Fast fashion footprint requires concerted action

Sarasin & Partners' Therese Kieve says fast fashion is damaging from an environmental and social perspective

One of the key challenges to a lower-waste world is fast fashion – an accelerated version of the fashion industry, which produces huge numbers of new clothes at a price point encouraging regular purchases.

While affordable clothes have made it possible for a wider group of people to explore the latest trends, it has also led to a ‘throw-away society’.

From the outset, textile production is resource intensive. The fashion industry is the fourth most polluting industry – after housing, transport and food. It uses more water and generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and ships combined. Moreover, the clothing industry’s carbon footprint is growing significantly – with CO2 emissions estimated to reach nearly 2.8 billion tonnes a year by 2030. If the fashion industry continues on its current path, it could use more than 26% of the global carbon budget required for a 2°C pathway by 2050.

Another significant problem generated by the fashion industry is waste. On average, people wear an item of clothing ten times before getting rid of it, and more than half of all clothes produced are only used for a year before being thrown away. These statistics are unsurprising considering it is often cheaper to buy a new item of clothing than to repair a damaged one. This means about 350,000 tonnes of textile waste ends up in household bins every year in the UK. Moreover, less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing.

Clothes are also a major contributor to the problem of plastic in the ocean. Washing synthetic materials, such as polyester, nylon, or acrylic, generates plastic microfibres. This sheds about half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres each year, which end up in the ocean.

Fast fashion is not only damaging from an environmental perspective, it also raises social concerns. The informal nature of the sector’s supply chain makes external scrutiny and controls particularly difficult. Cheap clothes are often produced in poorer countries, where workers receive very low pay and few rights. Additionally, here in the UK, concerns have been raised the workers at online fast fashion retailers still do not have sufficient access to unions. In this time of crisis, this may put workers at unnecessary risk.

Fast changes needed

There are some signs change is coming on the regulatory front. The EU has launched an updated Circular Economy Action Plan, which includes new legislative proposals to reduce waste and increase recycling rates – with the aim to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. The UK government has also declared it will introduce an extended producer responsibility system for packaging in 2023. Yet more must be done – and sooner.

In response to criticism, companies are also beginning to step up. ASOS is operating a closed-loop system where returned packaging from customers is recycled and made into new packaging, while retailers like M&S, H&M and Primark are participating in textile recycling schemes. However, the impact is not yet significant compared with the growth in demand.

With global clothing consumption expected to increase by 63% to 102 million tonnes by 2030, the final piece of the puzzle is changing our patterns of consumption. A societal move towards repairing, re-wearing or renting clothes could help encourage more sustainable behaviour.

However, we need governments and companies to do more to deliver this change. It is right for companies and governments to tackle the immediate covid-crisis, but we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. One thing the pandemic has shown us is the extraordinary ability of governments to mobilise for action. It has also been an abject lesson in the huge relative disadvantages suffered by lower paid workers, many of whom work within the fashion industry’s supply chains.

Therefore, we have an opportunity to learn from this crisis. Concerted action from companies and governments will give us the best chance of a sustainable future. As investors, we also have an opportunity to encourage better behaviour. While our exposure to fashion companies in our client portfolios is limited, we are engaging with those we own to increase circularity within the industry and protect vulnerable stakeholders.

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Natalie Kenway

Natalie is global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist for 16 years. She won Editor of the Year at the Aviva Investors Sustainability Media Awards 2021, and was Winner...