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Monday Postcard #261 – Can the Fashion Industry Ever Be Sustainable?

Monday Postcard #261 – Can the Fashion Industry Ever Be Sustainable?

Monday Postcard 261 Can Fashion Ever Be Sustainable

Sustainability in fashion has become a big topic. It is no news that the industry is the second-biggest polluter of our planet and pressure on companies has been growing. Slowly, brands have incorporated sustainability measures (usually displayed on shiny websites) and special “conscious” collections are on trend. But is this really enough? 

The pressure for growth in the fashion industry is immense. On the one hand, it is driven by business owners, shareholders and investors: They want to see returns fast. It is difficult to achieve that growth with innovation – how much more “efficient” can we make a top, a handbag or a belt? It is easier to tweak a garment slightly – add new sleeves or change the neckline, make it cheaper and faster. On the other hand, this pressure is also heavily driven by consumer demand. We see the newest trends instantly on social media and immediately want them at our doorstep. “It’s so convenient, I order it online, return it if it does not fit and after I wore it once or twice, I just toss it,” I have lost count of how often I have heard this statement. 

The production cycles have become so extreme that in fast fashion, Zara offers 24 new collections per year, H&M between 12 to 16. Shein, the Chinese retailer, is the fastest of them all, at even lower price points. Luxury houses are not excluded from that insanity – they drop around six collections per year. All of the brands (no matter the price segment) rely on synthetic fibres to produce faster and cheaper. This cycle resulted in polyester making up more than half of all clothing production – needless to say, many synthetic fibres are made from fossil fuels, micro-plastics go into our water when washing them and they take ages to degrade.

This extremely fast demand is paired with long lead times for production and to bridge this gap, companies resort to overproduction. I was recently told by an expert that most fashion companies assume that at least 30% of their annual stock will not be sold. What do they do with it? If they have a model involving sales or outlets, they may be able to sell it there. However, a large portion of luxury brands burn the leftovers of a collection to avoid an “adverse effect” to their brand value due to sales or grey markets. This is also a reason why most of them are vehemently fighting the new EU regulations which aim at banning the burning of goods. If goods are not burned, they might just end up in landfills or be shipped to other continents, mostly Africa.

How can we solve these issues? Can we actually make the industry sustainable?

The first step is transparency. The current issue is that there is no common framework for sustainability reporting and we need to decode every single company’s report. This lack of a framework makes it easy to sugarcoat or greenwash. Nevertheless, I think at least a bit of reporting is already better than none. I avoid brands who do not disclose anything. Furthermore, I look into their reports and numbers and see if they make sense to me.

I also stopped buying garments made from synthetic fibres such as polyester and also stay away from the so-called blends (polyester mixed with other fibres). Apart from the environmental impact, I really do not like the feel of plastic on my skin and mostly the construction of the garment is as bad as the fibre itself. I see more and more garments with fabric made from recycled plastic, such as water bottles. While recycling seems to be a good method at first sight, it comes, unfortunately, with some drawbacks. While plastic bottles can be recycled multiple times, garments made from recycled fibres may be great marketing – but the real effect on the environment is only short-term and may be even negative, as it is very difficult to recycle these garments.

Furthermore, the business models and cycles of the industry have to be adapted. Do we really need six to 24 collections per year? How many items of clothing do we really wear? I know that you may now ask why I as an owner of fashion business say that. Is this not detrimental to my own business? I do not think so, because my philosophy for Pelagona has always been to produce something long-lasting – something you will cherish for a long time. Fast fashion may be tempting due to their lower price points, but if you calculate the so-called “Cost per Wear”, they are actually expensive. Think about it, you may spend EUR 50 at a fast fashion retailer and wear the item once or maybe twice. Hence, the cost is EUR 25 per wear. If you invest in an item which you will wear over and over again, maybe even hand down, the Cost per Wear decreases significantly.

I also see a big potential in turning something old into something new. I recently went through my closet and checked which items I could have tweaked a bit. Furthermore, resale and rental will be big businesses in the future. Judging from the recent development of second-hand boutiques and online platforms, there is a lot of potential. I also hope that fashion rental providers will become as popular in Europe and Asia as they have already been for a long time in America.

Needless to say, legislation and also a closer look on greenwashing are crucial. It is amusing that a lot of fashion companies who claim to work on sustainability oppose new legislation at the same time (the shinier the website, the higher the opposition). Furthermore, the fashion companies need to disclose their suppliers and their work conditions and environmental efforts. Outsourcing to third parties can no longer be an excuse for a lack of transparency, knowledge or sustainability. Moreover, moving towards sustainability cannot be done with a single “conscious” collection while 23 others are still being produced as before. Sustainability has to become a core part of a brand’s DNA, not a PR-stint used for greenwashing.

Last but not least, I would like to stress one very important factor: one of the biggest drivers for change is YOU, the consumer: You have the power! If you decide not to buy from a certain brand or retailer or decide against garments made under questionable circumstances or from materials detrimental to the environment, the market will change by itself. Start asking questions, be curious (and maybe a bit of a pain). When you purchase a garment, think about the cost per wear: Will you love this outfit five or ten years from now? If you really want a sustainable fashion industry, you can help foster change.

What is your view on sustainability in fashion? How do you shop? Let me know, I always enjoy our discussions!


See Also
Monday Postcard 214 Fashions Role in Times of Crisis

The Business of Fashion: Explainer: Why New Sustainability Rules Are Worrying the Fashion Industry, HBR: “The Myth of Sustainable Fashion”

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