We don’t need too much reminding of the detrimental impact consumer culture is having on our planet. The fashion industry – and perhaps its consumers – has been particularly guilty of ignoring the environmental consequences of its actions.
In an acceptance speech last year, fashion magnate Eileen Fisher noted “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world ... second only to oil.” She went to describe it as “a really nasty business”. So what’s the problem, and what is being done to solve it?
Fast fashion, sounds exciting on the face of it. It is the retail model of clothes-purchasing that has dominated the past decade of fashion. Low labour costs mean more clothes can be produced, in a shorter space of time, from cheaper materials.
Fashion retail tycoons maintain that they have democratised fashion by giving everyone the chance to dress like their role models. By this they mean consumers can afford to wear the latest trends by enjoying the freedom to buy new clothes … often. This ‘wear-it-once’ culture has been further fuelled by our technological progression, notably the celebrity habit of not being pictured in the same outfit twice on social media.
For everyone to have the option of wearing whatever they want, regardless of their financial situation seems like a tremendous tool for freedom and individual expression. But at what cost? As people are quick to point out, the environmental effect of our expectation of ‘more for less’ is proving to be catastrophic.
The current lifecycle of clothing is take (the raw materials), make (for as cheap as possible), and dispose (once we find better or newer products - after all, they didn’t cost much to buy in the first place, right?). It is estimated that in the UK alone £140 million worth of used clothing (350,000 tonnes) goes to landfills every year. Sustainability alarm bells have naturally started ringing. This model is what is known as linear fashion. It is simultaneously the result of brands’ drive to make more money, and the consumers demand for a cheaper, wider range of choice.
Whether it’s pesticides used in cotton farming, toxic dyes used in manufacturing, the huge amount of waste superfluous clothing creates, or transporting items from the other side of the world, the rise of consumer culture and fast fashion have certainly sunk their teeth into our planet.
A greener alternative
Enter circular fashion. The term was coined by Dr. Anna Brismar, Founder of the Swedish consultancy Green Strategy in 2014, and is a concept gaining momentum in the highest echelons in the fashion industry today. In essence, circular fashion looks to change aspects of design, production, and disposal by manufacturing clothing in components that make it more suitable for remake, reuse, or repair at the end of its cycle.
High quality materials should also be used to maximise its longevity and durability. In the production stage, organic or recycled materials should be used, with non-toxic chemicals in the dying process. In the final stage, circular fashion hopes that people will take clothes to recycle stations, or because of their durability, pass them on to friends and family.
It’s an almost utopian idea, and it seems we are worlds away from this being the norm. However, encouragingly, many leading brands are starting to respond – at least on the surface. There has certainly been a push to target ‘conscious’ consumers; Puma’s biodegradable InCycle Collection, Uniqlo’s All-Product Recycling Initiative, and Adidas’ Design for Environment gear.
It’s also good to see the largest fashion retail chain in the world stepping up its game. H&M recently launched a sustainability effort called H&M Conscious: a “promise to bring you more fashion choices that are good for people, the planet and your wallet’.’ While few of the brands use the term ‘circular fashion’ yet, their ideas are beginning to align with this potentially revolutionary concept.
Actual change, or malicious marketing?
So have fashion juggernauts achieved moral enlightenment? Sceptics might argue that the ‘green’ push is as much a marketing strategy as it is a drive for positive change. Some would make the case has been large retail chains such as H&M who are possibly at the heart of the environmental damage caused by the industry, who are now capitalising on the public’s concern for the damage they have done. It perhaps begs the question of whether the means matter if the positive environmental ends are met.
But regardless of the whys, proponents of circular fashion have put forward a new model which it is hoped that both consumers will demand, and clothing companies will adopt. In the words of Green Strategy, the ideal consumer they wish to create is ‘’a person who appreciates the true value of a garment, a pair of shoes, or accessory, including all work that lies behind and all precious natural resources that have been used throughout its supply chain.’’ A long way off perhaps, but a positive goal to work towards.
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