Fashion and our attitude towards it are part of the world’s vastly sized waste problem. How we think about fashion heavily influences the decision making of retailers worldwide, with many sustainability experts discussing how our mindsets can be changed towards buying, washing, reusing and recycling clothing. The reason? Because a different approach to how we treat our wardrobes would help support change in an industry that is frighteningly one of the most significant contributors to damaging the planet.
Depending on what you read, fashion is considered the second or third biggest polluter on earth, contributing to a diverse and complex amount of environmental issues. The Fashion industry faces an overwhelming amount of challenges, which even the most optimistic experts struggle to believe is possible.
Copious amounts of clean water usage, never-ending amounts of landfill, tiny plastic microfibres in our oceans, and unethical manufacturing processes are only a few of the issues retailers face to solve whilst protecting their current business model. Faced with pressure from customers, investors, the media, and the government to take responsibility, it is becoming increasingly crucial for clothing brands to create an enhanced circular business model whilst avoiding accusations of greenwashing.
“Happily, I was born an optimist and believe that we can change things. But I also believe that our species tends to wait until the very last moment before doing what’s necessary. . .I think there is a very real risk that we won’t properly address the climate emergency and the biodiversity emergency in time, and the consequences for ourselves and future generations could be catastrophic.”john ELKINGTON, AUTHOR, ADVISOR & AUTHORITY ON CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY & SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, IN AN INTERVIEW WITH DELOITTE
It is easy to google topics around sustainability within fashion, to find an overwhelming amount of facts and figures, or articles condemning fashion retailers and designers for not caring enough about the issue. The information available can be confusing, contradicting and misleading, making it hard for us as customers to know where and how to shop or who to trust. It is so much easier to rely on the clothing brands to take responsibility for making a change, but sadly the whole time we do, we make it more difficult for them to change. The reality is if we alter our shopping habits, they will as well, and much quicker. If we start investing in clothes with longevity, wearing them for longer and recycling them correctly, retailers will have the support to create successful business models based on our demand.
Having worked for volume-driven retailers throughout my career, one of the most crucial responsibilities of my job and everyone else’s in the company was listening to the customer to determine the business’s success. Brands will always pay attention to what customers buy each season, developing ongoing product strategies to maintain and grow their customer base according to how they shop.
The Noughties Brought Fast Fashion Gold For Retailers.
“Fashion was created to bring beauty to life, but along the way the business model became so profit driven and we forgot the connection between human and fashion. At this point, Fashion which was a dream has become a nightmare.”DR HAKAN KARAOSMAN, SOCIAL SCIENTIST – FASHIONSCAPES: A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
In the early 2000s, as I started my career, so did the era of UK fast fashion. Led by retailers at the time like River Island, Topshop, and New Look, who were shortly followed by current retail giants Primark, H&M, Asos, and Zara, all turning around fast fashion clothing in as little as 2 to 8 weeks.
Customer demand rapidly grew as cheap affordable fashion created fashion for all accessible lifestyles. Competition to offer customers the latest fashion trends quickly and cheaply became an increasingly important title to hold on the high street, one that is now extremely difficult and complex to make right again.
By the mid-noughties, supermarkets and value retailers fell head over heels with consumer demand as opening price points became lower and lower with good, better, best pricing strategies appearing, offering a variety of price points to the customer. A combination of fashion trend-driven garments alongside essential volume items all emerged with the intent to be worn once or twice, only to be ‘thrown away’ when the quality of the garment did not last, or a customer became bored of it when the trend died.
Fast forward to 2021, younger, online clothing brands have emerged, joining the powerhouses of fast fashion, building their sales strategy around social media trends and through the power of the fashion influencer. Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, and Shein have become fashion leaders in their own right, targeting Millennials (aged 25–35) and Gen Z (aged 18–24), known for being divided by their care for becoming more eco-conscious. Earlier this year, Zalando reported a survey of consumer behaviour and attitude based on these two generations, which found that “50% identified as sustainable consumers and 50% were actively engaged in fashion.”
“Our customers tell us that they care deeply about sustainability, but they really struggle to translate their values into actions when they go into stores or shop online.”a quote by Kate Heiny, Director of Sustainability for Zalando. taken from their survey of consumer behaviour published earlier this year
The Semi-Circular State Of Fashion.
What sustainable and circular fashion means can often be a barrier for some people, and understandably so. Circular fashion, sustainability, and slow fashion are all terminologies you may have heard with an overwhelming amount of differentiation in what they mean, creating a transitional state of fashion that is highly confusing.
“I don’t see any real circularity in the apparel sector, I see permission to shop”Veronica Bates, Independant Analyst
– Fashionscapes: A Circular Economy
When a clothing brand says they are “sustainable”, the truth is it can mean a broad spectrum of actions they’ve taken, which may or may not be effective. Misinformation is becoming a common trait within our society. In part, it is due to the lack of legal definition or guidelines available to determine what sustainability or circularity truly means when related to fashion. Actions are taken by retailers to make a change can also be contradicting in nature and less effective than they otherwise hoped; for example, using cotton instead of polyester can create other problems like increasing the amount of water used to manufacture. The media will often claim a brand is greenwashing, a term used to describe companies exaggerating how sustainable they are or making false claims. Yet this is also unmeasurable when the line between what counts and what doesn’t is so blurred.
“The use of such words is not regulated, so there is no legal definition of sustainability. Like for example you have the legal definition of organic. That is why everyone has a different opinion.”Susanna Koelblin – circularity expert, in Sustainable talks with n&N
We live in a world of Semi circularity where the meanings and measuring tools are unclear, leading to customers being misled or easily confused, not knowing who to trust and where to shop. Many retailers are persistent in their journey to becoming sustainable, having created a strategy within their business and being transparent with how far they have come. Primark, along with almost 90 other signatories, has signed up to initiatives like WRAP’s Textiles 2030, a non-profit company working with retailers, the government and charities, to create a non-competitive voluntary agreement for companies to share their experience and findings on the path to creating a circular fashion economy. It is tough to define what it all means for the planet or for us as customers. It certainly is a long and arguably impossible route to perfection, but many recognise it, and a vast amount is trying.
How Can We Make A Change?
As customers, we’ve always influenced retail buying decisions. Now is the time to influence them even more, but it’s going to take a considerable shift in our mindset to make this happen. With so much unclear, what can we do to help? The least damage we can do to the planet as individuals is by making our clothes last as long as possible, recycling unwanted garments, wearing old, and shopping smart, therefore supporting the fashion industry in becoming less linear.
“Thrifting Became a New Pandemic Habit That Is Expected To Stick”THREAD UP, 2021 RESALE REPORT
The Thread Up, 2021 Resale Report highlights that the second-hand market is projected to double in the next 5 years due to a considerable shift in mindsets towards the resale market during the lockdown. With numerous startups that have challenged the conventional way of shopping, rental brands, resale services, swap shops, and slow fashion brands have created a modern-day version of old fashion nostalgia for jumble sales, popular in the ’80s and ’90s. Jumble sales, a personal love of mine as a child, were held in a local church or village hall, offering tables piled high with second-hand clothes providing everyone with an opportunity to stock up with affordable fashion, otherwise unavailable from anywhere else at the time. This created a world of recycled quality clothing that became loved and looked after by people like my gran, who had incredible seamstress skills taught to her as a child. Thankfully today, this nostalgic charm is growing in new forms and looks set to be an impactful change in our future.
Clothes rentals and pre-loved initiatives are fast becoming a popular shopping destination for high street and premium brands, providing a similar online shopping destination for the customer at a more affordable cost to their wallets and little cost to the environment.
Shop Smart. Become more in tune with your inner shopper that appreciates the value of good quality clothing. Considered, more expensive purchases made us take care of our clothes before the days of fast fashion when we would wear them more often and make them last longer. Shop with slow fashion brands whose purpose is to create garments with longevity through both design and quality, offering trends that last season upon season and garments that will stand the test of time. Brands like The Modern Style, and Femme, provide a slow fashion handwriting in their product offering through minimalist, timeless styles that are made to last. Whilst labels like Molby The Label, Franks London, and My Favourite Things Knitwear provide quality, hand made to order items, minimising waste reduction.
Taking ownership, look after your clothes. Initiatives like The Love Your Clothes Campaign from WRAP provide advice on recycling correctly, offering support on buying, caring, and recycling your clothes. Repair services, bespoke refashioning, and sustainable cleaning products that help increase the longevity of garments are also available from companies like Kair Care, Reture.net, Blanc Living and The Restory. Take advantage of the financial incentives retailers offer to return your old clothes from brands like H&M, who have collaborated with Refashion and Never Fully Dressed, who have joined up with Depop, offering a discount on your next shop when you return clothes to them.
Think Circular Whilst Making Money. Online platforms like Refashion and Thrift+ offer you money back or spending credit for your old clothes, providing another alternative to online shopping for second-hand items. For those that struggle with embracing the hands-on experience of charity or vintage shops, this is a great way to encounter second-hand shopping the same way you would buy new clothes from your regular fashion retailer. They offer a one-stop-shop for multiple high street brands including Reiss, & Other Stories, Whistles and M&S.
Adopt “the plastic bag mindset.” Just as some would have found it difficult to start taking their own bags to the supermarket or otherwise paying for a plastic bag, trying to adopt a similar mindset of change could help in Fashion too. Creating a circular fashion economy is just as important. If you are an advocate of reducing plastic waste, apply the same thought process to buying and looking after your clothes. Retailers have a business to run. If the demand for quick, cheap turnaround garments is there, so will the fuel to feed the engine of mass production. If we adopt a mindset of purchasing investment pieces that will last longer, buy quality over quantity, and look after our clothes so they last longer now and in years to come, retailers will listen and change too.
Clothes Swap Events. Swapping clothes seems an obvious one, but how often do you lend clothes to a friend? Maybe you are ahead of the curve with this one, in which case try to encourage others to do so. Businesses and pop-up events like wearenuw, and thebigswapevents are also emerging on a larger scale to act as an alternative shopping destination for pre-loved clothes.
For more information on how to shop sustainably, sign up to N.A.A.M.E to be notified when my next article, “How To Have A Slow Fashion Love Affair” will be available to read.