The fashion industry grew into being the very definition of unsustainable behaviour: convincing people to over-consume, buy different outfits with every changing season and throw out what came before. It was only worsened by the model lifestyle of glamour and jetting to exotic locations, coupled with the very different high street reality of bulk, unrealistically cheap copies of expensive clothing stitched by people, and sometimes child labour, in the global South on poverty wages.
Is that finally changing even as the industry moves ever quicker, generating vast amounts of money and using huge quantities of resources? A range of separate movements is emerging to try and change the way we think about the clothes we purchase. But can the changes move as fast as the industry itself?
Some are focusing on the design and supply of fashion, looking at how materials might be sustainably sourced, recycled and re-purposed. Others concentrate on actually reducing overall consumption. A new group of initiatives are using the internet and social media practices to encourage their younger consumers to slim down their shopping through swapping clothes, renting high fashion or reselling unwanted items via peer-to-peer platforms. Other online influencers are inspiring self-regulated minimalism by linking it to mindfulness and well-being. But can consuming less become the norm rather than another fashionable but fleeting trend?
Fashion is one of the largest industries in the world with annual revenues of around 1.5 trillion dollars, carbon emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year – more than aviation – and over 60 million people working along the global supply chain. On average, each person in Europe buys on average 5kg of clothes per year and for the USA, the figure is over three times higher at 16kg. The demographic which tends to be the dominant driver of unsustainable consumption practices in fashion is middle-class women in western countries, although the wealthier cities of the global south are becoming the drivers of fast fashion. Women’s share of the fashion industry remains well ahead of men’s, at around two thirds of the market, not including children’s clothing, which is also usually bought by women.
According to the Swedish researchers, Mistra Future Fashion, 80% of the climate impact of clothing stems from the production phase, before the garments even hit the racks. This can be reduced per item through behavioural change that encourages more uses per garment, minimalist approaches and the use of secondhand markets and charity shops. The wider environmental impact could also be reduced via technical production improvements, such as reducing water use, making dyes less toxic to water courses, and ensuring that systems are in place to recycle used fibres. Reducing consumption in this way could shift the whole industry. A recent report by Thred-up, an online platform selling secondhand clothes, estimates that in five years used clothing will be a bigger market than the luxury clothing sector, and within 10 years it will outstrip fast fashion.
This example of reducing consumption is interesting because it is not only being driven exclusively by fear of climate change or the adoption of behaviours considered to be more ethical and responsible. It is also fuelled by health and well-being, and an understanding that shopping itself can be an exhausting activity, unsatisfying and operate as a replacement for other forms of fulfilment. According to international research on consumerism and well being, excessive shoppers experience emptiness and boredom in between shopping periods, with feelings of restlessness and dissatisfaction fuelling their desire for further shopping experiences. In academia this is often called being trapped on the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Young, high income women are the most vulnerable. The spread of online shopping and social media makes people even more susceptible to over-consumption, driven also by constant comparison to others.
Cutting consumption, however, apart from stepping off the treadmill, can also have the benefit of saving money. According to Katia Vladimirova, PhD, postdoctoral researcher at the University Milan-Bicocca and University of Geneva, fast fashion may be criticised heavily for its negative social and environmental impacts, but it has also provided access to affordable stylish and aesthetically pleasing clothes for people who otherwise would find them economically out of reach. In blurring the visual differences between the rich and the poor, it has democratised fashion, despite the quality differences in fabric and cut. Once consequence, however, is that this expanded group is now drawn into collective overconsumption, which is also driving debt in lower income households.
Katia’s work describes a group of influencers who blog about decluttering and simplifying their lives, part of which involves clothing and/or shopping without necessarily focusing on sustainability – although some do. For example, Courtney Carver, a woman from Utah in the US, started Project 333 as a “minimalist fashion challenge that invites you to dress with 33 items or less for 3 months”. In 2014, Caroline Joy, a Texan blogger, started Unfancy – Mindful Style to record a journey as she engaged in a year-long challenge to try to live with a small and structured closet of 37 pieces. And the 10×10 challenge encourages participants to use 10 items for 10 days; it was started in 2015 by a Canadian woman Lee Vosburgh, who went on a 30-day shopping fast and came up with an experiment to help her be more creative with the clothes she already had. These influencers are helping to reduce consumption and set new behavioural norms among groups who might not otherwise be considering a more sustainable lifestyle.
There have been a range of players attempting to put the brakes on fast fashion for the last decade at least. Fashion Revolution, a London-based NGO with chapters around the world, has been campaigning since 2014 to draw consumers’ attention to unsustainable fashion industry practices with their “Who Made My Clothes?” campaign. Greenpeace has led the “Detox my Fashion” campaign since 2011, aimed at eliminating toxic chemicals from the production processes in the fashion supply chain. And a handful of celebrity advocates for sustainable fashion (including Emma Watson and Livia Firth) have contributed to the increased consumer awareness of the problem. The British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood put it succinctly: “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes.” And British designer Stella McCartney spoke out against her industry following a report on clothing’s environmental impact by the sustainable economy think tank the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Meanwhile, research into garment use and the impact of changing this has continued. In Sweden research showed that doubling the active lifetime of a garment, decreased its climate impact by 49%. For example, on average a t-shirt is used 30 times and washed 15 times. If this t-shirt is instead used 60 times the climate impact can be cut in half. Producing these same garments using solar-powered energy could mean a total reduction of 67%. If the consumer bikes or walks to the store instead of taking the car the total impact decreases by 78%. This scenario shows that the potential cumulative impact of lifestyle choices made on the consumption side is huge.
The availability of instant product viewing, safe financial transactions and peer reviewing through platforms such as Instagram have transformed the world of shopping. But they have also enabled slow fashion, secondhand exchange and minimalism to thrive.
Movements develop and happen entirely online for many millennials and those from generation Z – and the speed of change is phenomenal. The French platform Vinted created a market of 22 million people in just one year through an app that offers peer to peer mobile sales of secondhand clothing with secured insurance for transactions. It started when a young woman moving house built a website to sell her unwanted clothes. The company now operates in 12 markets across Europe and North America. Vestiaire Collective launched in 2009, and have grown in a decade to a global force with 7 million members in 50-plus countries across the world. Some 25,000 new items are submitted through their portal every week. In North America, Posh Mark sell designer bags and shoes through a peer-to-peer platform, where “stylists” recommend and model items for other consumers.
Clothing for special occasions is among the most wasteful sector of the industry, with many items being worn once and then discarded. One new trend here is peer to peer fashion rental, epitomised by the UK-based award-winning Hurr Collective. This platform uses real-time ID verification, geo-tagging and AI-powered fashion stylists to allow people the world over to share their wardrobes. Rent the Runway offers a similar service in the US for members who can access a huge wardrobe of new clothes that might otherwise be out of reach pricewise through a monthly membership plan. The company claims that 89% of their users buy fewer clothes as a result.
At the hands-on, community level, the Global Fashion Exchange (GFX) is a sustainable fashion platform encouraging people to swap unwanted clothes with others in their neighbourhood. It was founded by Patrick Duffy and Brooke Blashill in 2013 in response to the horror of the Rana Plaza disaster – when an 8-storey clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people, injuring over 2,500 and shocking the fashion industry. They have developed guidelines on how to organise swaps of clothing by weight. This type of In kind exchange – by value, weight or no of items – is used by communities, groups of friends and fundraisers to reduce waste and encourage social interaction.
These initiatives emerge rapidly and seem to be good at changing behaviour. Social norms about fashion are shifting, despite the huge power of the industry. Stockholm Fashion Week was cancelled this year with the aim of relaunching as a more sustainable show. It will be interesting to see how conventional fashion businesses respond to these trends – do they herald a new, slower, more sustainable fashion future?
Carver, C. (2019). Project 333 Blog http://www.bemorewithless.com
Chivers, J. (2019). Shop Your Wardrobe challenge https://myyearwithoutclothesshopping.com/30-day-shop-your-wardrobe-challenge/
Ellen Macarthur Foundation, (2017). Report. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/a-new-textiles-economy-redesigning-fashions-future
Fashion United Portal (2017). Fashion Industry Statistics https://fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics
Fashion revolution https://www.fashionrevolution.org/after-the-binge-the-hangover/
Le Page, M. (2017). The fashion industry can only go green by becoming unfashionable. https://www.newscientist.com/article/fashion-industry-can-go-green-becoming-unfashionable/
2019 Resale Report, Thred-up. https://www.thredup.com/resale
The Telegraph website. 2013. Everyone Buys to many clothes: Vivienne Westwood.
Vetta, (2019) 7 Bloggers Who Will Inspire Your Capsule Wardrobe. https://www.vettacapsule.com/blogs/blog/7-bloggers-who-will-inspire-your-capsule-wardrobe
Report on fashion consumption by mistra future of fashion foundation http://mistrafuturefashion.com/impact-of-swedish-clothing-consumption/