Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability Contents

5New economic models for the fashion industry

133.Given the stark scientific warnings we face on climate change and biodiversity loss, we must reinvent fashion. Fashion that saves resources and energy, minimises plastic pollution, reduces waste and thrives uses a more circular business model. New economic models that rely on sharing or renting rather than ownership are emerging. From clothing libraries to baby clothes subscription services, upcycling and repair cafes and peer-to-peer vintage sales on sites like Depop and peer-to-peer clothes sharing on apps like MyWardrobe HQ, there are many new circular business models. Retailers could look to implement these, boosting the second hand market and helping increase the opportunities for extending the useful life of clothing. Action could include:

134.The UK has an exciting ecosystem of sustainable fashion businesses, researchers and designers who are already forging a new vision for fashion. The value of the ethical clothing market increased by 19.9% in 2018, according to Ethical Consumer magazine.294 In Autumn 2018 we teamed up with the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum to hold a hearing at the museum highlighting innovators and leaders in the field. At its Fashioned From Nature exhibition we saw a range of textile technologies that could reduce environmental impacts - such as apparel made from mycelium (mushroom roots), beautiful gowns made out of old plastic bottles, dresses made from reused army surplus, low-impact disposable paper dresses, and leather like materials made from pineapple leaves.

Levelling the playing field

135.We heard concerns about the extra costs and barriers that the UK’s sustainable fashion businesses face. Innovators are faced with competition from businesses who are focused on reducing costs and maximising profits regardless of the environmental or social costs. Christopher Raeburn said that the ‘current system favours brands that are located offshore, utilise unsustainable or environmentally unsound fabrics, and are unaccountable for the product at end of life.’295 Our inquiry heard calls for policy and incentives to level the playing field. Eco Age said that:

One of the greatest difficulties for companies is that the ones that aspire to respect human rights and environmental standards, are faced with competition from those that do not.296

136.Similarly, Kate Osborne, from shoe brand Po-Zu commented:

Sustainable fashion is competing on a completely unlevel playing field and this is especially apparent during the Black Friday /Cyber Monday holiday season. The reason fast fashion businesses can afford to discount so heavily is that somewhere along the supply chain, someone has paid the price–be it environmentally or through sweatshop labour.297

137.The fashion designer Katherine Hamnett called for radical changes to trade policy to level the playing field between outsourcers and domestic producers:

For the clothing industry to survive in the UK and EU, we need new legislation that only allows goods into our Economic Blocks that are made to the same Labour, Human Rights, Health and Safety and Environmental standards, outside as inside. This would raise the cost of outsourced goods and make domestic manufacturing (i.e. manufactured within our Economic Blocks) more competitive and viable. It levels the playing field between outsourced and domestically produced goods, as it costs more if you actually have pay and treat the people who make your clothes properly and respect the environment. It would improve the lives of all garment workers in the outsourced sector due to better pay, better and safer working conditions (a true living wage) and a safer and better environment.298

138.The designer Christopher Raeburn started his eponymous label in 2008 and became famous for remaking army surplus fabrics into imaginative new clothing. All of their products embody the ethos of the brand: remade, reduced, recycled - utilising surplus, recycled or renewable fabrics. Christopher Raeburn has recently been appointed as global creative director for major US brand Timberland. Christopher’s brother Graeme who is the performance director for Raeburn joined us at the V&A to discuss their vision for a sustainable fashion system. He suggested that the Government should tax materials with high CO2 emissions and reward the utilisation and upcycling of waste and deadstock.299 He said ‘there is opportunity here to stimulate industry and growth, and place the UK at the forefront of responsible, innovative and - most importantly - desirable and stylish fashion.’300

139.Leading sustainable fashion brands like Hiut Denim and Christopher Raeburn and heritage brands like John Smedley and Churches Shoes offer lifetime repair services for their products, but these services are not offered widely. Some smaller companies produce garments entirely made in England. Phoebe English says her pieces are made ‘from initial sketch to final stich [in England] in order to limit carbon and how much our product travels.’301 The clothing charity TRAID called on the Government to address ‘the structural causes of a throwaway society by promoting the repair and second-hand industry.’302 Professor Dilys Williams argued that we had to make it ‘viable economically for people, for businesses and customers’ to repair and reuse textiles. She said that repairing an item can often be more expensive than buying a new one, because we do not fully cost the environmental and social impacts of clothing production.303 Graeme Raeburn suggested the UK should follow Sweden’s lead, where the government is reducing VAT rates on repairs to bicycles, clothes and shoes from 25% to 12% to encourage repair rather than disposal.304 He also called on the Government to incentivise retailers to offer free repairs as part of the initial product purchase. The extra resources and wages it would cost to perform these repairs should be compensated with a tax break.305

Encouraging change

140.Dr Sumner from Leeds University School of Design warned that for policy interventions to be successful, we first have to understand the many positive benefits that fashion brings for society and individuals. Fashion allows people to identify and express themselves within their group and in society. It also provides excitement, fun and hedonistic pleasure:

Importantly, fashion satisfies consumers’ psychogenic needs; what we wear communicates who we are and our status. The non-verbal communication about ourselves through the clothes we wear is a vital part of society. This has been the basis for fashion for thousands of years, and our modern culture is no different. But fast fashion is so successful because it has democratised fashion and the benefits of fashion, especially through the omnipresence impact of social media. 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.306

141.Any solutions have to recognise and maintain these benefits.307 Dr Sumner says more circular models need to be developed for the industry that ‘incorporate the need for business growth, that recognise the desires of consumers and that retain the value of the industry to workers in the supply chain.’308 He cautioned us that incentives will be more effective if they do not compromise the ‘powerful hedonistic and psychogenic pleasures derived from fashion’.309

142.Researchers from Exeter University and the University of Wolverhampton contend that ‘the interests of the fast fashion industry, and the environmental need to reduce clothing consumption are not mutually exclusive, but contain marketable opportunities for the fashion industry to shift attitudes toward a more sustainable approach to clothing.’310 Their qualitative research findings suggest that ‘embedding pro-environmental behavioural change into clothing practices’ requires availability of long-term spaces in the community, where individuals can share knowledge and skills about making and modifying clothing. ‘This enables new ‘meanings’ to be generated about personal relationships with, and attitudes towards clothing.’311 They recommend incentivising high street clothing retailers to provide creative making spaces for customers to mend and modify clothing to provide a long-term, sustained service.312

Sharing economy

143.Many of the evidence submissions we received suggested that new ‘sharing economy’ business models for the fashion industry that involve hiring, swapping or subscribing to clothes services could be part of the solution.313 At our V&A event Graeme Raeburn said that ‘we have too much stuff already’ and that new loaning and sharing economic models could replicate the buzz of a purchase without the material costs.314 Phoebe English told us that the sharing economy would not only ‘make a huge difference to how we are consuming clothes but is also a really exciting business model.’315 She said that:

Trying to sell someone a hessian sack is not going to work. People want to wear exciting clothes; they want to be inspired. If you are not doing that then you are not serving the industry and you are certainly not serving sustainability. It is a case of really exploring ways where you can perpetuate the excitement of purchasing. If you look at psychological charts, the endorphin high that you get from purchasing something begins to wane considerably by the third day. […] With hiring you get that endorphin high constantly because you can have a new thing within your purchasing power, which can help transform you as a person and make you feel better and make you look stronger and more positive, and you can do it more regularly. If you look at it within that construct, it is a really exciting business plan that could absolutely be implicated within the high street and it definitely should be.316

144.Clothing rental services that offer one time or subscription-based rentals are usually internet based, offer womenswear, and focus on renting high-end pieces for a fraction of the cost.317 They offer consumers novelty without the need to purchase.318 In the US, the hiring service Rent the Runway was launched in 2009, offering designer clothes to hire for weddings, graduations or other occasions and now has six million members.319 On this side of the Atlantic, Bundlee was launched in 2017 as the UK’s first baby clothing rental subscription. Its founder Eve Kekeh said that she had researched the environmental and social effects of the baby clothing industry and saw the rental model as a way to extend the lifespan of baby clothes.320 She said:

Recently a shift towards the ‘access economy’ has begun. The relationship between physical products and individual ownership has been undergoing a profound evolution, as sections of society do not want the physical items, but instead want the needs or experiences they fulfil. […] The potential to combine clothing products with a rental service holds much promise as both a commercially viable business model and a route to achieving sustainable clothing consumption.321

145.We need new economic models for fashion which are based on reducing the material consumption associated with growth. The Government should explore how it can support the sharing economy. The Chancellor should use the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible companies. The Government should follow Sweden’s lead and reduce VAT on repair services.

146.Retailers must take responsibility for the social and environmental cost of clothes. They should use their market power to demand higher environmental and labour standards from suppliers. Offering rental schemes, lifetime repair and providing the consumer with more information about the sourcing and true cost of clothing are all measures that can be more widely adopted. Shifting business practice in this way can not only improve a business’s environmental and social impact but also offer market advantage as they respond to the growing consumer demand for responsible, sustainable clothing.

293 QSA Partners LLP (SFI0039)

294 Ethical Consumer, The UK Ethical Market (December 2018)

295 Christopher Raeburn (SFI0095)

296 ECO AGE LTD (SFI0075)

298 Katherine Hamnett (SFI0093)

299 Christopher Raeburn (SFI0095)

300 Christopher Raeburn (SFI0095)

301 Phoebe English (SF10055)

302 TRAID (SFI0010)

304 Traid (SFI0010); Q96; The Guardian Waste not want not: Sweden to give tax breaks for repairs (September 2016)

305 Christopher Raeburn (SFI0095)

306 School of Design, University of Leeds (SFI0026)

307 School of Design, University of Leeds (SFI0026)

308 School of Design, University of Leeds (SFI0026))

309 School oF Design, University of Leeds (SFI0026))

310 School oF Design, University of Leeds (SFI0026))

311 Sensibility 4 Sustainability (University of Exeter and Wolverhampton) (SFI0018)

312 Sensibility 4 Sustainability (University of Exeter and Wolverhampton) (SFI0018)

313 Phoebe English (SFI0055), QSA Partners (SFI0039), Clothing Sustainability Research Group (SFI0049);Professor Tim Cooper (SFI0049); mywardrobeHQ (SFI0020)

317 London Waste and Recycling Board (SFI0022)

318 Bundlee (SFI0021)

320 Bundlee Ltd (SFI0021)

321 Bundlee Ltd (SFI0021)

Published: 19 February 2019