solve fashion’s one of the biggest challenges.

We also see an opportunity for brands to share their data to  a trusted source and make the world a better place like the airlines analogy. This is just a matter of time.

We call this ethical, sustainable planning for the fashion industry. A good combination of this, with relevant supply chain practices end-to-end with consumer education will make the planet a better place for the generations to come.

In order to tackle the throwaway fashion culture, brands and consumers must change their behaviours. Industry pioneers are proving that there are viable business opportunities of selling less. Others need to follow suit.

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