There’s been some noteworthy statistics and information published about the environmental damage caused by, and unsustainable practices engaged in, by certain parts of the fashion industry.
In this guide, we discuss the different aspects of sustainability in the fashion industry, and whether fashion can actually be sustainable.
This guide is complementary to our guide on the overall pros and cons of sustainable fashion
Summary – Is Fashion Sustainable, & Can It Become More Sustainable?
Fashion certainly contributes to environmental damage in various ways from different practices in the fashion industry.
According to some individual sustainability indicators, some of these practices might be considered ‘unsustainable’ when compared to other industries
In particular, fast fashion might be responsible for significant environmental damage and other sustainability related problems
Some countries and companies may be more responsible for this than others, in part from greater rates of production and consumption.
There’s also different lifecycle stages that might have more of a detrimental environmental impact than others
Sustainability can be measured in various different ways – to get an idea of whether fashion is, or can be sustainable or not, you have to identify the individual fashion item (from an individual company), and also the individual sustainability indicator being measured
What we can see from different sustainability measures, factors that contribute to sustainability, and also measurements like lifecycle assessments, is that different fashion items from different brands might have different sustainability impacts across these different measurements
For example, polyester might be a synthetic fibre that is linked to greater GHG emissions and fossil fuel use, but, conventional cotton (a natural fibre) is linked to excessive water use, and also pesticide use.
This is just one example of a fibre sustainability comparison – there’s many more sustainability comparisons and assessments that can be made for other fibres, fashion items, fashion brands, consumer behavior in different countries, and so on
Something that should not be forgotten is that fashion, and more specifically clothing and textiles, is a critical industry in the economy and society.
Textile production employs millions of people worldwide, and provides an essential item to people (we have to wear clothing and use textiles everyday)
A conundrum countries face is that some fashion practices deliver affordable clothing quickly and in an accessible way (and provide jobs to people who otherwise would have few other options), but at the cost of environmental damage (that often no one pays for), and questionable or sometimes clearly poor working conditions.
There’s profit and economic factors that can be at odds with environmental, sustainability and social factors
Overall, it might be accurate to say that fashion can certain become more sustainable (according to individual sustainability measures) than it already is (a few options for making fashion more sustainable are listed in the guide below). Moving from fast fashion to slower fashion might be one major way.
There’s already been some great improvements made by, and more sustainable practices taken up by producers and consumers alike in the fashion industry.
But, more producers and consumers can still follow similar practices in the future
*Note – ultimately, sustainability comes down to the individual suppliers, producers, fashion item, consumer behavior and lifecycle variables at play.
Sustainability can differ depending on what is being measured, as well as where (in what country), along with other variables that can play a part.
For example, some fashion companies and individual consumers are far more sustainability conscious, and engage in far more sustainable practices than others.
First, Some Stats On The Environmental Impact, & Sustainability Of The Fashion Industry
Some key stats on the include but aren’t limited to:
[the fashion industry] second largest polluter in the world, just after the oil industry
[The list of environmental impacts and sustainability concerns include but aren’t limited to water pollution, water usage, microfibers in the ocean, waste accumulation, chemical use, GHG emissions, soil degradation, and deforestation]
Some of the main factors that contribute to industrial caused pollution [by the fashion industry] are the vast overproduction of fashion items [this is referred to as fast fashion – the amount of new garments bought by Americans has tripled since the 1960s], the use of synthetic fibers, and the agriculture pollution of fashion crops
Nearly 20 percent of global waste water is produced by the fashion industry
Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams, or rivers
… the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide
[the fashion industry] also emits about ten percent of global carbon emissions due to its long supply chains and energy intensive production
[the textiles industry has been identified as a] major contributor to plastic entering the ocean
Washing clothes … releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles
[the fashion industry] consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined
Crops like cotton (used in a variety of fashion and textile items) are very water intensive, especially in individual countries. Right now, India is an example of a country that uses a lot of water on cotton growing
[the fashion industry is] the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply
Fossil Fuel Use
… synthetic polymer polyester … is the most common fabric used in clothing. Globally, 65% of the clothing that we wear is polymer-based
Around 70 million barrels of oil a year are used to make polyester fibres in our clothes
Production, Consumption & Waste Rates
Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled with the average consumer buying 60 percent more pieces of garment compared to 15 years ago.
Yet, each clothing item is now kept half as long
85% of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated when most of these materials could be reused
[Socially, fast fashion is] linked to dangerous working conditions due to unsafe processes and hazardous substances used in production
Define what ‘sustainable’ means
Sustainable can have a general definition (i.e. having an acceptable level of environmental degradation, and using natural resources in a way that we will have enough for the future), but, it can also relate to specific sustainability indicators.
Sustainability can be measured according to indicators including but not limited to water pollution, air pollution, GHG emissions, waste pollution, and more.
Define what ‘fashion’ is
Fashion is generally clothes and other accessories, but, it really includes the wider textile industry that includes fabrics, garments, and other materials and items that are worn or used in a clothing or fashion related sense.
Within fashion, there’s individual sub-industries, as well as brands, supply chains, and so on.
Look at the different measurements/indicators of sustainability
It’s not enough to ask about sustainability in fashion.
You have to narrow it down to individual indicators for each individual fashion piece, by individual producers and companies, by individual consumers.
For example, for each item or product, from each brand, you might look at the impact on indicators such as:
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Resource use (water use, land use, feed material – fossil fuels, or natural fibres, and so on)
There’s also your own behavior to analyse – how often you consume fashion items, your waste rate, and so on.
Something else to consider is the life cycle assessment of a given product or fashion item. Some studies show that clothing in some countries can have 70% of it’s environmental impact at the production stage (for some environmental indicators), compared to the second most impactful stage – transport at 22%. So, specific stages might be more impactful to sustainability than others.
How Essential Textiles Are In Everyday Life, & The Importance Of Textile Related Industries To The Economy
Additional to sustainability and environmental impact, fashion plays an important part in everyday life, and also the economy …
Textiles Are Essential Items
Textiles are essential to everyday living. We need clothes for warmth, protection and to keep our bodies covered up, and we need bags to store items in and to carry them around – just as two examples.
For many people (and this can be subjective) – what they wear also impacts how they feel, and consequently, it can impact their mental state, self esteem, behavior and performance in everyday life. For some people, fashion is a strong passion. For other people, fashion is also heavily tied to status.
Impact Of Fashion Industry On The Economy & Employment
Fashion is immensely important to the economy and job creation.
We need clothes, and for many people – fashion contributes to their happiness and other factors in their life
[the fashion industry in 2018 was] valued at more than 2.5 trillion dollars and employs over 75 million people worldwide.
Improving sustainability in the fashion and textile industry
It’s true fashion has some sustainability and environmental concerns.
But, some companies and consumers are already taking steps to become more sustainable in relation to fashion and textiles.
Further to that, there’s many things that can still be done to further improve sustainability …
It’s hard to be perfect. But, some things that individuals might do to be more sustainable might be:
Consume less, and keep items longer – buy less frequently, and buy less clothes in total. Buy quality fashion items that are going to last a longer time
Get more creative – find more ways to combine different items of fashion for new looks
Look to buy secondhand or pre-worn fashion where you can, and donate or sell your used fashion items if you can (as opposed to sending straight to general trash/landfill]
Rent fashion items where you can (if you’re only going to wear once or twice)
Buy from brands that give transparent and thorough information on the ways their products are meeting specific environmental, sustainability, or social criteria
Buy items that are labelled with recognized third party sustainability certification that meets a certain criteria
Be aware of tradeoffs in certain fibres – polyester might use fossil fuels and have greater emissions, but cotton might use more water
Higher wealth per capita countries might consume more far more textiles per capita – so, the question has to be asked whether they have more responsibility to change than others.
[Some retailers are committing to renewable energy], a fully circular production model, where the by-product of one industry serves the objective of another, [reduction in greenhouse gases across their global supply chains and factories], [and committing to energy efficiency measures in onsite facilities]
[Small to medium sized enterprises, which make up 50% of the garment industry, might have trouble implementing sustainable practices at scale]
[in the Jeans industry – reducing environmental impact, recycling denim, and producing compostable jeans have all received time and investment]
Many of the changes needed to make clothing more sustainable have to be implemented by the manufacturers and big companies that control the fashion industry.
But as consumers the changes we all make in our behaviour not only add up, but can drive change in the industry, too
[BBC also lists several ways sustainable practices are being developed in the fashion industry in their article]
Complex supply chains can be another big challenge for producers and companies in the fashion industry.