Why is Sustainability Important for the Fashion Industry?

As the world wrestles with climate change all eyes look to those unsustainable industries that are leading contributors to the ever-worsening climate crisis. The fashion industry is no exception. In 2019 alone this industry pumped a staggering 1.2 billion tons of carbon emissions into the earth’s atmosphere. That is more than all the carbon emissions from the aviation and maritime industries combines which makes the fashion industry one of the industry’s most in need of transitioning to a greener and more sustainable future.

Even after Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion condemned the fashion world for its unsustainable ways, the the fashion industry remains in dire need of a sustainability revolution. While many high street brands pay lip service to becoming more sustainable, all to often this amounts to little more than empty words. It still remains the case that fashion has a destructive impact upon the environment in terms of polluting water supplies with chemicals, destroying forests to grow textiles like cotton and overflowing landfill sites with unwanted or faulty products. This incredibly destructive supply chain that takes an extraordinary amount of energy to maintain is what ‘unsustainability’ truly looks like.

Picture of fashion industry waste
Clothing and textile industry evergrowing waste

How does the fashion industry contribute to environmental waste?

For too long big fashion brands have been blinded to what they have been doing to the environment in order to do their business, but now that more and more people are aware of the cost of fashion, it is becoming increasingly detrimental to their business if they are not seen to change and become more sustainable. Add into the equation the appalling social costs of fashion, as illustrated by the Rana Plaza Factory tragedy in 2013, and fashion brands really have had to work in recent years on improving the cost of their industry in terms of human life as well as the planet. This is a good thing and long overdue.

In the last couple of years in particular, the fashion industry has made a serious attempt at reforming itself and adopting more sustainable ways of doing business. For example, more and more brands are now looking to use more recyclable materials and textiles to make their products like recyclable cotton. More investment has been made into researching more innovative and less toxic materials like spider silk. High street fashion brand H&M have even released a range of products made from a leather substitute known as pinatex. This leather substitute is actually made from pineapple leaves and is just as durable and of the same quality as any traditional leather product. Even Levi’s have invested heavily into producing a more recyclable friendly denim made from 40% hemp, for example.

Besides fashion brands, luxury fashion wholesalers are also being pragmatic in overhauling how the fashion industry operates. Many are now making a positive difference to the levels of waste that often accrues with dead stock. Where this dead stock was often dumped into landfill, now wholesalers are working with big brands to ensure that this same dead stock becomes next year’s fashion. This means that each product has a circular life that will ensure that it is never discarded after a season and will always be used either through reselling, upcycling and/or recycling. Wholesalers are even supplying independent fashion outlets with cheap designer clothes as a way of cutting back unnecessary waste.

Sustainability in the fashion industry is increasingly top of the agenda of many fashion brands like H&M. In 2019 Burberry, Kering, Levi’s, Inditex and Gap all pledged to commit to a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030. While this is likely to be criticised as not going far enough, it is a start and shows that the fashion industry is taking the issue of sustainability very seriously indeed. Companies are now thinking about ways in which they can limit their impact upon the environment either through the reduction of energy usage or through more innovative ways of making their quality products. Burberry for example have already trialed a unique patchwork like system with its handbags, meaning that Burberry bags can be repaired and recycled more easily in a bid to be more sustainable.

Sustainability in the fashion industry will remain a problem for the next decade. Wasteful and unsustainable supply chains built over many years will take time to change as the industry looks to reform. And while progress looks slow to some, it is worth noting that big high-end fashion brands, high street fashion retailers and fashion wholesalers are now working together to make fashion more sustainable. Let’s just hope it’s not too little, too late.