The fashion industry is full of companies touting and marketing themselves as sustainable. Products like recycled, vegan, or carbon neutral clothing take the forefront in a vast array of products sold by companies which claim they reduce their environmental footprint. But is there any evidence to substantiate these claims? Or is it simply another case of greenwashing?
The fashion industry in fact is one of the biggest polluters, estimated to be responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions according to the UN. This is due to the structure of supply chains in the industry – the vast majority of brands outsource their manufacturing, and there is often a large disconnect between fashion companies and the source of their products. It is therefore unlikely, and in fact often impossible, that brands are able to work with suppliers to reduce environmental impact, considering they may not even know where their product actually comes from.
However, there are numerous examples of innovations in materials used for clothing manufacture, such as recycled fibres derived from ocean plastic. Despite this, just because the materials of the product may be sustainably sourced, the product itself is not necessarily sustainable. Only 38% of CO2 emissions in clothing and footwear production (2018, McKinsey & Company) are from the production of the material itself across its lifespan. Doing a life cycle analysis of recycled cotton jeans reveals that the environmental footprint of doing this is almost the same as buying and disposing of a new pair of jeans. Furthermore, using recycled material is limited by technology, and so not easily scalable – there is still a high cost for a low output.
Another issue is that claims of sustainability in clothing are grossly unregulated. Food products, can only be labelled ‘organic’ if they pass certain regulations, with punishment if this is not the case. This is not the case for the term ‘sustainable’, and its use can therefore result in greenwashing. At its essence, greenwashing is the use of marketing to create the illusion of products being environmentally friendly with no evidence of such. One example of this is the clothing chain Zara, which has clothing recycling bins in some of its stores. The clothes in these bins can often later be found in landfills in the less developed countries into which they are shipped. The bins do nothing to reduce environmental impact, but instead encourage consumption by reducing the guilt associated with new clothing purchases.
This constant increase in consumption is one of the fashion industry’s major issues. Even if companies reduce their environmental impact per unit sold, if there is a massive increase in the quantity of units sold their footprint will continue to grow. In fact, clothing sales nearly doubled between 2000 and 2015, yet their average lifespan decreased by 20% (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015) – this can be interpreted as people replacing their clothing more frequently. This trend has only continued up to the present day, save for a small dip during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Progress in the realm of the sustainability of clothing is somewhat hampered by the intense competition in the industry. Implementing changes to reduce environmental footprint often requires a raise in price for the product, and as a result of ample alternatives not only will consumers simply look elsewhere, they will comfortably be able to do so. Even if firms do reduce their impacts, they are a long way away from achieving sustainability; they can only justly be described as becoming less unsustainable.
However, we as consumers must take some responsibility. The growth of the fashion industry is fundamentally a consequence of consumer behaviour – the advent of trends such as fast fashion are facilitated by purchasing decisions. The most effective thing consumers can do is simply to buy fewer new clothes – this is a sure-fire way to reduce negative environmental impact. Of course, making existing clothes last longer or buying pre-loved are both good options. Researching brands to ensure that they have proven sustainable practice is also sensible during clothing purchases. Ultimately, as consumers, we decide which brands will succeed or fail, and we should use this power to help steer the clothing industry in a sustainable direction.
Murphy, N. (2021) Is Sustainable Fashion Really Scalable?
Indvik, L. (2020) Sustainable fashion? There’s no such thing.
Pucker, Kenneth P. (2022) The Myth of Sustainable Fashion