The top three sustainability impact areas in the fashion industry

It’s the turn of a new season here in the UK, from summer to autumn, which for many means sprucing up their wardrobes and indulging in some online shopping…me included! Autumn is my favourite season, mostly because I love autumn fashion – the colours, knits and chunky boots, a shopping spree is enticing!

But having studied and worked in sustainability now for almost 7 years, I’m far too aware of the devastating effects of the fashion industry, and the impact we can all have through our purchasing decisions.

So, what’s the problem with the fashion industry? There are a whole host of different issues within the industry, but for now let’s focus on three key areas: waste, carbon, and modern slavery.

1. Waste

Unfortunately, in the UK, 73% of the clothes we buy end up being burnt or sent to landfill. That’s roughly 300,000 tonnes of used clothing that ends up in landfill every year. Consumerism has reached an all-time high. Clothes are cheaper than they have ever been (more on this in the modern slavery section below), meaning the consumer can generally afford to be more wasteful and buy more.

If demographic and lifestyle patterns continue as they are now, global consumption of apparel will rise from 62 million metric tons in 2019 to 102 million tons in 10 years. This throwaway culture has reduced the amount of time an item is worn by about 40%. The average lifespan of an item of clothing is now just 3.3 years, worn an average of 7 times.

The consumer is not the only one at fault though. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fabric are wasted at each stage of production before it even reaches the consumer. This is called pre-consumer waste. Of the 1,100,000 tonnes of fabric wasted in the UK in 2016, 73% of this was pre-consumer, at a huge 800,000 tonnes.

This could be surplus material from cutting patters, surplus stock (brands over order by around 3-10% to avoid running out of stock, or even burn stock) or faulty items from printing/weaving mistakes. And it’s not just fabric. Around 20% of wastewater worldwide come from fabric dyeing and treatment.

2. Carbon

All this waste comes with a carbon cost. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. At this pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will surge more than 50% by 2030.

According to figures from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), it takes 3,781 litres of water to make a pair of jeans, from the production of the cotton to the delivery of the final product to the store. That‘s equivalent to around 33.4 kilograms of carbon equivalent.

In one month alone, the carbon footprint of new clothes bought in the UK was greater than flying a plane around the world 900 times. This is the same amount of carbon emissions the nation could save if we all took part in Second Hand September.

Second Hand September was set up by Oxfam to  promote donating, reusing, rewearing and restyling your clothes during September – and beyond! If you want to reduce your carbon footprint associated with your clothes, the best thing you can do is buy second hand clothes, or even better wear what’s already in your wardrobe. The most sustainable clothes are the ones you already own.

3. Modern Slavery

Waste and carbon are important, but as always, we can’t forget the people behind the clothes. Have you ever asked yourself ‘who made my clothes’? The likely answer to that question is a woman of colour, in a low-income country e.g. Bangladesh, employed under seriously poor working conditions.

A Bangladeshi worker would need to be paid 4.5 times more than the current minimum wage to afford a decent living standard and almost 9x more to support a family.  Unfortunately, garments are the second highest at-risk product category for modern slavery.

And it doesn’t just occur overseas. In June 2020 Labour Behind the Label published evidence exposing forced labour in Leicester’s garment factories.  The report revealed that workers in these factories were paid as little as £3 an hour and forced to work without social distancing measures during Covid-19 lockdowns.

This enables big, high-street brands to continue to grow profits and keep retail prices low.

There are steps in place to try and prevent modern slavery in the fashion industry, such as the UK Modern Slavery Act. But the reality is that supply chains are complex and visibility beyond the first tier is difficult.

The best thing we can do as consumers in the UK, is not only use our privilege and power to make wise purchasing decisions, but educate others on the far from glamorous side of the industry.

If you’d like help in identifying your modern slavery impacts or developing a sustainability policy or strategy, reach out to us directly.

For more information

Hattie Webb

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