The good news is that there are some exciting consumer trends, new technologies and innovative business models, which are helping to lead the future of fashion down a more sustainable runway.
The shift to sustainable materials
Many of the materials currently favoured by the fashion industry face three interwoven challenges: resource scarcity, a lack of recyclability, and the fact that costs are expected to rise for some virgin raw materials.
As water scarcity increases, this puts security of supply at risk for water-intensive fibres like cotton. And as ever higher carbon taxes are put on fossil fuels, materials derived from petrochemicals such as polyester are going to get more expensive at the same time.
However, some materials already exist, or are being developed, which are far less resource-dependent, more recyclable and have longer lifecycles.
Learning to design for longevity
Designers and brands are increasingly pushing the advice encapsulated within Dame Vivienne Westwood’s mantra: “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last.” This is with the aim of shifting demand towards valuing fewer, higher quality products, which can command higher prices and result in lower total resource use.
Making clothes that last just three months longer can help cut 3% from the carbon, water and waste impact of companies in the fashion supply chain, according to WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan.
Rather than create things that go out of fashion within weeks or months, the principle of emotionally durable design is starting to take hold. This is encouraging the creation of items that people love, look after, and want to keep using for longer periods.
The adoption of circular economy principles
Due to the current way materials are used and a limited use of recycling technology, the fashion industry experiences up to a 75% loss of value from material use in the first cycle of production. But the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that an industry-wide move to adopt circular economy principles could add €160 billion in value by 2030.
Despite the fact that there has been cultural shift, where some items that were once second-handare now considered to be vintage instead, still only 18% of clothing in the EU is currently reused or recycled. But there are signs that the industry is starting to become more collaborative and circular. Major retailers including Zara and Marks & Spencer are introducing collection points for old clothes at their stores.
This is leading to opportunities to increase recycling rates. Materials like wool have been recycled for hundreds of years, but mass production technologies are now advancing so that more fibre recycling is becoming far more cost-effective. This is closing the loop, helping turn waste fabrics back into useful materials, cutting down the need to produce virgin fabrics.
The will to change
In addition to the three trends already discussed, one final important ingredient is helping to drive the shift towards a more sustainable fashion industry: the will to change. Alongside the fast-growing disruptive businesses, some of the fashion industry’s titans are making clear commitments to transform the way they do business.
Fashion isn’t going anywhere. Millennia of human history tell us that as we move towards a sustainable, low carbon future, people are still going to be dressing to impress. But if we are going to reach that future, the industry is going to have to fundamentally change for the better.