In the second article for the Environment Network blog takeover, Laura Cunliffe-Hall examines the environmental impacts of the fashion industry and how consumer behaviour is adapting to become more sustainable.
The joint impact of COVID-19 and the climate crisis has made 2020 into the year that the fashion industry and consumers alike are finally starting to wake up to sustainability. Tangible behavioural change is becoming increasingly evident as more eco-conscious consumers seek to source their clothing responsibly and ethically. Even in April when the pandemic was at a relatively early stage, a McKinsey survey identified that 67 per cent of consumers consider the use of sustainable materials to be important when buying clothes. Similarly, 63 per cent also look at the way a brand promotes sustainability. For many consumers, the pandemic was a wake-up to reduce consumption levels, with an increasingly digitalized-social life meaning that there was no need for a vast wardrobe.
This has been long overdue – the fashion industry has had an incredibly damaging impact on the environment. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for 8-10 per cent of global carbon emissions - more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Other adverse environmental knock-on effects include chemical pollution linked to cotton production and textile finishing, the harmful impact of microplastics and the deforestation of ancient and endangered forests for rayon and other cellulosic fibres. Whilst these impacts have been widely publicised for years, the ongoing popularity of fast fashion which peaked in the early 2000s, has meant that fashion has continued to harm our planet.
Fast fashion made it possible to buy more clothes by offering low prices and increasing the number of new seasons per year. Major designers and brands embarked on ambitious expansion schemes, upping production, incinerating old stock and encouraging shoppers to consistently update their wardrobes with looks ‘fresh from the catwalk’ or celebrity styles. As brands competed to slash prices and churn out more clothes, garment workers in developing countries have continued to be exploited and mistreated, explored by Amber Khan in a recent Young Fabians blog article.
Moreover, within the UK, shoppers have been particularly complicit in the rise of fast fashion. In the UK, each person buys on average an estimated 26.7kg of clothing every year - compared to an average 15.6kg for people across across Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. This penchant for over-consumption also created a vicious circle, with poorly-made fast fashion purchases falling apart after a few washes, perpetuating further fast fashion habits. Cut-price brands marketed their clothing as making designer fashion ‘accessible’ to the masses, yet in reality were ripping off people with lower incomes by making them buy more lower-quality items on a regular basis.
One such brand was Boohoo, with Pretty Little Thing, one of the Boohoo Group’s fashion retailers still advertising on its website with the fast-fashion friendly tagline ‘fierce fashion at your finger tips’. Recently, Boohoo’s harmful practices became front page news, facing a modern slavery investigation after it was revealed that workers in Leicester factories linked to the company were paid £3.50 an hour. With Boohoo stocks now dropping and other brands scrambling to distance themselves and consequently improve the sustainability of business and production models, there are signs that the fashion industry is starting to slowly adapt and scale back production in accordance with programmes such as WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP).
The continuing visibility of the environmental and ethical repercussions of fast fashion has meant that consumers are now more likely to display necessary due diligence when choosing who to buy their clothes from. Much like the phasing out of single-use plastic, fashion brands have a responsibility to encourage consumers to shop responsibly, thinking about long-term usage. Gen Z shoppers are leading the way, encapsulating a ‘buy less, buy better’ ideology, alongside ethical brands growing in popularity like Lucy & Yak, dedicated to upholding a positive environment and social impact. There is also an increasing appetite for change in high fashion, with key industry figures like Dries Van Noten signing an open letter calling for less travel in fashion and for the industry to “review and adapt fashion shows” and also mitigate the impact of the digital fashion weeks currently taking place in light of COVID-19 restrictions. Ultimately, such changes are necessary to lead to vital improvements in the long-term sustainability of the fashion supply chain and determine positive shifts in behaviours.
It is also key for the Government to introduce policy changes to enable a more sustainable future. In the Young Fabians Environment Network pamphlet ‘Ways to Save the World’, Young Fabians Vice-Chair Carolina Saludes recommends making full disclosure of supply chains compulsory for large retailers, with results published on the Government’s website, alongside requiring manufacturers to add sustainability metrics to clothing labelling and product descriptions. Policies like these would ensure that the fashion industry is rebalanced and mobilised around climate action, bringing us closer to the circular model.
It’s time for the fashion industry to slow down, re-adjust the messaging and language of consumption and for consumers to continue to play their part and leave fast fashion behind to protect the health and wellbeing of our environment and garment workers.
Laura Cunliffe-Hall is Communications Officer for the Young Fabians Environment Network. Laura works for a communications consultancy, specialising in stakeholder engagement and public affairs. Laura is an advocate for climate justice, social mobility and educational outreach. She writes in a personal capacity.
She tweets at @LauraHall1995
 The survey was conducted between April 14 and April 22, 2020, across 2,004 German and UK consumers aged 18 and older who had bought apparel or footwear in the prior six months. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/survey-consumer-sentiment-on-sustainability-in-fashion
 European Clothing Action Plan: Used Textile Collection in European Cities https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SCTRmuj_rDA_FeVsLUKIdoQrSyie8EDX/view
 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-28/boohoo-plunges-after-suspending-business-with-suppliers; https://www.retailgazette.co.uk/blog/2020/09/is-sustainability-killing-off-fast-fashion-for-good/