When it comes to fashion industry’s supply chain and production practices, it is established that the majority of consumers prefer to remain “willfully ignorant”. In other words, people just like cheap clothes and don’t like concerning themselves with any ethics ‘fads’, in general.
In a report published on Tuesday, MacArthur’s foundation exposes the scale of the waste, and how the throwaway nature of fashion has created a business which creates a truck load of textile waste every second around the world.
It is hard to imagine living in a world without textiles. Nearly everyone, everywhere comes into contact with them nearly all the time. This is especially true of clothing, the focus of this report. Clothes provide comfort and protection, and for many represent an important expression of individuality. The textiles industry is also a significant sector in the global economy, providing employment for hundreds of millions around the world.
These benefits notwithstanding, the way we design, produce, and use clothes has drawbacks that are becoming increasingly clear. The textiles system operates in an almost completely linear way: large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short time, after which the materials are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated.
The new report suggests that more than USD 500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and the lack of recycling: less than 1% of material used to make clothing is recycled into new clothing.
The report further describes issued created by business of fast fashion:
- Total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production, at 1.2 billion tonnes annually, are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
- When washed, some garments release plastic microfibres, of which around half a million tonnes every year contribute to ocean pollution – 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics. In other words, we may end up eating our own clothes.
- The estimated cost to the UK economy of landfilling clothing and household textiles each year is about £82m.
- The average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by 36% in 15 years.
Figures in the report reveal the throwaway nature of today’s fashion industry, which is based on a faster turnaround model, with more new collections released per year, at lower prices. Something the most successful high street apparel brands – and various apps providing earnings from showing off newly arrived to the stores clothes – are all guilty of. When put in perspective, more than half of “fast” fashion produced is disposed of in less than a year, according to the same report. ‘I can’t wear it again, I posted it in Instagram’ kind of scenario.
A recent study commissioned by Barnado's has found that modern women have adopted a "wear it once" approach to their wardrobes, with the average purchase only being worn on seven occasions. Social media fuels the rise of the wear-it-once i.e. being "tagged" online wearing the same dress twice, at two consecutive parties, is considered a faux pas.
The report calls for four actions to be taken:
- Phase out substances of concern and microfibre release, by aligning industry efforts and coordinate innovation to create safe material cycles.
- Transform the way clothes are designed, sold and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature, by scaling up closing rental schemes; making durability more attractive; and increasing clothing utilisation through brand commitments and policy.
- Radically improve recycling by transforming clothing design, collection and reprocessing; pursuing innovation to improve the economics and quality of recycling; stimulating demand for recycling materials; and implementing clothing collection at scale.
- Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs.
While the scheme seems sound and valuable suggestions are made like ‘designing and producing clothes of higher quality’ and ‘scaling up short-term clothing rental’, the practicalities of such suggestions are not given thorough consideration. As one 'wilfully ignorant' consumer might argue, clothes of higher quality will always command a higher price, which will never be attractive for lovers of cheap clothes. At the same time, short term rentals of clothes are likely to amass extra CO2 emissions that are voiced as major concern in the report.
Nonetheless, the report provides a great starting point for slow fashion advocates and wider audience. Full report is available here: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report.pdf
Growth of closing sales and decline in clothing utilisation since 200. Source: Ellen McArthur Foundation
Global material flows for clothing in 2015. Source: Ellen McArthur Foundation
Ambitions for a new circular textile economy. Source: Ellen McArthur Foundation