Fashion, textiles and the environment: time for a change of mindset

Fashion, textiles and the environment: time for a change of mindset

Supply chain and logistics specialist, Alan Braithwaite, argues that consumers, governments and the fashion industry itself are consciously and subconsciously colluding to maintain a “take, make, waste” system. An incentivised change of mindset and models is needed.

Clothing and fashion is now widely-recognised as one of the least environmentally friendly global industries, sitting towards to the top of the ‘worst offender’ rankings.

On a macro level, the scale of the industry’s impact is dramatic:

  • Global production of textiles is 53 million tonnes
  • That production process involves 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources, including oil and chemicals to produce dye and finish textiles
  • The amount of water used in that production is 93 billion cubic metres
  • The greenhouse gas emissions from the industry are estimated at 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2

These massive numbers come directly from A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, a global report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) in 2017, backed by research from global analysts, McKinsey.

Micro trumps macro

Plain, self-colour cotton t-shirt

But macro numbers are often overwhelming and, when it comes to textiles, it’s the micro that offers a real perspective on the clothing industry’s impact.

The average purchased garment weighs just 500 grams. Its production requires:

  • 870,000 litres of water – equivalent of 24 years of daily baths
  • 0.9 kgs of non-renewable resources, such as oil
  • and creates 111.3 kgs of CO2

Yet these shocking statistics have rarely, if ever, been made public until recently.  Possibly because, with climate change featuring more highly in the public consciousness and the work of the Extinction Rebellion, Client Earth and GreenPeace movements, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the fashion industry to argue that putting a T-Shirt on our backs is a sustainable process.

A powerful force

The textile and fashion industry is an economic powerhouse. It generates revenues of $1.3 trillion and employs 300 million people directly, with many more engaged in logistics and support services. Simple maths deduces per-employee revenue of $4,300 pa. This compares with average annual personal income of $31,000 in the USA, €23,000 in Europe and less than $1,000 in China.

This offers striking evidence that so-called ‘developed nations’ have become dependent on global sourcing to feed their garment-buying habits. Fast fashion is cheaply sourced from low wage economies who, in turn, experience the associated water stress and emissions, with many of the workers barely scraping a living in an exploitative and insecure employment landscape.

The inference of the staggering water use statistics alone, derived from published data, is that financially poor communities may be sacrificing their ability to feed themselves in order to gratify relatively wealthy consumers’ clothing greed.

A disposable society

The impact of the unlimited availability of cheap fast fashion has been growth in global consumption; it has doubled since the year 2000. For consumers in mature economies, cheap means disposable and the evidence for this, based on the EMF report, can be summarised as follows:

  • The average number of times a single garment is worn before it ceases to be worn again has decreased by 36% over the last 15 years
  • An average garment is worn an estimated 10 times before disposal
  • More than half the fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year (estimate)
  • In the UK, clothing lasts for, on average, 3.3 years before it’s discarded or passed on
  • UK adults wear only 44% of the clothing they own

Fast fashion is a business model. For consumers it’s about ‘identity’. The availability of styles at low prices is about how people can assert their individuality, a perfectly normal human trait.  For successful designers, producers and retailers it drives revenue growth and profit margins of up to 20% of revenues when attractive designs combine with compelling price points in the market.

A basic, plain T-Shirt costs as little as $4.58 at Walmart, £5 at Primark, £6 at Marks and Spencer or €5.99 at Zara. Essentially the price of a cappuccino with an extra shot in most reputable coffee shops. The low price of a T-Shirt makes the purchase decision as easy as a most people’s daily Java hit.

For retailers themselves, the consequences of this dynamic are proven. For example, the latest 2019 results from international discount clothing retailer Primark reported adjusted half-year operating profits up 25% to £426m. Sales grew four percent to £3.6bn with margins reported as “much higher”. According to parent company, Associated British Foods: “The company’s share of the clothing, footwear and accessories market in the UK increased substantially in the period, bucking the trend of wider high street malaise.”

In simple terms, compelling value sells and excess stocks in the supply chain, due to obsolescence and mark-downs, are avoided.

What a waste!

Having worked in and around the fashion sector, I have seen first-hand just how sensitive the business model is to the quality of its supply chain management; as much as 15% of stock bought by retailers at the start of a ‘season’ does not sell at full price and either has to be significantly discounted or, in many cases, incinerated or sent to landfill.

We have, indeed, a profligate model for fashion where retailers and consumers collude to drive sales growth and waste. The routes for disposal of clothing and textiles has been charted by the EMF and it makes disturbing reading.

No alt text provided for this image

The chart, derived from an infographic in the EMF report, shows the industry is anything but circular. 73% goes to landfill and recycling – a staggering 38.6 million tonnes – while only 6.3 million tonnes is recycled; the management of production losses are not detailed in terms of their disposal. Half a million tonnes of microfibres find their way into the water supplies and oceans, with health and wildlife impacts that are only just beginning to be fully understood.

Trade statistics show that in 2018 4.85 million tonnes of used clothing was shipped internationally, 76% of the recycled total, equating to an estimated 1.2 million TEUs and around one percent of global container freight volumes.

This is a “take, make, waste” system, regardless of the environmental impact. While EMF is a leader among many calling for the industry to adopt a new model – #circulareconomy – the fashion and textile industry itself is now waking up to the facts and seeking solutions. That includes the likes of Zara and H&M.

Rolling the Rs

The ‘big idea’ is that largely linear clothing supply chains can be made more circular through coordinated action by producers, retailers and consumers. The mantra now percolating across the industry can be re-phrased into the 7 ‘Rs’:

  • Reduce – the impact of production through, for example, better water use, less chemicals and better working conditions
  • Reformulate – the design of clothing and textiles to support reduction initiatives and help increase recycling and avoid damaging micro-fibre release
  • Retain – encourage and motivate consumers to buy less, retain longer and dispose responsibly
  • Rent – provide clothing rental schemes to feed the appetite for fast fashion while reducing its impact
  • Recover – effectively sort and re-distribute used clothing to maximise its residual potential for further use or recycling
  • Re-use – channel used clothing to those who can benefit from it, a sort of legacy to relatively less well-off communities
  • Recycle – use the remaining discard to remanufacture the material for second and third uses

The imperative is clear, but the means to achieve a new model is by no means easy. The requirement for coordinated action across designers, producers, retailers, governments and consumers is hugely challenging.  It should also be noted that the circular model cannot be the panacea to cure the ills of the industry. As one commentator puts it: “No amount of reusing or recycling will offset the continuous growth of the industry as it stands, so the solution is to simply produce less.”

Where are the incentives?

Certainly, designers, producers and retailers have little or no incentive to change until consumers are prepared to pay a premium for sustainability or buy fewer clothes every year. Notwithstanding the warm words from leading companies about the need for sustainability, their competitive position will be eroded if they take unilateral action in the face of competition from the £6 T-Shirt. At that price, there is no headroom for additional costs while retaining margin and sales momentum.

The Gods of Money that govern investments, returns, earnings and share prices will likely only pay lip service to sustainability. The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh is an example of how companies like Primark and Matalan, who at the time were sourcing through the facility, suffered little or no long-term reputational damage or sales impact. Yet, the challenges for the local workforce appear to continue.

It seems developed-nation consumers find a disconnect between such distant catastrophes and their personal purchasing decisions. In the current stretched economic environment, my experience is that price and availability almost always trump intangible considerations. The recent relatively poor performance of the organic food movement is an example – it is just more expensive at the point of purchase.

As for Governments, exhortation and endorsement is the policy, as against specific actions. The majority of consumers are not, currently, voting for action, whilst producers and retailers will naturally lobby against actions that threaten to reduce earnings, using the threat to legislators of lower tax receipts.

Developed nations have effectively outsourced the environmental and social issues of the industry and can stick the residues in containers and send them back. Governments are essentially co-dependent on both producers and consumers creating inertia and resistance. The proposals for a one-pence garment tax in the UK are a pathetic salve to public conscience; it is an insufficient penalty to change behaviours.

So what’s the solution?

There are plenty of individuals and organisations testing solutions around the edges of the challenge and the industry itself is becoming increasing engaged. The EMF writes in its report:

“No large-scale demonstration project representing the full extent of the vision currently exists, but there are promising small-scale efforts. One example of such a collaborative initiative is ‘Relooping Fashion’ in Finland, which pilots a unique production experiment in cotton clothing recycling, and has developed a cross-value-chain business ecosystem in line with the principles of the circular economy.”

Another practitioner of clothing and textiles ‘circular economy’ is social entrepreneurial NGO, Goonj in India. It has established a ‘system’ to recover urban clothing discard and channel it to financially poor rural communities, often the bottom of the exploitive cotton supply chains where production methods have taken priority over social and financial development.

Goonj uses clothing and other urban discard as currency to spark a whole range of rural social and economic development initiatives. Village communities engage with Goonj, who work with them to organise and achieve sustainable development for themselves, whether in water, sanitation, menstrual health, education, community infrastructure or industry.

The Goonj circular economy model reaches far beyond the clothing and fashion industry to touch social and economic development, respecting and recognising the dignity and identity of the people with whom they work. And they are achieving this with growing scale.

Cross-communication is the key

It’s fair to say these initiatives will build momentum over the years, but we can only expect slow progress without a more substantial kick-start in which governments are engaged and collaborate.

This will require better evidence of the system-wide benefits of the circular economy, with full academic endorsement of the kind that has emerged for climate change. A 2018 special report from the Californian Management Review makes this call powerfully.

“While there has been substantive work on the subject of the circular economy, there are more opportunities for interdisciplinary conversation between scholars and practitioners…Connecting our understanding is an important milestone on the journey to unlocking the great potential of a fully operational circular economy.”

For Goonj, the circular economy for fashion is ‘not just a piece of cloth’; it is a means for social regeneration and a pathway to sustainable life and dignity. Most importantly, the Goonj model requires cross-communication between the communities themselves, NGOs, local authorities and even national government. It is also scalable – another essential feature in the success of the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach to fashion and textiles production.

For all of us to achieve a reduction in the horrifying statistics at the start of this article, it is going to take hard work, collaboration, scalability, but most of all a will to balance profits and growth with the long-term sustainability of our planet.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse