Fashion industry must undergo system-wide transition to sustainable practices

UNSW Sydney

Fashion industry must undergo system-wide transition to sustainable practices

A global review into the environmental impact of fashion calls for an immediate end to fast fashion.

Fundamental changes to the fashion business model, including an urgent transition away from ‘fast fashion’, are needed to improve the long-term sustainability of the fashion supply chain, according to a global review published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.

The fashion industry is the second largest industrial polluter after aviation, and accounts for up to 10% of global pollution. However, the industry continues to grow, despite rising awareness of the environmental impacts, in part owing to the rise of fast fashion, which relies on cheap manufacturing, frequent consumption, and short-lived garment use.

“Fast fashion pieces are viewed by the consumer as disposable garments, since they are cheaper to produce and often made from poor-quality material,” Associate Professor Alison Gwilt, one of the review’s co-authors, says.

“Normally they are designed to be on-trend, which means that new products are constantly arriving in store all the time” and superseding them, the fashion and textile design researcher from UNSW Art & Design says.

The academics from Finland, Sweden, USA, the UK and UNSW identified the environmental impacts of the fashion supply chain, from production to consumption, focusing on water use, chemical pollution, CO2 emissions and textile waste. For example, the industry produces over 92 million tonnes of waste and consumes 1.5 trillion tonnes of water per year, with developing countries often bearing the burden for developed countries.

During the lifecycle of a 250g t-shirt, 88% of its total water footprint occurs in cotton-growing regions to cultivate the raw fibre where water is scarcer. This is in stark contrast to the amount used for laundering the t-shirt in Europe where water is in abundance, despite 52% of CO2 emissions being produced during this phase.

These impacts highlight the need for substantial changes in the industry, including deceleration of manufacturing and introduction of sustainable practices throughout the supply chain, the review says.

“As we look to deceleration in fashion manufacturing it means that brands and retailers need to look at other avenues and opportunities for growth,” A/Prof. Gwilt says.

“Currently there is a real interest in the fashion rental and subscription service. For example, Rent the Runway, the US clothing rental service, has grown exponentially. While repair and remanufacturing services enable consumers to keep their garments for longer.

“The Swedish-based brand, Nudie Jeans, retails here in Australia and has been offering its customers a repair and reuse service for some time.”

While impacts from the production of cotton and polyester continue to create concern, there has been a global response to developing new innovative fibres and fabrics that aim to replace resource-intensive natural fibres, and petroleum-based man-made fibres.

Very recently new fibres and materials have emerged from easy-to-grow crops such as hemp, and waste by-products from crops (bio-based fibres) such as pineapple (Piñatex), citrus fruits (Orange Fiber), milk (Qmilk), mushrooms (Mylo) and kelp extracted from seaweed (Algikit).

While most environmental impacts occur in the textile-manufacturing and garment-manufacturing countries, the authors write that textile waste is found globally. Current fashion-consumption practices result in large amounts of textile waste, most of which is incinerated, landfilled or exported to developing countries.

“When a garment is sold on the shop floor, quite often producers feel that that’s the end of their relationship with the product,” A/Prof. Gwilt says.

“But there is a discussion about whether producers should actually be responsible for the waste that they produce, and how they can they better support the extended life of garments through repair services, for example.”

“Slow fashion is the future”, Professor Kirsi Niinimäki and co-authors conclude, but “we need a new system-wide understanding of how to transition towards this model, requiring creativity and collaboration between designers and manufacturers, various stakeholders, and end consumers.”

A collaborative approach is required, with the textile industry investing in cleaner technologies, the fashion industry developing new sustainable business models, and policymakers modifying legislation. Consumers also have a crucial role and must change their consumption habits and be ready to pay higher prices that account for the environmental impact of fashion.

Please see Nature Reviews Earth & Environment for a full copy of the review.

/Public Release.