Overconsumption in the fashion industry
This is a guest blog post by Richard Vasquez Jr, a graduate student at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monteray. Richard participated in a project with Women Forward International and Fashion Revolution; as part of this he did some background research on overconsumption which informed this blog post.
Every day we get up and choose what to wear, but how many options are too much and what are the global impacts of the fashion industry? The number of clothes the average consumer purchases has increased 60 percent between 2000 and 2014, and the clothes are kept about only half as long. The fashion industry entices customers to buy volumes of on-trend clothing, usually of cheap quality at low prices. The rapid growth of the fashion industry can be traced to the advent of cheap clothing made from inexpensive synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels. Excessive production, poor quality textiles, low rates of use, reuse, and repair, and limited recycling mechanisms have turned the fashion industry into an environmentally and socially problematic industry.
The problem with polyester
The fashion industry owes much of their success to the abundance of cheap synthetic fossil fuel-based fibres such as polyester, which is now ubiquitous in the fashion industry. Polyester production has increased from 20 million tonnes in 2000 to 60 million tonnes in 2018 and is expected to exceed 90 million tonnes by 2030. It’s estimated that in 2015 polyester production alone was responsible for over 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, about the same annual greenhouse gas emissions of 180 coal-fired power plants. However, the true scale of emissions is unknown considering that the Fashion Transparency Index 2022 (which ranks 250 of the world’s largest brands and retailers according to the level of information they disclose about their human rights and environmental policies, procedures, outcomes and impacts) finds that just 34% of brands disclose their carbon footprint at raw material level. Synthetic fibres combined account for 69% of all materials used in textiles and are projected to reach 75% by 2030. The 2022 Index also finds that just 27% of brands disclose the breakdown of fibres sourced annually, which means that it is unclear which brands are the biggest culprits of synthetic material use — and relatedly, those most responsible for the human rights and environmental impacts of synthetic materials.
Synthetic materials have changed the fashion industry into one which prioritises increased profits and consumption at the expense of the environment and human health. The effects of overconsumption and reliance on synthetic fibres has long lasting environmental and social impacts worldwide. A recent report shows the consumption of clothing and footwear is expected to increase by 63% by 2030, with no industry wide solution, at present, for the disposal or recycling of discarded textiles. Textile consumption in the EU, of which most of which are imported, accounts for the fourth highest negative impact on the environment and on climate change, and third highest for land and water use from a global life cycle perspective. Although studies estimate about 5.8 million tonnes of textiles are discarded each year in the EU, the equivalent of 11kg per person, the true picture of clothing waste is not clear considering that the 2022 Index finds just 8% of brands disclose the quantity of post-production waste generated annually. Fibre-to-fibre recycling has only been able to capture 0.1% of textiles produced, while the rest end up landfills or incinerated — and according to the Index, just 12% disclose the tonnes of textiles or number of items destroyed or incinerated each year.
World Resources Institute (WRI) has estimated the 2019 GHG emissions from the apparel sector to be 1.025 Gt of CO2e, about 2% of the 49.4 Gt of global emissions. WRI also indicated that the emissions will grow to 1.588 Gt by 30 under a business-as-usual scenario. Of those, WRI calculated, based on 30 apparel and footwear brands approved SBTi targets, that approximately 96% represent scope 3 emissions. WRI has also indicated the use of coal makes up about 75% of the energy profile of textile mills globally. The lack of transparency and traceability of supply chain facilities in the fashion industry makes it extremely difficult to fully comprehend the scope of emissions and coal use globally. WRI notes that in order to stay within a 1.5°C trajectory the fashion sector must reduce emissions by over 1Gt by 2030, making it urgent to understand and track the disproportionately high scope 3 emissions and energy use of the fashion industry globally. Yet, a critical first step in addressing this issue is tackling the lack of transparency across major brands and retailers when it comes to their scope 3 emissions, of which just 34% are disclosing according to the 2022 Index.
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What needs to be done?
To address these issues, the fashion industry needs to acknowledge the issue of fossil fuel-based textiles and shift towards a circular textile ecosystem that encourages reduction of virgin fibre production, increased energy efficiency across the value chain, elimination of coal fired plants, accelerated development of innovative materials, reuse of discarded fabrics, and recycling of textiles. Mistra Future Fashion finds that doubling the lifespan of a garment, even just from 30 to 60 uses, reduces a garment’s greenhouse gas emissions footprint by almost half. Similarly, a study by Ellen McArthur Foundation concludes that doubling the average number of times a garment is worn reduces emissions by 44%.
Indeed, mending and caring for our clothes can truly be a revolutionary act in the face of an industry which has indoctrinated continuous and needless consumption. As ever, the most sustainable garment is the one we already have in our closets. However, major brands and retailers must be more transparent about their business operations and its impacts — and cease producing items they know are not ethical nor sustainable. Continuing to take more than we need (whilst in a climate crisis no less) serves to underline the reason we are in the situation we are today. Greater transparency and accountability are needed to mitigate the human rights and environmental impacts we are facing globally and truly achieve a more clean, safe and fair fashion industry.