As beautiful garments aplenty make their way down the big four fashion catwalks this month, it’s a little too easy to act on impulse. It's natural to start creating mental lists of the designs that will be relevant for your brand, and of course your own wardrobe, next season. It’s certainly a time when everything is a want-to-have rather than a need-to-have.
Throughout 2018 and continuing into this year, there has been much in the news around fashion’s negative impacts: from the overall effect on the environment and planet, to the people who work in supply chains and make our clothes. The UK in particular is in the middle of an investigation by the Environmental Audit Committee into fast fashion with many questions being asked of retailers.
With all this negativity, how can brands find the positive?
How can brands start to create positive impacts? Next season we see this as the key trend to embrace.
Three pillars to positive fashion
The British Fashion Council has identified three strategic pillars for positive fashion, an initiative to celebrate best practice and encourage future business decisions to create positive change within the industry. The three pillars are:
- Sustainability – including energy and water efficiency, sustainable chemical use, recycling and managing waste
- Equality and diversity – including decent working conditions, fair trade for producers and workers, ethical sourcing and supply chain management
- Craftsmanship and community – including the support of traditional skills
One of the key words on everyone’s lips in the fashion industry that ties many aspects of positive fashion together is circularity.
But is this just a trendy buzzword or can it actually instigate constructive change?
In the fashion world, circularity, sometimes known as creating a circular economy, means considering the whole of your business to ensure that each part works together within the bounds of the system to reduce and eliminate wasteful practices and create timeless items that last, are used, and reused before returning to the system to be remade again into something else.
It’s about fully utilising materials and resources over the long-term period.
Fashion impacts and the circular solution
Our infographic below shows how we visualise what the circular solution looks like in the fashion world.
How to turn negative impacts into positive actions
Negative 1 – Environmental impacts
The traditional linear take, make, dispose model of fashion businesses is still causing substantial environmental impacts. The industry is currently causing 20% of global wastewater and 10% of all carbon emissions – shockingly, this is more than the emissions totalled from all international flights and shipping combined.
Where clothes are made in developing countries, around 90% of wastewater, which contain many toxic substances such as lead and mercury, is discharged directly into rivers without treatment. When it comes to dying clothes the right colour, much of the dye also gets lost into the waterways – around 200,000 tonnes annually – contaminating the water in which it flows.
→ Positive action 1 – Improve the efficiency and transparency of your operations
Reducing the amount of carbon your business emits is entirely possible by adopting efficiency and renewable energy measures. Energy efficiency and energy management techniques, as simple as installing building fabric insulation or upgrading lighting systems throughout your own buildings and operations, can greatly reduce your carbon footprint. Not only that, it will save you money – a 20% cut in energy costs have been shown to represent the same bottom line benefit as a 5% increase in sales.
Transparency within clothing supply chains is a big topic for consumers and investors. To decrease the amount of wastewater being produced, textiles need to be produced in factories that not only adhere to standards but improve upon them, and in places with stricter environmental regulations and the infrastructure to cope, or make use of new, innovative techniques, resources and fibres.
Negative 2 – Excessive waste and product impact
Over the last 20 years the amount of clothing bought by consumers across the globe has increased around 400%. With so much clothing being produced, many of it is lying unused and unloved in people’s wardrobes or being discarded after a couple of wears.
Resources aren’t just wasted by consumers. Within the fashion industry, around 92 million tonnes of textile waste is produced each year – that’s the daily equivalent of over 252,000 tonnes or 21,000 truckloads of waste making its way to landfill every single day.
Of all the clothing fibres used, the most common is polyester. Per year, 70 million barrels of oil are required to create sufficient amounts of polyester, which then takes over 200 years to decompose when it’s no longer in use. Furthermore, when washed polyester can shed microfibres that make their way to the world’s oceans where they accumulate and are consumed by marine life and also by humans!
→ Positive action 2 – Increased circularity and better lifecycle design
Making the correct fibre choice is not an easy road to navigate. Whatever fibre is used, it still needs to be made or grown - which inevitably uses water and chemicals to varying degrees - to be manufactured into a product, sewn, dyed, finished and transported, again with varying environmental impacts.
Considering the full lifecycle of a product during the design phase is a crucial step when it comes to making the right choices around limiting waste and increasing efficiency. This will allow you to establish, for example, what impacts a certain fibre choice will have on your operations and the environment, allow you to see what chemicals will need to be used during the manufacturing process and allow to plan for the end of product life – will the consumer be able to take old garments back to the store to be dealt with appropriately and potentially used again in another life?
The lifecycle design approach will also enable you to improve the quality and durability of your products through advanced product testing, meaning they’ll last longer and cause less environmental damage. Importantly, by planning for each phase of the lifecycle your business is going to be able to reduce the waste it produces.
Negative 3 – Humans rights and workers conditions
Garment factory workers are some of the poorest paid in the world. With an 80% women-strong workforce, the daily rate can be as low as US$1-3 or £1-2 a day - far below standards in any country. On such wages in Bangladesh, around 10,000 workers will earn the same in a year as just one corporate CEO.
→ Positive action 3 – Improved social impacts
It’s key to assess your supply chain to identify environmental and social risks, such as poor labour practices and working conditions. Improving the transparency of your supply chains will go a long way in improving the livelihoods of the people and workers that fashion businesses rely on to create their products. Actions such as paying workers digitally and using technology to drive transparency are recommended.
The Higg Index – developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition - is a suite of tools that enables brands, retailers, and facilities of all sizes to accurately measure environmental and social/labour impacts across the supply chain. It’s anticipated that such tools will encourage suppliers to report on their practices and make improvements over time, leading to better working conditions, factory practices and reducing social risk overall.
Our work within the circular lifecycle
The sustainable apparel and textiles team at Anthesis have worked on projects that span this circle, from projects like ECAP which help brands to quantify and understand their impacts, to working with design teams to tackle the 80% of a garment’s emissions that they are responsible for.
We help them understand the fibres they source, and how to design a durable, beautiful product, helping them improve through workshops, bespoke guides and toolkits for their teams to help broaden their knowledge and make more positive choices.
We’ve worked in supply chains, helping brands understand firstly where they are sourcing from and the impacts that sourcing has on people, communities and the environment so they can make changes, such as improving livelihoods and factory standards, as well as improving on the ground efficiencies.
We’ve worked with brands internally, helping them look at their business operations and logistics to make best use of precious resources, eliminating waste where they can and considering where their trash might be another’s treasure, and helping them to close that loop.
The next thing to tackle is the role of the consumer – and that’s something for all brands to consider. How can we all work together to ensure that customers understand the issues we are facing and can make informed choice about the products they choose to put in their wardrobes?
About the author
Holly Browne is an experienced sustainability, circular fashion and supplier compliance professional. She's previously worked on the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, a UK commitment engaging with 60% of the UK Clothing sector to reduce the carbon, waste and water footprints of clothing they supply or receive in the UK by 15%.
Holly Browne is a Principal Consultant in Sustainable Apparel at Anthesis.