Our clothes give comfort, protection, express our individuality and jobs – more than 300 million people work in the clothing industry. However, of all the growth it generates, the industry also encourages much waste: More than half of fast fashion is disposed of in under a year.
This take, make and dispose business model has outsize costs to the environment, society and the industry itself. Total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production clocks in at 1.2 billion tons a year, more than those emitted by all international flights and maritime ships combined.
Replacing this linear business model with a circular design will help recapture more than$500 billion in industry losses every year and still mitigate negative environmental impacts.
Major brands – Nike and H&M are already taking notice. Nike has instituted a sustainable manufacturing and sourcing index, which works to incentivize and reward improved environmental, health, safety and labor practices at the factories along its supply chain.
H&M has committed to using 100 percent recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030.
The fashion industry’s design and manufacturing innovations have risen a lot of concerns due to their environmental effects during production, use and after-use phases. Many of these threats can be designed out by creating new fibers that fill vital functions – versatility, lightness, and ease of care – but come with a lower production footprint.
One way to do this is waterless dyeing, an innovation that helps mitigate the industry’s toxic wastewater discharge from clothes dyeing, which accounts for 20 percent of industrial water pollution globally.
Keep materials in use
On average, consumers wear clothes 36 percent fewer times than they did 15 years ago. If the number of times a garment is worn doubled, greenhouse gas emissions would be 44 percent lower. Globally, customers miss out on up to $460 billion each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear.
Tastes, trends, and styles change, but new business models could satisfy the complex human needs filled by fashion without having customers buy, and then throw out new clothes so often.
Improving recycling would allow the industry to capture the material value of clothes that reached the end of life. Currently, less than 1 percent of textiles produced for clothing is recycled into new clothes, representing a missed revenue opportunity of more than $100 billion a year, not including the extra high costs for landfills and incineration.
To allow for recycling at scale, clothing design and recycling processes will have to be better aligned. It will also have to stimulate demand for recycled materials, by cementing brand commitments to recycled fabric use in clothing.
Where no recycling materials are available – virgin materials – textile production can become more renewable and regenerative by transitioning to more effective and efficient production processes that generate less waste need fewer resources, reduce water use, are energy-efficient and rely on renewable energy.
These renewable solutions can be cost-effective by reducing exposure to the cost volatility of some resources. The price of oil, such as has been historically volatile, exposing businesses to unexpected input cost spikes for polyester and other plastic-based fibers. Cotton availability is highly affected by water management and other environmental conditions which in turn lead to price fluctuations.
While there are ongoing efforts to decrease the negative impacts of clothing production, creating a wholesale circular economy in clothing requires system-level change. Stakeholders need to rally behind the goals of a new textile economy – setting ambitious joint commitments reinforcing voluntary initiatives and jump-starting innovation in all stages of clothing production. The drawbacks in the way we design, produce and use clothes are clear. With a circular design, fashion doesn’t have to cost us the earth.