Fashion's 'green' efforts go to waste if shoppers still overbuy, says report

  • Style
  • Thursday, 09 Nov 2023

The fashion industry's sustainability efforts could be undermined by the sheer quantity of clothes produced and purchased each year. Photo: AFP

From recycled materials and water and energy savings to reduced carbon emissions, every effort counts when it comes to reducing the textile industry's impact on the environment.

Except that, it seems that these efforts are of little or no use, as long as the volumes of clothing produced and purchased continue to rise, according to a new report from a British NGO.

Shopaholics are going to need to change their ways to help make the fashion industry "greener".

While it's hard to say whether overproduction or overconsumption is responsible for the textile industry's impact on the planet, it's clear that the two are closely linked.

Either way, the relentless increase in the number of garments produced – and purchased – represents an environmental disaster, according to a report by the British NGO The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), which argues that efforts to reduce the environmental impact of clothing are being "cancelled out" by rising production volumes.

"WRAP warns textiles industry as production levels wipe out crucial environmental improvements to fashion and textiles," reads the report's accompanying news release.

The report reviews the efforts made by brands and retailers who have signed up to Textiles 2030, an initiative designed to accelerate the British fashion industry's transition to a circular economy.

The report's key findings include the fact that the average person in the UK buys 28 new fashion items every year, or 8kg per person, which corresponds to over 500,000 tonnes for the country as a whole.

Read more: Even in Malaysia, fashion goes 'green': why is sustainability so trendy now?

Highlighting industry efforts

The Textiles 2030 initiative demonstrates that it is possible to make fashion "greener" and reduce its impact on the planet, especially when brands work hand in hand to make a difference.

Signatory brands committed to transforming the British fashion industry, including Asos, Primark and AllSaints, have succeeded in reducing the carbon impact of the textiles they produce by 12% and the impact of water use by 4% per tonne between 2019 and 2022.

This has been achieved through more sustainable design and the greater use of recycled materials and garments.

WRAP reports that brands are now using more and more recycled polyester and polyamides, in order to limit the use of virgin materials – that is, materials that have never been used or processed.

The report also points out that a significant proportion of the cotton used by the signatories (71%) comes from "improved sources", validated by programmes and initiatives working in favor of sustainability.

While these efforts have significantly reduced the carbon impact of their clothing, they do not appear to be sufficient in the face of overproduction and overconsumption.

Ending overproduction

A major problem is that all the measures adopted by the brands and retailers concerned have been negated by the 13% increase in the volume of textiles produced and sold since 2019.

Looking specifically at water consumption per tonne, the report states that the reduction achieved thanks to the efforts made has been cancelled out by the increase in garments produced and sold.

Worse still, overproduction has actually generated an 8% increase in water consumption, equivalent to 3.1 billion cubic meters.

And it's the same story for carbon emissions, the reduction in which was diminished by the increase in garment production, ending up at -2% (versus -12% initially).

"Textiles and fashion are responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions. We can see from the impact of Textiles 2030 that it’s possible to change this. But as fast as positive improvements happen, they’re cancelled out by rising production," warns Catherine David, director of behaviour change and business programmes at WRAP, quoted in the study news release.

"If we hope to get anywhere near achieving the critical goals of the Paris Agreement, we must get serious about textiles and everyone has a role to play. We need sustainable design, sustainable business models, and more sustainable ways of buying and using clothes from more businesses. But production is clearly the key issue ..."

Read more: Price and limited selection main barriers to 'green' fashion buys, says survey

Action at all levels

To avoid producing more and more, WRAP encourages companies to create clothing that lasts over time – that is, of higher quality and greater durability – while focusing on recycled materials, and recommends developing clothing rental and repair services.

However, the NGO specialising in climate action points out that the consumer also has a role to play.

"We’re working with companies to improve clothes, but the other part of the equation is our role as shoppers. We buy more clothes than any other nation in Europe," says David.

"Our research shows that a quarter of most wardrobes go unworn in a year and nearly a quarter of us admit to wearing clothes only a few times."

While this report is based solely on the UK, overproduction and overconsumption in the fashion industry is a global phenomenon.

A survey relayed by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) confirms that consumers of all nationalities admit to buying far more than they need, whether they live in China (60%), Germany (50%) or Italy (50%).

In Europe, four million tonnes of textiles end up in the trash or are sold second-hand every year, demonstrating the importance of acting on an international scale. – AFP

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