How much thought did you put into the clothes you’re wearing right now? Whether fashion is central to your self-expression or just a side effect of having to get up and get ready every morning, what you wear has big implications. Like it, love it, or not, we all participate in one of the largest and most powerful industries in the world—and the choices we make as consumers influence whether this industry adopts sustainable practices. Globally, fashion is a $3 trillion dollar business and represents 2% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). While some of us keep an eye on the latest fashion trends, most of us ignore that fashion is one of the most resource-intensive industries on the planet. It accounted for an estimated 8.1% of total global climate impacts (or 3,990 million metric tons CO2eq) in 2016 alone.
Fast Fashion vs. Sustainable Fashion
Over the past decade, the “fast fashion” revolution has drastically altered the way clothes are made, marketed, and purchased. Fast-fashion pioneers Forever 21 and Zara led the shift to producing large volumes of inexpensive clothing quickly and create roughly 1 million garments a day. With a single pair of jeans requiring 2,000 gallons of water on average to fabricate, just imagine the resources required to yield the amount of clothing these retailers produce.
The good news is that the fashion sector is at a critical turning point. Socially conscious millennial and Gen Z consumers are driving demand for more sustainable clothing. Many brands—particularly luxury fashion houses—are making bold moves in response. Thirty companies representing about 150 brands (30% of the industry), including Chanel, Hermès, and Prada, have joined a sustainability initiative spearheaded by François-Henri Pinault, CEO of luxury giant Kering SA. Brands that have joined this climate commitment (the “Fashion Pact”) will aim to target emissions limits that align with the goal to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees (above preindustrial levels) and set similar goals to protect ecosystems affected by their activities, namely reducing ocean pollution.
The Fashion Pact is an important step forward as luxury brands can set meaningful trends for other retail or fast-fashion houses to follow. For example, fast-fashion chain Zara is actively working on shifting to more sustainable practices. Similarly, H&M is in the process of creating slightly higher cost lines with better, more sustainable materials. A mainstay in most of our closets, Levi Strauss & Co has made strong commitments to more environmentally friendly denim production, including significantly reducing their water usage.
Sustainable and ethical fashion aims to address the whole system: how textiles are made, which materials are used, how employees are treated, and what standards are applied (e.g., Fair Trade). In fact, ensuring workers around the world are treated fairly with safe working conditions and living wages is a core concern for sustainably-minded companies. Big brands like Nordstrom, Adidas, H&M, and others have joined groups like the Bangladesh Accord, Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and ACT Initiative, which aim to create transparency and processes that better protect workers.
We’re seeing more encouraging changes throughout the sector, especially concerning textile production:
- Evrnu, a company based in Seattle, is turning old clothing into new, high-quality raw materials. For instance, it takes used cotton, reduces it down to the molecular level, and reforms it into new cotton yarn that can be used again and again. Evrnu’s mission is to do more with existing materials and views discarded textiles as an untapped resource.
- Northern California biotech firm Bolt Threads is using the same principle as Evrnu, with cutting edge technology that generates more eco-friendly forms of materials like leather and silk. Stella McCartney (a well-known advocate for ethical fashion) and Adidas have recently partnered with Bolt Threads on a new sustainable fashion line.
- Luxury retailer Kering has supported and improved the market for more sustainably developed clothing as well. Kering and the Savory Institute, a U.S.-registered charitable organization, launched the fashion industry’s first verified ecological supply chain. Kering is also the first to use 100% traceable organic cotton, which has an 80% lower environmental impact than traditional cotton.
How to Become a Sustainable Fashionista
Raising awareness around the need for sustainability in fashion is important and complicated. As consumers, we may not be able to call the shots at the supply chain level or ensure fair wages for all fashion industry workers, but there are actions we can take to become a part of the solution.
- Vote with your dollars. We make the fashion industry possible. And that comes down to the simple choices that we make every day with our shopping habits. Ask #WhoMadeMyClothes and decide which brands and values you want to get behind.
- Recycle, upcycle, and buy less. On average, each person throws away 70 pounds of clothing and shoes per year (and most of it isn’t biodegradable). To reduce your environmental footprint, you can consider resale options like consignment and vintage shops, or retailers like Thredup or Rent the Runway. Keeping items for longer or swapping clothes with friends might be good options too. Avoiding the fast-fashion world may also help you move away from the wear-and-toss mindset.
- Invest in sustainable fashion companies. If you invest now or are interested in getting started, consider building your own sustainable fashion portfolio and include companies that are turning the tide for the fashion sector, such as Kering, Adidas, and Prada.
The fashion industry has struggled to find ways to tackle its environmental impact. While the industry has made significant improvements in recent years, those advances have stalled, according to a report released by the Global Fashion Agenda. Perhaps you can contribute to driving much-needed change to help the sector get back on track. Being part of the fashion industry fix will actually work toward a much bigger sustainability effort. If you’re not familiar with them, you should read up on UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Adopted in 2015, these 17 commitments offer a shared blueprint for a sustainable future that we can all work toward, including alleviating global issues such as climate change, poverty, and inequality.