Sustainability in fashion: from fast to sustainable fashion

The unsustainability of fashion

Textiles and furnishing textiles play a fundamental role in our daily lives as they are used in the fashion, medical, construction and automotive industries.

In recent years, the growth in the production and consumption of textiles has led to a significant increase in their impact on climate, water and energy consumption, and the environment.

The fashion industry is the fourth largest industry globally with an estimated value of around USD 3 trillion, contributing to 2% of the world’s GDP and employing around 75 million people.

As a result, it is one of the driving forces of the global economy and has a significant impact on the sustainability of our planet.

Inefficient use of resources

Over the last few years, the fashion industry has, in fact, experienced major changes, which are closely linked to changes in consumer behaviour.

Between 1996 and 2018, clothing prices in the EU have fallen by more than 30 % in relation to inflation, but, despite this decrease, average household expenditure on clothing has increased significantly. This dynamic proves that these so-called fast fashion models are not sustainable in a medium- to long-term perspective.

The increasing demand for textiles, and the consequent growing production has fuelled the inefficient use of non-renewable resources, including the production of synthetic fibres from fossil fuels.

The size of this industry also makes it one of the most impactful globally. Its use of a linear model characterised by low rates of utilisation, reuse, repair and fibre-to-fibre (closed-loop) recycling of textiles often does not consider quality, durability and recyclability among the priorities in garment design and manufacture.

The fashion industry is responsible for between 4% and 15% of global CO2 emissions and consumes more than 20% of water for industrial uses, a proportion second only to agriculture.

In addition, 70% of textiles are made of petroleum derivatives (mainly polyester, 80 million tonnes per year) and only 1% of these are recycled while the rest go to landfill (with decomposition times of a thousand years). This is why clothing is the largest source of microplastics in the seas (35%).

Looking at the consumption of water resources, it emerges that 93 billion cubic metres of water are consumed each year by the textile and clothing industry for cultivation and production activities.

This data, together with the report ‘Global fashion: green is the new black’ 2023 by Barclays, proves that today’s fashion system is characterised by an ‘unsustainable’ business model that will continue to grow at a significant rate.

In fact, according to estimates by BCG and Global fashion agenda, the fashion industry will reach a size of $3.3 trillion by 2030, with a 5% increase in negative impact on the environment. Also by 2030, significant increases are expected in water consumption (+50% since 2015), emissions (+63% since 2015), tonnes of waste created (+52% since 2015). While, by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry is expected to consume 25% of the world’s carbon budget.

Critical working conditions

Several factors point to our world having suboptimal environmental and social levels of sustainability.

The dynamics at work are closely connected with the emergence of the fast fashion phenomenon, which is based on the tendency of brands to offer approximately twelve collections per year, which are self-cannibalising, all characterised by a combination of low quality and easily affordable garments.

If, on the one hand, fast fashion has democratised the fashion system, it has, on the other hand, proven itself as not sustainable in the long run.

In fact, this system not only fuels excessive exploitation of the environment, but is also the cause of unfair working conditions.

To maintain the fast pace of production lines, the fashion industry often places its employees in difficult and dangerous working conditions. A historical example of potential consequences resulting from this is the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, where in 2013 more than a thousand employees died and more than 2.5 thousand people were injured.

The workers at Rana Plaza were forced to work uninterruptedly day and night in extreme conditions in a dangerous building. Despite several reports from employees, management pressured the workforce to continue working under the threat of layoff.

The factory owners knew there was a risk they could los their employment contracts with the large fast fashion chains, and consequently their economic revenues, often with the complicity of their own governments and institutions.

Even following the spread of this event on the media, exploitation in the fashion industry did not cease: very low wages, endless shifts, poor working conditions and no union protection.

Also concerning is the evidence emerged on forced labour. According to the US Department of Labour, there is evidence of forced labour and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam. H&M, Forever 21, GAP and Zara are some of the best known brands that have been implicated in these scandals. Children were found to leave help request notes in the pockets and inserts of the clothes they were making.

There are, therefore, companies that are parasites on the economic and social fabric of the countries where they have relocated their factories, with no intention whatsoever of bringing incentives for the human development of the local communities in which they are located.

Sustainable fashion

It is at this point that sustainable fashion becomes a real necessity.

As we have previously highlighted, the fashion industry is characterised by a strong, and growing, global impact on both social and environmental development indicators.

Based on this evidence, it is clear that there is now, more than ever, a need to work towards developing a more sustainable system. One that is capable of reducing CO2 emissions, tackling overproduction, reducing pollution and waste, promoting biodiversity and ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions for employees. These are just some of the crucial elements that need to be improved in order to concretely reduce the environmental and social impact of the sector and contribute to global climate goals.

Awareness of this need has triggered some important changes undertaken by some fashion brands which are beginning to recognise the increasing importance of analysing and assessing the environmental impact of their activities.

Despite this, it is noted that the consumption of fashion system products and the social and environmental costs associated with the sector continue to increase.

Therefore, to ensure a reduction in the environmental impact of companies and, at the same time, pursue economic growth, it is important for companies to adopt an approach based on the principles of sustainable development.

To this end, it’s important to keep in mind that sustainable development is based on three fundamental pillars, which must be balanced against each other, namely

  • Environmental sustainability: involves protecting the environment and its systems, managing natural resources wisely and reducing pollution and waste
  • Economic sustainability: implies economic development and prosperity that are robust over the long term and equitably distributed
  • Social sustainability: refers to social progress and equity that meet human needs, such as health, education, social justice, human rights and citizen involvement

Sustainable goals

During the 2015 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development in New York, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashionnated approved the 2030 Agenda, which clarified the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and its 169 sub-targets. The goals clarified at this juncture – directly or indirectly – are related to the fashion and textile industry as there is a strong interconnection between the industry and individual goals and targets.

In response to this challenge, the United Nations has, as mentioned above, established the UN Fashion Alliance, an alliance created to promote collaboration between the different UN agencies operating in the fashion industry in order to help them support projects and policies that ensure a positive contribution of the fashion value chain towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN Fashion Alliance aims to support fair trade practices, ensure decent working conditions, protect workers’ rights and promote innovation for a more sustainable future.

The Alliance’s goals are closely aligned with the SDGs of the 2030 Agenda as they include promoting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the fashion industry, minimising the use of natural resources, reducing waste and pollution, promoting equity and inclusion, and contributing to sustainable economic growth.

Obstacles and benefits of the journey towards sustainability

This sector’s transition towards sustainability therefore causes a series of challenges and advantages for fashion companies as they now find themselves having to take into account the demands of the market and of large buyers.

Despite the difficulties of implementing a new business model, this change towards sustainability encourages investments and forces companies committed to reducing their environmental impact to be better prepared to face the increasingly rigorous emerging regulations.

Finally, the adoption of sustainable practices can also attract a market of consumers who are increasingly aware and attentive to environmental issues.

The sustainable transition is a path that can, however, present obstacles. The first critical issue is, certainly represented by the initial costs linked to the implementation of more sustainable practices, such as the adoption of eco-friendly technologies or the review of production processes. These costs can be significant and require investments that are amortized over the long term. There may be a lack of awareness or understanding among some stakeholders in regards to why this change is important and necessary, a process that therefore requires continued education and outreach.

These elements, which determine the need for the fashion system to implement an effective transition towards sustainability, combine with the fact that consumers are increasingly aware and demanding. It is clear that today consumers are no longer satisfied with garments that are simply beautiful to wear, but also demand more information and greater transparency from operators in the sector.

Attentive consumers, interested in learning the production process of their garments, want to ensure that the methods, times and places of production do not contribute to deteriorating the environmental conditions of the planet and the working conditions of production personnel.

In support of this evidence, according to McKinsey, products with sustainability certifications or declarations have recorded an 8% higher increase in sales compared to other goods.