Clothing has always been a necessity; however, our desire for fashion and the availability of cheap clothes has resulted in global clothing sales almost doubling in the last 15 years. The value of the fashion industry to the global economy is huge; however, the cost to our planet and the people on it is even bigger.
The way we produce, use and dispose of our clothes means that the industry is one of the most polluting in the world. The resources used to manufacture clothing are largely non-renewable and much of it ends up being disposed of within a very short period.
The statistics are shocking, for example, 1.5 trillion litres of water and 23% of all the chemicals produced globally are used by the fashion industry each year. The wastewater from the process is often discharged into waterways with no treatment, affecting the health of aquatic life and the people who live by the rivers. Washing new clothing releases tonnes of microplastic fibres, which end up in the sea, and millions of trees are being cut down to accommodate plantations to make textile fibres. These statistics are from the manufacturing process alone. Next, the clothing is shipped or flown to its end customer thousands of miles around the world, with the majority of it ending up in a landfill or being incinerated within 3 years.
It is increasingly recognised by the industry and its customers that without action the consequences of our shopping habits are going to be disastrous. Introducing sustainable materials and improving the efficiency of processes can greatly reduce the negative impacts. However, this needs to work alongside a system of waste reduction brought about by turning the traditional linear economy (take, make, dispose) into a circular economy. A circular economy is one where resources are in use for as long as possible. Extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate materials at the end of a garments life, so they re-enter the economy and never end up as waste.
To achieve this the value chain of all garments must be established in their design. Ensuring that the raw materials used are not only sustainably produced but also create quality, durable garments that are made to last and can be recycled once they eventually reach the end of their life.
The scale of this challenge cannot be underestimated, and significant advances must be made in terms of fabric innovation in order to create low impact, highly recyclable fabrics. Changing consumer attitudes to shopping, by giving the option to rent clothes, buy durable items, which are high quality and personalised in terms of style and fit or offering quality second-hand clothes, which have been refurbished. The infrastructure for capturing end of life garments also needs to be stepped up by creating an end of life supply chain, which offers large-scale collection and return services.
Change such as this needs to be a global effort, with key industry players setting the agenda and cross-industry projects facilitating innovation, collaboration, and visibility. With this in place, the circular economy has the potential to deliver the positive economic and environmental impacts that both retailers and their customers desire.