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The many facets of sustainable fashion – how to tackle the issue


5 min read Partner content

Do sustainability and fashion go hand in hand? Sustainable fashion and engaging with it, is a complex process – and there is no ‘one fits all’ solution – it requires a collaborative approach from business, consumers and policymakers. Dr Claudia E Henninger from The University of Manchester examines the relationship between fashion and sustainability, and highlights opportunities to engage with sustainable fashion consumption.

When asked what fashion actually is, people may respond with something that is fashionable and trendy. Interestingly, some may also say that they are not engaged with ‘fashion’, yet ‘fashion’ in the sense of clothing, is something that concerns everyone, considering we all get up in the morning and dress ourselves. Whether dressing for comfort, wearing uniforms, or dressing to impress, we all engage to some degree in fashion consumption.

Sustainability is something we also hear about daily. Linking this to the fashion industry, it becomes increasingly apparent that fashion has a dirty secret when it comes to sustainability (or the lack thereof). We have seen reports about Chile’s Atacama Desert and Ghana’s beaches, which see garments, predominantly from fast fashion retailers, ending up in these remote locations, thereby destroying the ecological equilibrium. Moreover, the Worldbank (2019) outlined that the fashion industry accounted for “10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined”.

Sustainability as a developing concept

Although sustainability is subjective, and can mean different things to different people, generally, it has been associated with the link between social, environmental, and economic aspects. The larger the overlap between these three areas (economic, social, environmental) the higher the degree of sustainability. Yet, with increasing innovations and changes in our natural environment, it is possible we may never achieve ‘sustainability’, as what is sustainable right now may change in the future. Thus, sustainability should be viewed as a developing concept, a pathway that supports how we act, consume, and produce, here, garments in a more ‘sustainable’ manner.

Returning to the question – can sustainability and fashion go hand in hand, the answer is not clear-cut. The examples highlighted may suggest that fashion is not compatible with sustainability. Yet there are positive changes. My research at The University of Manchester focuses on business model innovations strongly aligned with the circular economy, and opportunities to further engage with these alternative modes of consumption. Although some consumers associate sustainable fashion with high price points, sustainable fashion has many facets. Communication is a key issue – more needs to be done to actively promote alternative modes of consumption, outlining both advantages and disadvantages in order for consumers to be able to make an informed decision. Governments could support this by providing spaces for these organisations to be accessible for a broader audience. Pop up physical spaces could make it affordable for co-ops or charities to branch out and potentially facilitate initiatives such as swap shops.

Within the UK, business model innovations that centre on alternative formats of consumption, such as collaborative consumption are on the rise. Some examples are the US based company Rent The Runway, LENA the fashion library (based in the Netherlands), the Hurr Collective, based in the UK and seen to collaborate with department stores such as Selfridges, or swap shops that are often organised by not-for-profit organisations or cooperatives.

Whilst renting and borrowing implies a monetary commitment, as consumers must pay for access to garments and/or accessories for an agreed timeframe, swapping clothes is classified as being free (although there may be still a fee involved from organisers to cover their cost of facilitating the event). Recent proposals suggest making secondhand clothing zero VAT. Whilst there are benefits to doing this, secondhand consumption has seen a shift in terms of shopping motivations. It was once solely a necessity for some to gain access to garments, it has since become a trend to shop in secondhand stores. As a result, prices have increased, making it unaffordable for some consumer groups.

Business model innovations and alternative consumption are not the only way to engage with sustainable fashion. Various companies have established sustainable fashion collections made from either more environmentally friendly materials (e.g., organic cotton), or have a larger recycled fibre content. We have also seen increased collaborations between fast fashion companies and smaller ‘sustainable’ brands. This is based on win-win strategies, as fast fashion retailers provide these smaller brands with their fashion ‘waste’. Smaller brands can in turn sell their newly created collections through these fast fashion retailers, thereby gaining more exposure. Interestingly, most consumers do not necessarily associate fast fashion retailers with sustainability, which may also explain why sustainable fashion can be perceived as more expensive.

Business, consumer and policy solutions

From a policy perspective, there are many opportunities to support sustainability within the fashion industry such as EPR (extended producer responsibility), which has been employed in France. Since its introduction in 1975, more channels have been included and further accelerated in 2020 with the introduction of the law on circular economy. France is not the only country to have introduced EPR – this has gained momentum across Europe. A key benefit of EPR and having governmental support is that channels to collect different waste streams are actively provided, making it convenient for consumers to engage with different practices. A further example of legislation is the plastic bag ban, which has had a big impact on the fashion industry as packaging is a key issue when delivering and purchasing items. Education campaigns that raise awareness for sustainable fashion, as well as clearly labelling what sustainable fashion is could further be suggestions. The latter should be approached cautiously, as labels need to be easily understood and not result in too many labels that are confusing. Here there is room for policy, but careful consideration is required as sustainable fashion is very difficult to define.

From a business perspective, supply chain changes can support the creation of more ‘sustainable’ fashion in line with using environmentally friendly materials and ensuring social sustainability through safe working conditions and fair pay. From a consumer perspective we can all start taking action, perhaps consuming more mindfully and reducing consumption overall.

Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.


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