What We Know—and Need to Know—About Sustainable Fashion

By Deborah Drew

We're in the middle of New York Fashion Week, and it's a good time to discuss sustainability in the apparel industry. Web searches for "sustainable fashion" spike in the fall and spring fashion seasons, and McKinsey rated it as a top issue for the industry in its 2017 State of Fashion report. However, what makes fashion sustainable isn't fully understood. Here's what we know, and what we don't.

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What We Know

Consumers are buying more, and tossing more. According to the EPA, Americans threw away 16.22 million tons of clothing in 2014, 71 per cent more than in 2000 and 822 percent more than in 1960. On the positive side, the amount of clothing recycled has increased from 3 per cent in 1960 to 16 per cent in 2014, but the sheer volume outweighs these gains.

Clothing demand will keep climbing. Between 2009 and 2030, population growth and industrialisation in emerging markets will lift an additional 3 billion people—10 times the population of the United States— to the global middle class. A booming middle class means more money to spend and growing demand for goods and services.

The fashion industry has a significant footprint on people, land and water. The apparel industry employs approximately 60 million people worldwide, but many of these jobs can be unsafe or pay unfair low wages.

Cotton farming uses between 2.4 and 2.6 per cent of global arable land, but is responsible for 24 per cent of insecticides and 11 per cent of pesticides. It also uses a huge amount of water—to grow enough for a simple cotton t-shirt requires 713 gallons—and improper irrigation techniques have caused extensive damage, like the tragic shrinking of the Aral Sea.

Many companies are using technological innovation to go green. Just a few examples: DuPont has made a biodegradable polyester called Apexa; Modern Meadow will showcase a leather made from yeast this October; and Thread International supplies fabric made from discarded plastic bottles.

Some companies are testing new, innovative business models that could address consumption. Companies like Patagonia's Worn Wear program and Eileen Fisher take back their clothes, fix as necessary, and resell to customers. Rental models like Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee allow customers to subscribe to a clothing service. The Renewal Workshop diverts clothing from the landfill and remakes it into renewed apparel.

What We Need to Know

We need to know how to define sustainable fashion. Though the technological innovations and circular economy models described above are important, we don't have credible ways to measure their benefits. On their own, they probably are not enough to solve the industry's sustainability problems—they're either too niche, or can't compensate for the huge production volume needed to serve a growing middle class with a resource-intensive, "take-make-waste" approach.

Rental, resale and repair services are promising solutions, but they need more study. With more information and analysis, we can develop a useful definition that considers what sustainability means for brands, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

We need to know the carbon footprint of the entire industry. Estimates range from 330 million to 832 million tons of carbon dioxide annually for clothing production, enough to heat and power between 31.6 million and 79.7 million homes for a year. Discrepancies aside, it's generally agreed that emissions from the industry are massive and growing—one study predicts that apparel energy emissions will grow as much as 63 per cent by 2030.

We need to know how much waste we are creating—and what to do with it all. One study estimated between 40,000 square kilometres (just bigger than Switzerland) and 120,000 square kilometres (just bigger than Nicaragua) of textile scraps are left over from manufacturing each year.

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Filling Knowledge Gaps

The first step is for clothing companies to embrace transparency. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which represents clothing brands, retailers, manufacturers and NGOs, has created the Higg Index, a suite of self-assessment tools that standardise how apparel companies measure their environmental and social impacts.

Understanding the environmental impacts of different business models is paramount if the industry is to evolve. Encouraging a shift in business models must make sense financially for the company, as well as environmentally and socially.

We know that the take-make-waste model is not sustainable. But how much better are circular models? Resale models? Recycling models? After all, recycling and reselling have their own unique impacts and must be acknowledged. How will a shift away from take-make-waste impact global employment or employment standards in the apparel industry? These are topics that WRI intends to explore while examining the challenges to implementing different models.

Deborah Drew is a research analyst at the WRI Business Center. This post is republished from the WRI blog.