Trying to solve the sustainability and fashion conundrum

Welcome to our brand new section of the site which is going to focus on the sustainable side of retail. It’s exciting times for anyone involved in this area as technology and retailers try to keep up with customers’ demand for all things ethical.  From palm oil to fur farms, fast fashion to one use plastic, excess packaging to food waste – this is where the real action is.

Fashion under the spotlight

One of the areas in the car headlights of sustainability pressure is the fashion industry. We will be writing in the future on what needs to be done and who is doing it in this sector. But here to kick things off is an overview of what the scale of the challenge is. And it is big.

In a nutshell: The world grasps now that the fashion industry is a by-word for bad environmental impacts and one of the most polluting/eco-unfriendly industries on the planet. Whether it is the amount of clothes sent to landfill every year (300,000 tonnes in the UK if you are wondering) or the energy and bonded labour used to produce garments that might be worn, let’s say twice, before being discarded (200 tons of water for each ton of cotton if you are wondering), everyone knows that fashion equals rubbish. Literally.

Neither end of the fashion spectrum covers itself in glory. At the Primark and H&M end there is the huge problem of overconsumption and the fact that just far too many clothes are being made – in the past 15 years global clothing production has doubled! Yes, doubled.

But it’s also true that less than 1% of the materials used to produce clothing is later recycled into new clothing. A percentage is turned into stuffing for mattresses, car seats and so on but there seems to be a real reluctance to take the same attitude as towards glass or tin recycling, for instance, that it can be fully recyclable.

Of course, the primary problem is the massive reliance throughout the clothing industry on cotton which is not at all easy to recycle, Levi’s jeans is a good example. It cannot use more than 20% recycled cotton in its products before they cease to meet its own quality standards.  And either way, whatever technologies do exist, in the mind of the consumer it is charity shop or nothing when the £3 t-shirt has had its day, which is usually after a day.

But charity shops too are inundated with clothing of which only a fairly small percentage is sellable. The rest will be passed onto either a textile recycler, as above, or shipped out to developing countries which then see demand for their own clothing manufacturers collapse as their market is flooded with cheap, second-hand items from the rest of the world. Truly to be sustainable in the field of clothing is not an easy task for consumers, producers or retailers.

Not to say that people are not trying. ASOS’ Eco-Edit, for example, is a great and laudable service directing its customers to a dedicated part of the site to find very ethical clothing but it is symptomatic of the problem – one would need the whole ASOS site to be an Eco-Edit by default to effect the societal changes needed.

At the luxury end there have been countless instances of high-end names producing a one-off sustainable product but a lot less evidence of ongoing systematic shifts. Some big producers have impressive collaborations, think the Adidas trainer range with Parley for the Oceans made out of recycled plastic from the seas and there are small producers such as Elvis and Kresse, with its belts and purses made out of decommissioned fire hoses, and BottleTop’s ring pull bag collection also in the vanguard.

Plus it helps when taste makers like hold exhibitions as they recently did where all the items on show were made of repurposed atelier offcuts but in the main it still feels as though the fashion industry has an awfully long way to go despite its genuine desire to give the consumer what they want on CSR.

And at the heart of the debate lies the central paradox that obviously fashion manufacturers and retailers want people to buy more of their products (albeit made to higher environmental standards and using recycled ocean plastic) when what the world really needs is for people to buy a lot less.