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A deadly heatwave in the US and Canada, a deluge in Germany, wildfires setting Greek island Evia ablaze – this summer, the effects of human-caused climate change have battered the west. It has been a critical wake-up call, with people finally starting to see the consequence of their actions, first-hand.  

The fashion industry, which comes a close second to oil as the world’s largest polluter, doesn’t get the same bad rep. But unbeknown to most people, it accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions dues to the energy it uses in production, manufacturing and transportation. To add further coal to the fire, each year 85% of textiles go to landfills while washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean – the equivalent of 50bn plastic bottles. 

Climate change is happening before our very eyes. A major UN scientific report has been described as ‘a code red for humanity’ by its chief. It’s a billion-dollar question, but how can and should fashion brands address their environmental impact before we are left scrambling for a coveted ticket to Mars? 

Coinciding with the UN’s IPCC report, teen climate activist and the face of global climate strikes Greta Thunberg took to Vogue Scandinavia to tell the fashion industry it needs to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their products.  

 

”The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate and ecological emergency, not to mention its impact on the countless workers and communities who are being exploited around the world in order for some to enjoy fast fashion that many treat as disposables,” Thunberg warned as she called out those in the industry who spend vast amounts on campaigns portraying themselves as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘climate neutral’ or ‘fair’. “But let’s be clear: this is almost never anything but pure greenwashing,” she declared. 

 
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As environmental concern is all the rage, fashion brands from Shein to Boohoo to Asos are capitalizing on the rise of conscious consumerism, allocating ad money towards convincing audiences that their fast fashion is ethical – which does far more harm than good.

“There’s no transparency as they won’t reveal anything,” says Chris Norman, the founder of the Good Agency who calls it a veneer of doing something good. “They’re totally opaque because they’re privately-owned and there are no criteria to mark them against. At that end, you’ve got a real problem where the retailer is very close or is the manufacturer.” Avoiding greenwashing largely falls to the consumer to use their own discretion.  

Wayne Hemingway, the founder of fashion label Red or Dead who is now creative director of The Good Business Festival, a global summit for good business, says that unless people’s understanding of their actions and responsibilities change, no business is going to change either. “There’s still a rush for new things. That’s partly in the human psyche. This means there’s always going to be an argument that for people who don’t have a lot of money, why deprive them of things that are inexpensive and cheap?”  

So how do we change that argument, he asks, recognizing the difficulty. “It’s not going to happen in my lifetime, but the narrative needs to change to everybody doing whatever they can to ameliorate the climate crisis, with the concept of buying less and looking after what you got.” 

“I do a bit of fashion on my Instagram and I’m very aware of a change in feeling,” says Trinny Woodall, the TV presenter, beauty and style blogger and face and founder of Trinny London, who also recognizes the issue of finance. “Because some people have a budget that’s very small for clothing, when people then say to them, ’you should buy sustainable’, they’re not used to spending that much on something.” 

 
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Woodall uses her platform as a way to show people how to reuse old items again and again. “I have a voice and a platform. I’ve spoken on Closet Confessions about cherishing your clothes – how, if you want to buy something, you should think of 10 different ways you can wear it first. Give yourself that pause instead of that instant gratification. Because online, it’s so easy to press the ’buy’ button. When you go in-store, it is more of a process. It is not so instant. That is the responsibility I have. If I buy something from Zara, I’m going to cherish it as much as my Celine coat and treat them the same.”  

With some shoppers turning to thrifting and vintage, Norman points to the rise in second-hand as a solution, with the likes of Depop changing the face of fashion. According to a recent report by ThredUp, the market is growing rapidly. In 2019, the market expanded 21 times faster than conventional apparel commerce, with the pandemic only accelerating that growth. The report claims that in the US, the second-hand fashion market is projected to double in the next five years, reaching $77bn by 2025.

“Watch out retailers,” warns Norman, “because your market is slowly being eroded because you’re not keeping up with the values of your consumer.” But Hemingway claims there is still a stigma around charity shops. ”That stigma starts at councils who want fewer charity shops in their towns – even though they are a route towards your town being more sustainable, and caring about society,” he insists.  

In recent years, there has also been a rise in fashion brands providing recycling or upcycling facilities, in-store. Back in 2020, H&M installed the world’s first in-store recycling system in Stockholm, enabling shoppers to shred their old garments and knit a new one from old fibers.  

 
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“The usage of recycled materials is a win-win for the environment; they stop waste material from going to landfill and it reduces the use of virgin raw materials as well as chemicals, energy and water used to make them,” says Leyla Ertur, H&M’s head of sustainability. “Our vision is to lead the change towards a circular fashion industry while being a fair and equal company. Being a global fashion retailer, we have an important role to play in this and we are working hard to transform our business model from a linear to a circular one where nothing goes to waste.” 

Hemingway is a fan of recycling initiatives, because “the publicity that gets adds another few converts,” he says. “It’s not just the process. It’s the publicity around it.” Like second-hand and recycling, there has also been a rise in rental services in recent years, with the likes of Ralph Lauren offering ’The Lauren Look’ – a tailor-made subscription service that delivers four items in a box, which can be kept or exchanged for four more.  

Whether they will become mainstream, Hemingway is less sure. “It’s great that it’s happening, but it won’t become the norm because the prices of renting are more than it costs to go to Primark.” 

Ultimately, Norman says retail can’t solve this on its own. While recycling initiatives are good for raising awareness, ultimately, supply chains need to change. “If you look at someone like Esco, the largest manufacturer of materials in the world, it is driven by sustainability. All its systems are changing. When you get someone at that scale and that advanced, all the retailers almost have to fall in line.” 

Norman predicts more transparency on clothing labels in the near future. “When you buy jeans, it will tell you what type of denim it is. What kind of wool. Brands like Gortex are going to become consumer brands. That’s exciting because that’s going to be the push, from the consumer all the way through the supply chain to the retail manufacturer. And if it doesn’t happen quick enough, the government will come in and effect change.” Currently, he says, a lot of clothes are not designed so you can use the materials again.  

This is a sentiment shared by Jane Walsh, chief exec of Seen Group, which has just launched an industry-first beauty recycling scheme called Seen Again. “The need for brands to be green today and beyond green in the future will become a non-negotiable at all levels of the business funnel, starting with design,” she says.

“There is already an accelerated desire from the end-user or customer to know that it has been responsibly created. This also extends to how the brand creates the product and what can happen to it once they have finished with it – how it can be repaired, refurbished, reused and recycled.” 

For more on the reinvention of retail, check out The Drum’s Retail hub, where we explore everything from livestreaming e-commerce to AR shopping and conscious consumerism.