An overhaul is needed of how the fashion industry operates but also of how consumers buy clothes. It is only through this change that the dire impact the production of clothing has on the environment can be reversed.
A seminar hosted by Lombard Odier with a group of leading commentators on the fashion sector emphasised how the industry today is all too often a prime example of a ‘take, make, waste’ economic model. As fashion week begins in New York, we discuss the impact of the sector. Apparel still relies on a large environmental footprint, focuses on products that are often short-lived or used only rarely, with re-use and recycling still in its infancy. Business models will need to adapt in order for the world to move to an economy which is more sustainable and inclusive.
Dr Marie Owens Thomsen, the head of global trends and sustainability at Lombard Odier, said fashion makes up about 2.3% of the world GDP but accounts for 10% of CO2 emissions, as well as having a large footprint in terms of its water use and contribution to waste water.
“Fast fashion has been a very disturbing development. We now buy 40% more clothes than we did in 1996 but we keep them for half as long. This clearly has to stop,” she said at the ‘Unlocking style and colour in a sustainable way’ seminar.
The online event focused on what can be done in the fashion industry and featured a number of leading voices from Africa, which has a prospering textile sector of its own. Globally, just 1% of clothes are recycled and the rest go to landfill, the audience heard, and it is vital that the consumer is also involved as well as the industry in changing some of the wrongs that are being perpetrated.
“There is a really important role for all of us to play. We need to play that role if we are going to see the change we are looking for in this sector and in our world economy,” said Dr Owens Thomsen.
Slow fashion for Africa
Fashion is a sector which is wasteful not just in terms of the by-products it creates but also in the lost innovation, said Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, the founder and chief executive of African Fashion International and a high profile figure in South Africa’s business community.
There is the good story of fashion, she said, where new narratives about style abound. But the darker side concerns both the health of the planet and how different countries interact with the industry.
“We have this tension between, on the one side, a glamorous-looking industry representing exciting possibilities for the modern world and on the other hand decay stemming from a huge environmental footprint, low wages and poor working conditions,” she said.
“[There is] a sense of unfulfilled potential from many countries, including South Africa, where the industry could generate decent jobs in semi-skilled manufacturing but what we see instead is decline, job losses and no new investments. This tension is not sustainable. We are at a key transition moment.”
What gets shipped from Africa to the rest of the world are raw materials, the seminar heard, while what comes back is clothes for landfill. Some 70% of clothing for recycling goes to Africa which has brought about a large industry in the area- Yet the people who are employed in it have not been able to share in the wealth. “What is troubling is despite our contributions, they are uncounted and unrewarded,” said Dr Moloi-Motsepe.
And with the rise in fast fashion, many of the second-hand clothing that would otherwise be resold in Africa cannot be shifted, she said. This particular sub-sector must be confronted at a time when many people would be willing to pay more for their clothes if they are shown to be made with quality. “Slow fashion is potentially transformative,” said Dr Moloi-Motsepe but she maintained that investment is key in altering the production system.
Bringing in the consumer
While the consumer is increasingly being brought into the process of enhancing the sustainability credentials of fashion, many struggle to understand and be informed of the value of what they are doing.
Dr Owens Thomsen used the example of someone who returned an item to a large-scale fashion brand for recycling, which would then give them a voucher. The consumer would go on to buy another piece of clothing with the vouchers, repeating the cycle.
“We need better labels and different engagement from the consumer where we have to invest more in our own knowledge so we know what are the best practices,” she said.
Rayana Edwards, a businesswoman who founded Sari for Change, questioned why large brands would bring in products from their own countries instead of using local produce. “We need to put more pressure on brands to have more respect for our country and our labour force. Sustainability is also about localising production,” she said.
Investors also have to transition, and just like consumers, they face the challenge of figuring out, with often limited information readily available, how to invest responsibly in this industry, said Dr Owens Thomsen.
“We need to spend more time thinking about how we do things and this is important in terms of investment,” she said.