Is the fashion industry about to have its 'plastics moment'?

With MPs urging clothing brands to disclose impacts, consumers increasingly protesting "fast fashion" and documentaries on the true cost of cheap garments emerging at a pace, edie explores whether the fashion industry is set to have its "plastics moment".

The Environmental Audit Committee estimates that UK consumers are now buying an average of 26.7kg of new clothing every year

The Environmental Audit Committee estimates that UK consumers are now buying an average of 26.7kg of new clothing every year

More than a year after Blue Planet 2 kick-started a wave of plastics actions from consumers, policymakers and corporates, the war on plastic is undeniably still high on the sustainability agenda.

But in parallel to this rise in plastics action, sustainable fashion has made its own journey from being a topic discussed only by niche bloggers to one which drew the biggest audience in UK history to a select committee hearing just a few weeks ago.

This rise in consumer, Government and corporate attention about the social and environmental cost of today’s “fast fashion” model – in which low-cost clothing is mass-produced and designed for disposal – is no doubt being driven at a rapid pace. 

As with plastics, the fast fashion industry is now facing exposes on primetime TV, new scientific studies laying bare its full negative impacts and the emergence of alternative business models. Documentaries such as Stacey Dooley Investigates Fast Fashion and The True Cost – both freely available online – and media exposés on supply chain worker treatment at garment factories, including the infamous Rana Plaza, have fanned the flames on the issue and consumers are beginning to notice.

These trends should come as no surprise, given that recent research proven that consumers are now demanding more transparency from brands about the social and environmental impacts of their products – a trend which is particularly pronounced among the millennial generation, who routinely demand purpose beyond products before making a purchase.

With this in mind, it would be reasonable to conclude that fashion is well-poised to face its own “plastics moment”, set up to face unprecedented levels of scrutiny from the UK public which in turn leads to a wave of corporate commitments to revamp business models and resource consumption habits. But are consumers really leading the drive for a more sustainable clothing industry?

Planetary boundaries vs. consumer desires

The results of Fashion Revolution’s recent survey of 5,000 European consumers suggests that this is the case. One key finding was that 88% of respondents would prefer to buy from a company which engages in environmental protection than one which does not.

Similarly, Lyst’s recent annual year in fashion report revealed that three of the top ten most Instagrammed clothing brands are now classed as sustainable.

But speaking exclusively to edie at Bloomberg’s Sustainable Business Summit in London earlier this month, representatives from H&M Group and Burberry cited resource scarcity – not consumer demand - as the top driver for increasing action to bolster sustainability measures.

“As a sector, we all realise that we can’t continue to use the resources that we use today in the ways we use them currently,” H&M Group’s environmental sustainability manager Cecilia Brannsten tells edie.

“Fashion is an extremely wasteful business and brands won’t be able to survive unless we re-evaluate the way we think about how textiles are produced and used.”

Similarly, Burberry’s head of responsibility Pam Batty says the company’s move to interrogate the supply chains of each of its products until it can list at least two “sustainability success stories” on each item’s packaging stemmed from “a realisation that we can’t carry on operating in a system that is so very wasteful”.

The brand notably came under much scrutiny this summer after revealing that it had burned more than £28m worth of finished stock – but this disclosure ultimately led the brand to ban the incineration of unsold products.

Indeed, Batty maintains that this decision was taken first and foremost as a way to bolster Burberry’s resource efficiency, rather than to appease its eco-conscious customers.

Nonetheless, both Batty and Brannsten acknowledge that heightened awareness of sustainable fashion among consumers – which is beginning to foster changing patterns of consumption – has already begun to reshape their business models.

H&M, for example, recently launched garment repair and customisation facilities across its stores in France, Germany and Norway in a bid to encourage customers to pay for services rather than products. Its parent company H&M Group has additionally launched a behaviour change campaign encouraging customers to care for their clothing and extend its lifespan, which is called “take care”.  

“We want our customers to love and care for their products, meaning they can use them for as long as possible - our recycling scheme is only there for when people aren’t using their clothes, or when they reach the end-of-life stage,” Brannsten explains.

When asked whether H&M’s business model – which relies on sales of low-cost clothing and regular updates to collections – could truly encourage sustainable behaviour among consumers, she adds: “The circular economy shouldn’t be something that only people who can afford really high prices can partake in, so we want to democratise sustainable fashion.

“Since 1947, our business purpose has been to provide fashion at the best quality and price, and we have recently adapted it to include ‘in a sustainable way’."

In contrast, Burberry’s Batty argues that the luxury retailer's model already lent itself to resource-efficient consumption, with customers being “more mindful of the longevity of the products in the first instance”.  The British brand has offered after-care and repair services to consumers since it was founded in 1856, and last year handled 20,000 requests under these schemes.

“Even though a lot of the criticism has been directed at fast fashion and we all have slightly different challenges, it applies to all of us,” Batty adds.

Circularity and transparency

The comments from Batty and Brannsten came after the pair took part in a panel discussion on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Make Fashion Circular’ initiative, of which both H&M and Burberry are founder members.

Along with 16 other corporates, the brands have pledged to create business models which will keep garments in use, utilise materials which are renewable and find ways of recycling old clothes into new products.

But while they are moving at a pace to launch cradle-to-cradle products, bolster their transparency frameworks and investigate their supply chains, several green campaign groups, NGOs, academics and non-profits continue to argue that progress towards industry-wide sustainability is slow.

Among them is Fashion Revolution, which has a huge public following of 40,000 Twitter followers and claims that none of Europe’s 150 largest fashion retailers are transparent about more than 60% of their supply chain activity.  

Nonetheless, the organisation’s head of policy Sarah Ditty explains that progress towards disclosure, sustainable supply chains and resource efficiency across the industry had accelerated “significantly” in recent years.

“Five years ago, a handful of brands were publishing who their suppliers were – now, there’s well over 150 of them across around 70 major companies,” Ditty says.

“We’re seeing through internal conversations with brands that a lot of customers are asking who made their clothes, how they were made and how they are protecting the environment. The only way that brands can answer these questions honestly and accurately is by mapping their supply chains.”

Ditty also argues that despite some “laggard” brands doing “such a bare minimum that it’s essentially meaningless”, the majority are now leading the shift away from a “race to the bottom” towards responsible consumption.

“People do feel that the onus is very much on those who write the rules as to how fashion is made – those being big companies and governments,” she adds. “They know that consumers have a part to play, but that they can’t change the system on their own.”

A 'blip in fashion history'? 

Ditty’s sentiments echo those of London College of Fashion’s head of fashion design for sustainability Dilys Williams, who recently told the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) that the current global fashion model is “broken” – but that present issues could come to be seen as a “blip in fashion history” if ambitious action is taken by the industry now.

With all of these points in mind, it would seem that fashion may not be ready for its plastics moment just yet, and that the onus remains on corporates – not consumers – to drive the change. Industry leaders have admitted that they and their peers will not be able to succeed in the future if they continue their current resource consumption habits and encourage their customers to do the same.

But this could be a good thing. If change is driven from within the sector, corporates will be less likely to make “knee-jerk” reactions with unintended consequences – as some have done with plastics.

Resource consumption isn't the only pressing issue facing the sector. For for the few companies that have their house in order, efforts may extend to the supply chain, where human rights discrepancies and use of toxic chemicals continue to plague corporate sustainability efforts.

While only time will tell what 2019 holds for sustainable fashion, the time is now for big-name brands to address transparency issues and cradle-to-grave business models. The big question now is whether the sector can progress fast enough, before it loses consumer trust and exhausts planetary resources.

Sarah George


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