Why fashion needs to slow down to avoid ‘shutdown’

As Extinction Rebellion (XR) protestors call for events like London Fashion Week (LFW) to be shut down, fashion brands remain worryingly silent about slowing product turnover before resource scarcity leaves them with no alternative, edie's reporter Sarah George argues.

Why fashion needs to slow down to avoid ‘shutdown’

Last year, London Fashion Week was a cause for cautious optimism in the sustainable business space. The event was used to showcase innovations a flax and parsley-based fabric, a hybrid metal fabric made from cans collected by homeless people and Stella McCartney’s latest vegan, sweatshop-free, forest-positive designs.

At the time, I wrote an edie piece detailing how future iterations of the event could “set the stage for a sector-wide sustainability revolution”.

If you were given the chance to glance through all the fashion-related press material to have landed in my email inbox since then, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this idealistic vision had come to fruition on the high street.

Zara owner Inditex is now targeting 100% “sustainable” fabrics by 2025. H&M now lists in-depth information regarding the supply chain of all garments on its website. Dozens of brands have begun eyeing carbon neutrality by mid-century and the elimination of single-use plastics, through collaborative initiatives.

To the average member of the public, all these propositions will doubtless sound not only positive but ambitious. But while they will all require a complete shake-up in how each of these companies manages their supply chains, the absence of one key facet of environmental sustainability is glaringly obvious – the question of resource efficiency and waste in an age of growth, scale and speed.

With many chains releasing new lines, not every season, but every week, the global fashion sector is currently churning out more than 100 billion garments and 20 billion pairs of shoes annually, for a population of around 7.7 billion. This process generates around 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and accounts for 5% of humanity’s water use.

Additionally, most of these products are designed with the linear economy in mind. By volume, just 1% of textiles produced annually are recycled mechanically or chemically. Donation could be the answer, were developing nations not already overrun with hand-me-downs from North America and Western Europe.

This is why, following its London protests this spring, Extinction Rebellion has turned its attention to this autumn’s biggest fashion events. Its largest sector-specific campaign, #XR52, urges members of the public not to buy any new clothing for a year, and to support a global “shutdown” of fashion events in order to shut down the entire industry.

As someone who works to champion the ways in which businesses can be a force for good, I’d initially turned my nose up at XR’s demands. Why couldn’t they urge transformation and ambition, rather than shutting down an industry which employs one in seven working-age people worldwide?

The answer, campaign lead Bel Jacobs told the Independent, is that the group “does not have time to chat about incremental change with high street labels”.  

That’s when the penny dropped for me; that no matter how bold any of the commitments made over the past year have been, none of them have contained time-bound, numerical targets for using fewer resources and selling fewer products. On the contrary, companies like H&M and Boohoo – the latter of which employs no sustainability professionals – are actually reporting significant sales growth.

A fork in the fashion road

But every cloud has a silver lining.

Since LFW 2018, I’ve seen big brands within the luxury space really begin putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to circular economy principles.

Burberry, Farfetch and Stella McCartney really stand out in this respect, and brands which are on the smaller and lower price-point end of the luxury spectrum are arguably moving even faster still, due to their business structures making them more agile. Rental platforms for designer clothing, such as Rent the Runway and White Closet, are growing rapidly – as are higher-end resale businesses such as PoshMark, ThredUp and The Real Real.

It’s great to see that resale, repair and rental are now becoming desirable and luxurious. The caveat, of course, is that luxury brands have (due to the culture they are selling and the budgets they control) been designing products with durability and lifespan in mind since day one.

Added to this is the fact that that shoppers are far more likely to properly care for a bag which cost hundreds of pounds than if they picked it up in the Primark sale for £5, especially when the cost of repair services are likely to be more than that of a brand new high-street item. As Susie Mesure puts it in her I News column: “It’s not only up to shoppers to buy less fast fashion. Retailers need to stop selling us so much rubbish”.

The big hurdle is clear: making the emerging business models for circular fashion scalable, marketable to mass culture, and, as such, affordable for the vast majority of us who can’t afford to buy exclusively luxury products.  

Looking around the high street, the signs of this becoming a reality are emerging – but at a snail’s pace. H&M offers garment repair and customisation services – but only at selected stores in France, Germany and Norway. VF Corporation sells upcycled items – but only through a certain platform.

Over to you

We will not, as Vivienne Westwood urges us to, “buy less, choose well, make it last” if doing so isn’t affordable and culturally accessible. It’s up to businesses and policymakers to make it so – before resource scarcity leaves them with no choice.

If you’re reading this as a sustainability professional in the fashion space, know that it soon won’t matter if your firm is making all of its clothing from 100% recycled, recyclable or biodegradable materials if it’s still releasing new “seasons” every week and pressuring people to purchase with incessant marketing material.

The climate strike movement has brought the issue of climate change and long-term sustainability to life and unified people in demanding nothing but the most ambitious action, culminating in the creation of new net-zero laws in the UK and beyond. Anything less ambitious would have been slammed as greenwash – or worse.

Now the movement has turned its teeth to fashion, there’s only a matter of time before fast fashion is placed in the metaphorical sustainability sin bin with big oil and unambitious national climate policies.

Greta Thunberg urges us to act as if our house is on fire, in terms of environmental loss. If that isn’t emotive enough for your board to take action, remind them that their house will be on fire, in terms of broken consumer and investor trust (and therefore financial losses) before they know it.

On the contrary, a bold shift to one-planet compatibility might just be the thing that sets your brand apart and saves its skin during a period of unprecedented closures for bricks-and-mortar fashion retail.

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