Every year millions of garments are discarded as consumers ditch fast-fashion styles for a new wardrobe. At last the industry is acting – but more has to be done
Facebook users will be familiar with the On This Day feature. From time to time it greets you with a blast from your relatively recent past. Some find it unnerving, especially if it’s a picture with an ex, for example. But my eye is always drawn to the clothes. Whatever happened to that handbag? Do you still wear those jeans?
If it’s an image from more than three years ago, then the answer is probably “no”. According to a recent report from Wrap (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), the average piece of clothing in the UK lasts for 3.3 years before being discarded. Other research puts the lifespan of UK garments at 2.2 years. For a younger demographic, you can probably halve that. A UK-based fashion company tells its buyers to remember that a dress will stay in the owner’s wardrobe for only five weeks.
The way we get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behaviour of previous generations, for whom one garment could be worn for decades. Wrap estimates that we purchased 1.13m tonnes of new clothing last year in the UK. While an estimated £30bn-worth hangs about gathering dust – Tinie Tempah’s refrain “I have so many clothes, I keep some at my aunt’s house” was spot on – an unpalatable quantity goes in the bin. A survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s last spring found that 235m items ended up on landfill sites as people readied their wardrobes for summer. Surely we can do better than this?
Vivienne Westwood – never one to miss an opportunity to call her legion of fans to action – thinks we can. “It’s about quality, not quantity – not landfill,” she said recently at one of her own shows. Hot on her heels, Vetements, very much the “it” brand of our times, made its own statement last week. The label filled the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York – one of the commercial hotspots of global fashion retail – not with its latest collection, but with waste garments en route to a recycling charity.
But it was Stella McCartney who really upped the ante, electing to shoot her latest collection on a Scottish landfill site. Models lay across the rusted husks of old cars and languished on top of household waste. From a sustainability perspective, Stella McCartney is the luxury Kering group’s top-performing brand. Much of this success is based on McCartney’s own personal resolve. It’s clear that the landfill backdrop is not just an interesting aesthetic to her.
Now there’s an obvious contradiction between selling fashion and instructing us to buy less, but what these designers are calling for is some sanity in an industry now rated as the fifth-most polluting on the planet.
The fashion industry has developed a pretty terrible reputation – not least for exploitation of human capital, outsourcing production to the world’s lowest-wage economies. Four years ago, 1,133 garment workers were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, while producing clothing for high-street brands and their subsidiaries. After that, many worried what was next.
For those in and around the industry, garment waste has long been rumoured to be the next big scandal. Globally, levels of production and consumption are forecast to increase as fashion waste becomes an environmental crisis to rival plastic pollution in oceans. This is a tale of over-production and supply, powered by the relentless “fast fashion” system of production that over the past three decades has revolutionised both the way we dress and the way clothing is produced – and not often for the better.
Much of the waste in the fashion industry is hidden along a chaotic supply chain and doesn’t make it into the environmental accounting that underpins a Wrap report. Perhaps the worst of it comes in the form of readymade garments, assembled and sewn but discarded because of an order mistake or an issue with the colour. According to industry insiders, this waste represents 3-5% of every factory’s inventory (and a large factory in Dhaka can produce 240m pieces a year).
There is no verified figure for the amount of clothing produced globally each year (predominantly in low-wage textile hotspots like Dhaka without waste management systems) but my own research puts it between 80bn and 100bn garments. That means a lot of hidden fashion waste.
Where it becomes highly visible is on the outskirts of big production areas, such as the garment districts of Dhaka. This is where the production waste leaves the factories and is absorbed by the air and earth in the local community. Waste from the cutting room (called jhut) often ends up in so-called go-downs. These makeshift sorting operations are the stuff of legend in Dhaka, with fires a regular occurrence. But what happens to all the rest?
“You don’t even want to know,” says Estonian designer and clothing waste researcher Reet Aus, who spends a lot of time following unwanted garments out of factory gates. “You see it by the side of the road being sold, or just dumped, but a lot is burned,” she says. “I know a brick factory near the garment district where the main fuel is garment waste. You can’t really see anything around there, the pollution is terrible. Remember that thanks to the chemicals and finishing agents, used textile waste is basically toxic waste.”
Meanwhile, the urge to buy grows stronger as clothes shopping takes on a quasi-addictive quality. And let’s be honest here, are the fast-fashion corporations with their extraordinary profits likely to do anything about consumption, the driver of waste and the driver of the industry’s impact? Their business model, after all, depends on it.
Increasingly these brands are signposting a way of allowing us to have our cake and eat it. They are buying into recycling schemes and investing in competitions to close the loop on textile fibres. The idea is that if they can collect waste garments and regenerate fibres to be used in new garments, the impact of fast fashion can be negated.
The trouble is, it’s hard to buy into. I have been critical of brands overclaiming in this area before, particularly when I looked at the numbers around H&M’s recycling week in 2016. In truth, there are quite a few technical barriers to closing the fashion loop – that is, regenerating fibre from an old, unloved outfit, spinning and making it into something else, all within a timeframe and quality that’s interesting to the consumer.
“Every fabric is different,” says Aus, “so one garment might contain a blend of different fabrics. On top of that, you have to strip out the zippers and buttons inherent in post-consumer fashion waste.” So while a consumer may believe that a loved jumper or sundress is going to be magically regenerated into a new item, in practice your old T-shirt is probably going into a well-worn recycling network.
She and her team have developed software to keep track of potential garment waste data during production, which she is trialling with a large manufacturer: Beximco in Bangladesh. By getting information about the volume and material of leftover textiles, she can design that material back into a product before it becomes waste. “I’d rather not produce waste in the first place,” she reasons. “Plus, this is a better system for large brands who find recycling and regeneration difficult. That is easier for smaller, more agile companies.” This means some of fashion’s big lessons about its waste may come from unlikely parts of the apparel world. For once, the smaller companies have a chance to steal.
Tom Kay, the founder of Cornish outdoor brand Finisterre, is addressing a waste problem highly relevant to his customer and doesn’t care that it might seem niche to the rest of us. “The average neoprene wetsuit only lasts two years,” he says. “We’ve redesigned with wider seam tape and better stitching but it still only lasts probably for three. It would be disastrous for these things to be dumped, but there’s nowhere for them to go. That’s why you see them piled up in people’s garages.”
Last week, he launched an intriguing job advert in partnership with Exeter University: a £26,000-a-year position, paid by Finisterre, to be filled by a materials scientist who shares his dream of making wetsuits from wetsuits. “We don’t know how it will go, but I’m excited,” he said.
■ Last year 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing was purchased in the UK – an increase of 200,000 tonnes since 2012.
■ Fashion in the UK lasts an average of 3.3 years before a garment is discarded.
■ Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.
■ Providing one tonne of clothing for direct re-use by giving it to a charity shop or selling it online can result in a net greenhouse gas saving of 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
A new survey, commissioned by Greenpeace, of the shopping habits of people in Europe and Asia finds that regularly buying too many clothes, shoes, bags and accessories has become an international phenomenon. This is especially striking in China and Hong Kong, but is also widespread in Europe, with up to half of consumers buying more clothes than they need and use.
Overconsumption of fashion is now deeply entrenched in our everyday culture, both in old European economies and in emerging ones such as China. In many ways, China is currently leading this trend, with more than half of Chinese consumers owning more clothes and bags than they need. Almost half of Chinese consumers buy more than they can afford – and more than makes them happy, and around 40 percent qualify as excessive shoppers, shopping compulsively more than once a week. Young, high-income women are the most vulnerable. The spread of online shopping and social media makes people even more susceptible to overconsumption.
These people are not shopping because they need something new – their motivation is the longing for excitement, satisfaction and confidence in front of others. Shoppers also seek to release stress, kill time and relieve boredom.
However, shopping does not make them happy; people already own too much and they know it. Around 50 percent report that their shopping excitement wears off within a day. A third of the East Asians feel even more empty and unfulfilled afterwards. They also seem to know they are on the wrong path; around half of consumers are hiding their purchases from others, fearing accusations of wasting money or other negative reactions.
Shopping behaviour is widely influenced by people’s social environment and media consumption. Social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook or WeChat in China are driving shopping mania, especially among young digitally connected East Asians. Browsing fashion blogs or following friends and celebrities triggers even more buying. After excessive shopping people experience regular tiredness and boredom – the binge is followed by a hangover.
About this survey
For this survey commissioned by Greenpeace, independent survey institutes Nuggets, TNS and SWG asked European and East Asian consumers about their shopping habits (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy, Germany) – how often, where and for how long they shop for clothing. We also wanted to know why they go shopping, what triggers them to buy new clothes – and whether they get fulfilled by doing so. All surveys are representative and were carried out between December 2016 and March 2017 amongst at least 1000 people aged 20 to 45 in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy and Germany.
Something I hear a lot from people is that they would love to shop more ethically, but ethical clothing is just too expensive. And I do get that. When money is tight it’s only natural to want that budget to spread as far as possible.
Is ethical clothing expensive though? When you look at it on the surface, yes, ethical clothing is expensive. This $120 dress (approximately £96 at time of writing), by Everlane, whose business model is based on ‘radical transparency’, is pretty similar to this £35 dress from a company with no ethical statement. Why would you spend £60 more on a dress that’s pretty similar? It’s hard to make the maths add up.
When you sit and think about that £35 dress though, you begin to think how manufacturers can possibly make a dress for £35, and still make a profit. If you’ve ever tried to make your own clothing you’ll know it’s pretty tricky to make a dress for that amount of money. By the time you’ve bought the fabric and the pattern, and the thread and any zips or buttons, and the electricity to power your sewing machine, you may well have reached or exceeded that amount, before even accounting for the cost of your own time.
So could the rise of fast fashion retailers have caused us to lose our sense of perspective, and our benchmarks and baselines on what is expensive?
You would expect to pay more for something now than in say, 1980, wouldn’t you?
Since the 1980’s the cost of housing, rent, food, fuel and other consumables has risen, in some cases dramatically. In 1980 the average cost of a home was £23,000 (around £89,000 in today’s money), whilst by the end of 2016 the average price of home was £205,000 according to the same report. The Telegraph reports that lager has increased in price by 336%, whilst a loaf of sliced white bread has increased in price by 235% and eggs by 286%.
It goes without saying then that you would expect to go into a shop and buy an item of clothing that was considerably more expensive now than it was in 1980.
What has actually happened with clothing is that since the 1980s, instead of rising in price in line with inflation, clothes prices have fallen and fallen to the point we’re at now where you can buy a top for less than £5 in 2017.
Prior to the 1980’s the majority of clothing was made domestically. I’ve struggled to find UK based data, but The New York Times reported in 2009 that in the 1960s, the United States made 98% of its shoes. They stated that in 2009 it was a completely different picture, with the US importing more than 90% of its footwear. This is more than likely mirrored in clothing manufacture too.
The reason for this outsourcing is that in the 1980s clothing manufacturers realised they could manufacture abroad, in places where they could pay workers considerably less, and where workers could work longer hours in poorer conditions. This ultimately meant greater profits for manufacturers, and lower prices for consumers.
We’re now so used to cheap clothes that have flooded the market since the 1980’s, that this has artificially driven down the value of clothing. If you’re in your forties or younger you’ll have grown up in an age where clothing has gotten cheaper and cheaper. You won’t, or will barely remember a time when clothing wasn’t cheap. Yet going back to the £96 Everlane dress, I suspect that this is more like what the average dress should cost in 2017, if not more.
It’s also also quite clear the impact that the mass production of clothing overseas has had on household spending. I’ve again struggled to find UK statistics, but census data from the US shows that in the 1950’s households spent 12% of their annual income on clothing. Fast forward to 2015, and it’s reported that households spent just 3.5% of their annual income on clothing, even though Americans are buying more clothes than ever before. The same article reports that in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits, whilst in 2015 that figure was 30 outfits – one for every day of the month.
More worryingly, another report suggests the average item of clothing is worn just seven times before being discarded. Cheaper prices clearly mean consumers value their clothes less.
So what’s the answer? By suddenly removing manufacture from the countries that depend on clothing manufacture for the overseas market wouldn’t be good for those countries’ economies. In 2014 the ready made garment industry represented 81.13% of Bangladesh’s total export, and of the 4 million workers employed by this industry, 85% are illiterate women from rural villages. It’s a tricky situation.
I think part of the answer lies in our relationship with clothing. Buying less; not buying into trends; and investing in quality timeless pieces are more than likely the way forward. I’ve previously written in length about these aspects of consumerism – but in a nutshell ethical fashion isn’t expensive when you factor in the cost per wear of a quality made item, versus a poorly made fast fashion item of clothing that falls to bits after just a few wears.
As consumers we also have to act more responsibly. YouTube haul videos, like this one where the vlogger boasts to impressionable young viewers about how many cheap items of clothing they’ve bought only perpetuate the cheap disposable clothing myth.
Another part of it voting with your wallet. If more and more people start shopping with more responsible retailers then this sends a clear message to retailers that they have to up their game and make their clothes more ethically.
Perhaps we have to therefore have to work on regaining our sense of perspective when it comes to the cost of clothes. Spending more on each individual item of clothing we buy and spending better, but buying much much less is the only way to re-establish sensible baselines on what constitutes as expensive and what constitutes as good quality.
ASBCI (Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry) has announced to hold a Spring Conference 2017, which will take place on 5th April 2017 at the Marriott Hotel in Peterborough, Canada. Agenda of the conference will be ‘DOING THE RIGHT THING? – Best practices for sustaining our people, planet and profits’ and the event will be chaired by Simon Allitt, ASBCI Event Committee Vice Chairman and Head of Retail, TUV Rheinland.
It may be mentioned here that sustainability is placed on top of the global fashion industry’s agenda and according to ASBCI, ten years ago Marks & Spencer launched its game-changing Plan A. Since then most big brands and retailers have implemented their own robust ethical and environmental sustainability programmes with the collective objective of protecting people and the planet.
The ASBCI sustainability conference has assembled speakers with unparalleled experience of the most effective and commercial, sustainable initiatives and innovations. The speakers will share their experience, insight and vision in a bid to give attendees a sustainable and profitable future.
The conference will have following sessions: Are You Doing the Right Thing (Rakesh Vazirani – Director of Product Traceability & Environmental Information Management TUV Hong Kong), Plan A 10 Years On (Mike Barry, Director Plan A, Marks & Spencer), Striving for sustainability in the clothing industry – an Overview of working with WRAP (Prof. Tim Cooper, Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption, Nottingham Trent University), Fashioning Fibres for the Future (Robin Anson, Editorial Director, Textiles Intelligence), Cottoning On (Graham Burden, Director, Sustainable Textile).
Post-lunch session will cover topics such as, Water Use in the Textile Supply Chain (Elaine Gardiner, Sustainability Manager, Berghaus), Sustainability Together (Guido Rimini, Head of Marketing, Apparel Europe, Freudenberg Performance Materials Apparel SE & Co. KG Solutions), Closing the Loop (Ross Barry, Lawrence M Barry & Co) and Supply Chain Transparency – What have you got to lose (Tara Luckman, Fabric & Sustainability Manager, ASOS.COM)
There is no such thing as “conscious fast fashion.” Fast fashion encourages buying frequently and discarding quickly. The current mainstream fashion industry relies on globalised, mass production methods where items are designed, produced, sold, and then discarded at a rapid pace – usually within a few weeks. The production methods used to create these garments – sold on the high street through big name brands – threaten natural resources and damage the social and ecological environment; contributing to the depletion of fossil fuels; damaging water reservoirs and cotton crop irrigation; introducing pesticides into the environment; placing forests and ecosystems in jeopardy, and using unethical manufacturing methods that threaten human rights and the safety of its workforce.
The main reason our relationship with fast fashion is unsustainable is because we buy too much. When items are so cheap, we justify to ourselves the reasons for buying them. We buy them because they are cheap not because we love them. We end up with too many things.
What Is “Slow Fashion”?
Slow fashion is the rejection of trend-led seasons; it’s about fewer purchases of higher quality, designed and created to last. It encourages us to consider our environment by valuing ethical production methods, creating quality products in a sustainable manner.
Slow fashion is about buying less; it’s about placing quality over quantity; it’s about caring for the environment; it’s about conscious buying and thoughtful purchases. It’s not about not buying anything at all. We need clothes to wear, shoes to put on our feet, and it’s OK to lust after (and buy) little extras that we don’t necessarily need but rather want. So long as we make those purchases in a respectful, conscious manner, taking into account how something was made, whether it was designed to last, and if it will enrich our lives rather than just add another thing to our pile of things only to be discarded later.
Slow fashion values our environment; places importance on diversity, quality, beauty, and sustainability; acknowledges the needs of our environment and our community; encourages us to slow down our consumption and practice conscious buying.
How We Can Play Our Part
Consumption, in any form, is powerful. Slow fashion is about voting with our money; it’s about making a conscious choice to buy sustainable items, and that choice says: “I care. I care about our community. I care about our environment. I care about the part I play in it.” But also: “I place value in the things I buy.”
If you feel this “movement” is exclusive or are daunted by the issues it deals with, remember slow fashion is not about living by a certain set of rules. It’s about introducing an awareness of sustainability into our lives and that means something different to everyone and can be achieved in so many different ways. It’s about aspiring to do better in any small way we can.
Slow fashion is simply the decision to be conscious with our choices and make only thoughtful purchases that enrich our lives both mentally and physically.
As ‘new consumerism’ sees shoppers’ demand shift increasingly towards sustainability and ethically produced fashion, jeans, one of the worst offenders in terms of human and environmental production costs, will present some of the best opportunities to make a sound business out of ethically produced apparel. The peculiarities of the UK’s relationship with jeans will make it easier for brands to convince shoppers to trade up to higher quality and higher prices, mitigating the costs of ensuring more ethical production.
While jeans have been cemented as a staple garment for fashion and function, mounting evidence has spoken to the huge impact on people and the environment of supplying the UK’s appetite for cheap denim bottoms. Their mass production, which often requires highly toxic chemicals in order to produce pre-faded on-trend garments, has come under particular scrutiny from regulators and organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign.
As a result, apparel brands, retailers and manufacturers have rushed to quantify the commercial potential of ethical and sustainable apparel. The greatest challenge has been to meet growing demand for ethical fashion while dealing with the increased material and labour costs of monitoring supply chains and ensuring ethicalproduction.
Value Placed on Quality and Fit Makes Jeans a Stand Out
The characteristics of the UK’s relationship with jeans make this one of the best products to absorb increased production costs. Studies on ethical spending have shown that consumers are willing to spend more on products that provide improved quality along with the ethical guarantee. Because jeans are so ubiquitous and versatile, UK consumers place a higher value on product quality than they do in other apparel categories. While ‘fast fashion’ has reduced consumers’ desire for hard-wearing bottoms, many have still been willing to accept higher prices and remain loyal to brands that guarantee them comfortable materials and a flattering fit.
Compare this to the tops category, where trends change more rapidly and consumers spend less time wearing any single garment. This makes fit, comfort and durability less pressing and premium pricing more closely linked to branding. As a result, it’s more difficult to convince consumers that spending more will bring an added benefit. This happens to be where volume-driven, fast-fashion brands have led and consumers are decidedly disloyal.
As the UK becomes more mindful of its consumption, sustainably produced jeans present an opportunity for players to target a high-profile ethical issue, while supporting revenue with a product that can drive higher value sales. In many cases, the costs of ensuring ethicalproduction will overlap with the costs of improving quality. For example, near-sourcing production may allow closer monitoring of suppliers labour practices in addition to more control over quality assurance.
Jeans to Lead in Fast Fashion Fatigue
Getting consumers to accept higher prices for a product that a decade of ‘fast fashion’ has taught them to buy cheap and replace often will be a challenge. However, led by urbanised millennials, UK consumers are gradually buying into the ‘circular economy ‘and seeking to gain maximum value from less consumption.
As evidence of this, Euromonitor International’s apparel and footwear data shows that after consecutive years of decline, unit price growth has begun to stabilise across most jeans price segments. Notably, premium and super premium jeans have only just seen a marginal decline in price growth after maintaining markedly above-average historical growth.
UK Jeans : Price Growth by Segment 2011-2016
Brands such as Hiut Denim in the UK and Tuff’s in France have been gaining strength as a result. These players source all production internally and locally, keeping their supply chains short and guaranteeing the standards of production. Both brands have developed a fiercely loyal following of buyers who value the ethics and sustainability of their production as well as their high quality. Both brands pitch their jeans as a high value investment, justifying higher retail prices to account for the increased cost of nearer sourced production.
While it is always going to be a struggle to talk the average shopper into ‘breaking-in’ a stiff, heavy 19oz pair of raw selvedge jeans (waiting the better part of a year before washing them to get an authentic fade), high-quality denim can clearly sell big. The success of selvedge lines by Topshop and Uniqlo and H&M’s ‘conscious’ jeans has demonstrated that shoppers can be convinced to trade up on ethics and quality, fueling value-led growth.
Getting Ahead of the Curve
Sustainable jeans have thus far been limited to niche premium brands and high-profile, but small-scale, ‘green-washing’ efforts of major fast-fashion players. Those that prioritize ethics early will appear more authentic than those which seem to conform as a begrudging necessity; gaining favour with the increasingly influential millennial consumer. The challenge will be for winning brands and manufacturers to take bolder steps to make higher value ethical and sustainable jeansa more prominent feature in their product mix, before growing regulatory pressure and consumer outrage takes the initiative away from them.