Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability Contents

1Introduction - fashion & sustainability

Fashion industry

1.Fashion is big business in the UK. We buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe.1 The fashion industry was worth £32 billion to the UK economy in 2017.2 This was an increase of 5.4% on 2016; a growth rate 1.6% higher than the rest of the economy.3 The industry employs 890,000 people in the UK in retail, manufacturing, brands and fashion design businesses.4 According to consultants McKinsey the global apparel, fashion and luxury industry outperformed all other market indexes in profitability between 2003 - 2013 ‘outstripping even high-growth sectors like technology and telecommunications.’5 In recent years some UK high street retailers have struggled in the face of online competition, but UK manufacturing is seeing some growth and our fashion designers are going from strength to strength’, according to the British Fashion Council.6

Key facts & figures on fashion and sustainability

More than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.7

By 2030 global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons—equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts.8

The UN says that by 2050 the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles given the growth in global population.9

In September 2015, the UK signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals including a commitment (SDG 12) to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.10

2.The garment industry is reportedly the world’s third biggest manufacturing industry after automotive and technology industries.11 Our consumption creates jobs and growth in developing nations. It also leaves them with the bulk of the environmental and social costs.12 Eco Age warned that competition between countries for inward investment was driving a race to the bottom in terms of standards:

Countries have to compete against each other for inward investment and production in their jurisdiction. Because of this competition for lower wages and standards they are unable to raise their minimum wage to a level that provides for a decent life, that is, a living wage. There is a race to the bottom in terms of wages and environmental standards.13

Fast fashion

3.Concerns have been raised throughout the inquiry that the current ‘fast fashion’ business model is encouraging over-consumption and generating excessive waste.14 It demands a high throughput of garments and is based on a linear economy, according to the Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University.15 Such garments are relatively cheap, aimed at consumers who want to change their wardrobe on a regular, trend driven, basis. They are offered at pocket money prices. Short lead times means that wash tests and wearer trials are often not feasible, with implications for garment quality. Many are not made from single fibre materials and cannot be recycled.16 This trend is being copied by luxury retailers such as Louis Vuitton which offers small collections every two weeks. ‘Fast luxury’ collections are often stitched in the same factories producing cheap ‘fast fashion’.17

What is fast fashion?

‘Fast fashion’ is a term used to describe a new accelerated fashion business model that has evolved since the 1980s. It involves increased numbers of new fashion collections every year, quick turnarounds and often lower prices. Reacting rapidly to offer new products to meet consumer demand is crucial to this business model.

4.Many of our witnesses criticised the fast fashion business model for driving overconsumption, the production of clothes so cheap they are being treated disposably, and excessive waste. Stella Claxton from the Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University said that the value of much fast fashion clothing was low, not only in financial but also in emotional terms:

… if you look at where the growth in the retail market in the UK is coming from, it is very much from the low value end, particularly the success of online retailers—such as ASOS and Boohoo—who are competing on low prices and fast turnaround. I saw a dress on Boohoo that retailed at full price for £5 at the weekend. We have a market where these garments are mainly aimed at young women who are … [gaining] pleasure from what they wear and expressing their identity through their clothing, but the actual value of the item is very low in real terms, in quality terms and in emotional terms to them. The incentive for them to then recycle or want to pass that on in some way, or even for charity shops to want that kind of product in their shops, is very low. The opportunity for that end of the market to have a second hand opportunity is quite limited.18

5.The fashion designer Phoebe English says that ‘fast fashion’ has made the sector a ‘monstrous disposable industry’:

The overproduction of ‘fast’ fashion which will never be purchased or used and the insane speed which the sector churns out new designs almost every week means that the never-ending production of cheap fashion which is poorly made and will last only a few weeks and then be thrown away, has made our sector a monstrous disposable industry. The entire way the sector is structured so that the prospective sales orders are put into production rather than only making the production which has been actually ordered means that countless levels of wasted garments are produced.19

6.Others have hailed benefits of fast fashion. Dr Sumner of Leeds University School of Design said that the phenomenon was successful because it had ‘democratised’ the benefits of fashion:

Fast fashion has allowed all segments of society, irrespective of class, income or background to engage in the hedonistic and psychogenic pleasures of fashion. At no other time in human history has fashion been so accessible to so many people across our society. This is the power of fast fashion.20

7.The British Retail Consortium suggested that fast fashion resulted in less waste at the store and warehouse as it is characterised by smaller quantities of each fashion line sourced and quickly sold. It said that fashion retailers are using insights from production and consumption data to streamline their products and to minimise waste throughout the supply chain.21

8.We heard some concern that social media was driving faster fashion and encouraging over consumption and waste. Research by the Hubbub Foundation suggested that 17% of young people questioned said they wouldn’t wear an outfit again if it had been on Instagram.22 Online fashion companies have established relationships with online ‘influencers’ who advertise the latest fast fashion by modelling it on their Instagram and other social media feeds. Website cookies mean that retailers can target individuals with fast fashion adverts as they browse the Internet. Users now only have to tap on the photo to be told the price and get an online link to the clothes that influencers or reality TV stars are wearing.23 Eco Age said that stricter regulation for online marketing should be considered, arguing that there are psychological issues connected with high levels of consumption, as well as detrimental environmental and social effects caused by overconsumption.24

Sustainability of the industry

9.In 2017, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation published a New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future. The report set out how the textiles system operates in a linear way with large amounts of non-renewable resources extracted to produce clothes ‘that are often used for only a short time, after which the materials are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated.’25 It calculated that more than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling.26 In the UK WRAP estimates that £140 million worth of clothing goes to landfill every year.27

10.According to research carried out by Boston Consulting Group and Global Fashion Agenda for the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017, the sustainability ‘pulse’ of the industry is weak. It developed a scoring system to measure the sustainability of the sector and gave the industry a score of 32 out of 100 saying it is ‘not yet where it could and should be.’28 It noted that:

The best performers on sustainability are the very big players as well as some mid-sized, family owned companies, while over half of the market, mainly small to medium-sized players, has shown little effort so far. The rest of the industry is somewhere in between. This is confirmed by the Pulse Survey, where two-thirds of polled fashion executives have not made environmental and social factors guiding principles for their companies’ strategy.29

Interim report - retailer engagement

11.Our interim report on the sustainability of the fashion industry, published in January 2019, found similar results. We wrote to sixteen leading UK fashion retailers to ask what steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of the clothes they sell. As that report noted, we were impressed with the level of engagement by some retailers. Others expressed openness to engaging on these issues and have made some small steps. A few retailers, unfortunately, do not seem to consider social and environmental responsibility as a priority.30 We concluded that retailers have an obligation to engage with these issues and recommended that they show leadership through engagement with industry initiatives. A table of the retailers’ responses is reproduced at Annex 1. This report will consider recommendations to Government for policies to encourage a more transparent, fair and sustainable fashion system.

Growth of the industry

12.As the world population exceeds 8 billion in the coming decade, the fashion industry is expected to expand further. The Pulse of Fashion report projects that by 2030 global apparel consumption could rise by 63%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons—equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts. ‘Concurrently, soaring demand for apparel—much of it from developing nations—will see the annual retail value of apparel and footwear reach at least €2 trillion by 2030 (an over 30% increase of €500 billion between now and then).’31

The sustainability challenge

13.Securing a sustainable future for the planet and people is the defining challenge of our time. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C will be exceeded if we continue on our current path. Projections published in December suggest that global emissions from burning fossil fuels hit an all-time high in 2018–after remaining relatively static between 2014 to 2016.32 Current emission trends put us on course for a dramatic 3C climate shift by 2100, which will have major consequences for wildlife and communities around the world. Achieving Paris Agreement temperature goals requires climate-changing emissions to peak as soon as possible and fall rapidly thereafter.33

14.Recent projections suggest the world is failing to meet most of the existing international targets on biodiversity - the Aichi Biodiversity Targets - to slow the rate of habitat and species loss by 2020.34 The latest Living Planet Index–published by WWF and the Zoological Society of London - showed a 60% fall in wildlife populations in 40 years.35 Scientists are warning that the planet is now in the midst of a sixth mass extinction of species driven by human activities.36

UK commitments on sustainability

15.The UK has taken the crucial first step in its sustainability transition by shifting to cleaner sources of electricity since the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008.37 To meet our future carbon budgets and reach net zero emissions by 2050 - which the IPCC tells us is needed - the UK will have to go further and ensure that all industries play their part in reducing their carbon footprint to near zero. That will require changing our consumption patterns and improving our resource productivity.

16.In September 2015, global agreement was reached at the United Nations on a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to guide global development until 2030.38 In conducting our inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry we decided to focus on both environmental and social sustainability in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which the UK Government signed up to in 2015. Tackling the problems highlighted in this inquiry will help to achieve a range of Sustainable Development Goals, including:

Consumption levels

17.The clothing charity TRAID warned that ‘the over-consumption of clothes in the UK plays its part in deepening the main environmental challenges that we face at national and global level.’39 The UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production aims to promote resource and energy efficiency.40 At the current time, material consumption of natural resources is increasing. The UN says that should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles.41 At the Committee’s V&A event, the author Lucy Siegle suggested that:

A useful way of thinking about it is when we talk about the Paris agreement and carbon emissions, and we set a baseline of 1990, whatever we need to get the emissions down to, we should think about this problem in that way. If we use 2000 as baseline, we should be doing everything we can to reduce consumption to 2000 levels because that would solve a lot of problems.42

18.Professor Tim Cooper from the Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University argues garments should be designed and manufactured for longevity, but that a more difficult problem is how to reduce consumer demand for cheap, short-lived garments.43 He said:

Sustainable consumption demands cultural change. The throwaway culture applies to the whole economy, not merely the clothing sector. If consumers are to be encouraged to buy fewer clothes there needs to be a wider public debate on [the] future of the ‘consumer society’, including an evaluation of its benefits and costs.44

19.Professor Dilys Williams from the London College of Fashion echoed this, arguing that technocentric efficiency improvements are not sufficient to make fashion items sustainable if we are ‘still producing more and more of them.’45 She suggested that society would have to challenge ‘growth logic’ and develop different business models that involve less material consumption:

… technocentric approaches are not sufficient. In fact, there is evidence to say that efficiencies in creating one garment better have a rebound effect and we are actually using more resources by taking that approach. […] Do we want to sustain the fashion industry as it currently is or do we want to live within planetary boundaries and honour human equality? If we do, we do need to take a more eco-centric perspective.46

20.The designer Phoebe English said history would look unkindly on the waste and exploitation involved in today’s fashion industry:

I believe that we, and the waves of the new generation, will look back on the practices of today’s fashion industry in the same way we now look back at Victorian Workhouses, with utter incredulous horror. It is up to legislators and British law to keep up with the massive swing of ethical commercial consumer desire and how it can help form a better fashion industry and help obliterate its disgustingly wasteful practices.47

Our report

21.The way we make, use and dispose of our clothes all has an environmental impact. The structure of this report reflects these stages in the lifecycle. Chapters Two and Three will look at the social and environmental impact of how we currently make clothes. The amount of clothes we throwaway will be examined in chapter Four. New economic models that could help improve the sustainability of the fashion industry will be explored in chapter Five.

22.We want to see a thriving fashion industry in the UK that provides decent work, inspires creativity and contributes to the economic success of the UK. The fashion industry’s current business model is unsustainable, especially with growing populations and rising levels of consumption across the globe. Over-consumption and climate change are driving widespread environmental damage. The exploitative and linear business model for fashion must change. The various parts of the fashion industry must come together to set out their blueprint for a net zero emissions world. This will require reducing their carbon consumption back to 1990 levels. Given scientists’ stark warnings on climate change and biodiversity loss, we need to fix fashion.

1 European Clothing Action Plan, Used Textile Collection in European Cities (March 2018)

7 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (2017)

8 Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2017)

9 United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

11 Fashion Revolution (SFI0056)

12 Dr Mark Sumner, University of Leeds (SFI0026)

13 ECO AGE LTD (SFI0075)

14 Phoebe English (SFI0055); Fashion Revolution (SFI0056); TRAID (Textile Reuse & International Development) (SFI0010); Professor Tim Cooper (SFI0049); ECO AGE LTD (SFI0075)

15 Professor Tim Cooper (SFI0049)

16 Professor Tim Cooper (SFI0049)

19 Phoebe English (SFI0055)

20 Dr Mark Sumner, University of Leeds (SFI0026)

21 British Retail Consortium (SFI0019)

22 London Waste and Recycling Board (SFI0022)

23 Where Does it Come From (SFI0035)

24 ECO AGE LTD (SFI0075)

25 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (2017)

26 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (2017)

28 Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2017)

29 Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2017)

30 Environmental Audit Committee, Interim Report on the Sustainability of the Fashion Industry (Jan 2018)

31 Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2017), p. 8.

32 Global Carbon Project, Strong growth in global CO2 emissions expected for 2018 (November 2018)

33 International Energy Agency email newsletter ‘the energy mix: COP, CO2 & CCUS’, (10 Dec 2018)

34 WWF and ZSL, Living Planet Report 2018

35 WWF and ZSL, Living Planet Report 2018

36 Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo, Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines (July 2017)

39 TRAID (SFI0010)

40 United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

41 United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

42 Q108

43 Clothing Sustainability Research Group, Nottingham Trent University (SFI0049)

44 Clothing Sustainability Research Group, Nottingham Trent University (SFI0049)

47 Phoebe English (SFI0055)

Published: 19 February 2019