Fashion wants to improve on sustainability, but its plan has a huge hole


Even the best materials can’t counteract a production volume of three billion garments per year, or investor expectations of beating out fast-fashion competitors. Photo:

Last week was New York Fashion Week, and on Monday (Sept 19) Climate Week will come to the Big Apple. At the intersection of these annual showcases lies an uncomfortable truth.

No one has figured out how to credibly align climate goals with fashion’s current business model. Retailers have in the past few years announced a slew of sustainability measures – practically every company in the industry has a plan, or a plan to make a plan, for changing how they manufacture products to be greener, and extending those products’ lifespan.

These initiatives have given rise to the buzzword of "circularity”, and are geared at reckoning with fashion’s enormous climate footprint.

Read more: 'Earth is now our only shareholder': Patagonia owner gives away fashion brand

According to the United Nations, the industry contributes between 2% and 8% of global carbon emissions. But that’s where things get awkward.

As of now, there’s little discussion about just how many goods a company should be producing to hit its environmental targets. Instead, bold strategies abound to keep businesses in expansion mode.

"Many, many companies are starting to realise they have a situation that appears irreconcilable,” said Elisa Niemtzow, vice president of consumer sectors and global membership at the sustainability consulting company BSR.

"The concept of degrowth and alternative business models, or alternative models to growth, can be words that make people uncomfortable.”

Take H&M. The Swedish retailer has pledged to cut its emissions 56% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels, earning a "B” for its 2021 climate disclosures from the third-party nonprofit CDP. That’s on top of H&M moving to reduce its water and plastic use and rely on more recycled materials.

But even the best materials can’t counteract a production volume of three billion garments per year, or investor expectations of beating out fast-fashion competitors.

Is it even possible to decouple climate goals from that kind of strategy? Many scientists engaging with BSR don’t seem to think so.

"Scientists generally would say that decoupling is actually not possible, or it could be possible for emissions but not for resource use,” Niemtzow said.

"And even if it could be in theory possible, it's extremely unlikely to ever happen.”

Some companies are trying. In the luxury space, Gucci managed to cut its emissions 15% compared to 2019 levels while still boosting sales, Business Of Fashion reported.

Alternative models on offer include capping growth, focusing on fewer, higher-quality items, and narrowing inventory to climate-friendly options – though it’s unclear how these approaches scale over time.

There are also entire businesses springing up around reselling everything from apparel to furniture, or renting goods to avoid new production entirely.

Read more: How the 'keep or return' challenge is driving hyper-consumption and fast fashion

The rise in resale, rental, repair and remaking businesses, aka more circular ones, could potentially cut fashion’s climate footprint by about a third of what’s needed to keep the 1.5-degree Celsius goal alive, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

"I think the sustainability people in the fashion space have been talking about the elephants in the room of overproduction and overconsumption for several years now,” Niemtzow said, adding that companies are at least starting to be pulled into the conversation.

"We’re still all searching for the right models to guide us.” – Bloomberg

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!

fashion , green fashion , sustainability


Next In Style

Cocooning, hunkering down: Comfort clothing is the next big fashion trend
This South African denim brand has won praises from Beyonce and Meghan Markle
Vanity Fare: A look at fragrances for different unique personalities
Milan Fashion Week launches initiative to promote inclusion across the industry
Bag charmers: The fashion trend of decorative trinkets makes a comeback
Milan Fashion Week set to fire up runways despite cautious outlook for luxury
Play it cool: Fashion this season is all about an effortless, yet bold style
Skin doctors caution against kids using beauty products meant for adults
Ask The Expert: What are the most stylish and trendy eyewear right now?
Advocating sustainability: EcoQueen founders on making a positive impact

Others Also Read