We’re learning the environmental lessons of fast fashion – it is time for government action
Shoppers on Regent Street, London, December 4 2020 | PA Images
It is time to move from “take-make-dispose” to a circular economy in the fashion industry
Concern about the environmental impact of fashion is not new, but the pandemic has brought the scale of the problem into focus. The fashion industry is known to have one of the biggest carbon footprints, and is considered to be the second most polluting industry. Data from the UN Environment Programme suggests that the industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions, leading to increased calls for urgent government action.
Environmental campaigners have long emphasised the need to move from the linear “take-make-dispose” model in fashion, which relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy, to a circular model in which waste and pollution is designed out, materials used for as long as possible, and natural systems are regenerated. This gained traction recently with consumers hiring rather than buying clothes, and more garments on the market made from environmentally friendly materials, which can extend product lifetimes and increase recycling rates.
There is certainly a growing appetite amongst consumers for sustainability, but problems in shifting to a greener industry remain.
The fragility of the clothing supply chain has been exposed by the pandemic. There have been reports of western brands cancelling clothing orders from low-resource countries such as Bangladesh, resulting in large numbers of employees (the overwhelming majority being women) losing their jobs, and surplus factory stock. Concerns were raised about the destination of the surplus stock: whether it would end up in landfill or be incinerated, which both negatively impact the environment, or whether they would replace second-hand clothing markets around the globe.
Many consumers hoping to reduce their environmental footprint have engaged with the second-hand clothing market, praised for its recirculation of garments. But the increase of fast fashion is posing a serious risk to the markets that the UK donates to, with much of the stock being of too poor quality to be resold and sent instead to landfill.
The second-hand market in the UK has also faced disruption during the pandemic, as charity shops were forced to close during both lockdowns. Coupled with clear outs of clothing and textiles by consumers, this prompted concerns that charity shops and recycling facilities would be overwhelmed, or that garments would be disposed of through household waste instead.
Washing machines extend the environmental impact of clothing further. A study published in July 2020 by washing machine manufacturer Ebac found that the average household carried out 36% more washes during the first lockdown, releasing an estimated 14 million extra plastic microfibres per household from clothing into the UK’s sewer system and our oceans. The disastrous environmental impact of these microfibres has been widely documented.
To deliver the changes required for a more sustainable fashion industry, from production through to disposal, action will be required at all stages of the process. The sector may not be able to adopt all necessary changes immediately, as it focusses on survival, but it can play its part in a green recovery. Indeed, many brands stand ready.
The government will need to incentivise the fashion industry to move away from raw materials which cause environmental damage, towards recycled inputs. Ecodesign regulations could encourage producers to avoid fibre types or blends that can problematic in recycling.
Many have suggested that the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme, whereby producers are given a significant responsibility – financial and/or physical – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products, would take the onus of dealing with waste from the consumer, and hold producers responsible for the materials used throughout their whole lifecycle. This could provide a clear financial driver for investment in more circular solutions, while also requiring investment in the necessary infrastructure.
As consumer consciousness of ‘green fashion’ grows, and fashion brands stand ready to re-evaluate their practices, the government must provide tools to enable the transformation of the fashion industry, to one in which fashion is no longer a disposable and a linear system, but a circular one – one that takes its environmental and social impacts seriously.
Tessa Corina is Dods political consultant for the environment