The fashion industry must undergo a system-wide transition to sustainable practices according to a new report. A global review published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment is calling for fundamental changes to the fashion business model, including an urgent transition away from fast fashion.
The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries, with the textile dyeing and finishing industry the biggest polluter of clean water after agriculture.
Despite the growing awareness of the enormous impact that the fashion industry has on the environment, fast fashion â€“ which relies on cheap manufacturing, short garment life and frequent consumption â€“ continues to dominate the industry.
Three in ten Australians have thrown away clothing after wearing it just once, a 2017 study from YouGov revealed. An additional four in ten admitted to throwing unwanted clothing in the rubbish, while 38% of millennials have bought more than half of their entire wardrobe in the last year.
â€śFast fashion pieces are viewed by the consumer as disposable garments since they are cheaper to produce and often made from poor-quality material,â€ť Associate Professor Alison Gwilt, one of the reviewâ€™s co-authors, says.
â€śNormally they are designed to be on-trend, which means that new products are constantly arriving in store all the timeâ€ť and superseding them, the fashion and textile design researcher from The University of New South Wales Art & Design says.
Academics from Finland, Sweden, USA, the UK and The University of New South Wales identified the environmental impacts of the fashion supply chain, from production to consumption, focusing on water use, chemical pollution, CO2 emissions and textile waste.
For example, the industry produces over 92 million tonnes of waste and consumes 1.5 trillion tonnes of water per year, with developing countries often bearing the burden for developed countries. During the lifecycle of a 250g t-shirt, 88% of its total water footprint occurs in cotton-growing regions to cultivate the raw fibre where water is scarcer. This is in stark contrast to the amount used for laundering the t-shirt in Europe where water is in abundance, despite 52% of CO2 emissions being produced during this phase.
â€śAs we look to a deceleration in fashion manufacturing it means that brands and retailers need to look at other avenues and opportunities for growth,â€ť Gwilt says.
â€śCurrently there is a real interest in the fashion rental and subscription service. For example, Rent the Runway, the US clothing rental service, has grown exponentially. While repair and remanufacturing services enable consumers to keep their garments for longer.”
â€śWhen a garment is sold on the shop floor, quite often producers feel that thatâ€™s the end of their relationship with the product,â€ť Gwilt says. â€śBut there is a discussion about whether producers should actually be responsible for the waste that they produce, and how they can they better support the extended life of garments through repair services, for example.â€ť
Innovative sustainably minded textiles that are currently in development could solve part of the problem researchers believe. Very recently new fibres and materials have emerged from easy-to-grow crops such as hemp, and waste by-products from crops (bio-based fibres) such as pineapple (PiĂ±atex), citrus fruits (Orange Fiber), milk (Qmilk), mushrooms (Mylo) and kelp extracted from seaweed (Algikit).
â€śSlow fashion is the futureâ€ť, Professor Kirsi NiinimĂ¤ki and co-authors conclude, but â€śwe need a new system- wide understanding of how to transition towards this model, requiring creativity and collaboration between designers and manufacturers, various stakeholders, and end consumers.â€ť
It seems that a collaborative approach will be the answer to an industry that has to change and has to do so quickly. The report believes that for this to happen the textile industry needs to invest in cleaner technologies, the fashion industry needs to develop sustainable business models and policymakers need to modify legislation.
The report also calls for consumers to play their part too â€“ we must change our fast fashion consumption habits and be prepared to pay higher prices that account for the environmental impact of fashion.
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