According to The United Nations Environment Programme, the fashion industry is responsible for a staggering 10% of annual global carbon emissions.
While many brands have made commendable efforts to switch to more sustainable practices, and consumers are eager to purchase sustainable fashion products, Joe Cook, Vice President of Delta Global, a sustainable packaging solutions provider for luxury fashion brands, believes a mass shift to sustainable consumerism can drive the industry to make vast cuts to carbon emissions.
Watching the news recently, two reports moved me for two very different reasons. The devastating floods in Germany reminded us, once again, of the tragic consequences of climate change. The second story, the pursuit of ‘marginal gains’ by awe-inspiring Olympic athletes, reminded me of why I believe in sustainable consumerism. Before I explain how and why, allow me a slight detour.
The criticism of sustainable consumerism is that it is still, in fact, consumerism. Yes, it may be that you are selecting products manufactured ethically, but without massive structural shifts in manufacturing, marketing, pricing, recycling and government policy, a purchase of goods at any level will still leave – or extend – a carbon footprint, that leads to the saddening scenes such as those we witnessed in Germany.
The essence of the argument is that the waste stream is already overloaded. What difference does recycling make anyway when, in the US, only around 35% of waste is sent to be recycled – a figure that does not account for how much waste is actually recycled.
It is an argument that isn’t devoid of merit. It does, however, avoid the significant impracticalities that consumers would contend with if they adhered strictly to a rigid alternative. Neither has a realistic alternative been proposed.
Which brings me back to the concept of marginal gains. Olympians and their coaches work for four years in an attempt make small, incremental improvements. When added together, these improvements become a significant one. When a significant improvement is made, records are broken and the nature of the event is altered for good, with higher standards required, over time, to reach the standard benchmark.
And this is precisely what we, as consumers, need to do: make small, incremental improvements in our shopping habits. If normalised by mass participation, these improvements can shift the standard benchmark so that fashion brands and retailers are required to meet new, sustainability norms.
I am certain that such a shift is achievable. Firstly, there are existing and practical sustainable consumerism practices that could be developed and popularised further. And, with Gen Z entering the workforce, there is a significant consumer base who prioritise sustainability much more than previous generations. Indeed, around 62% of this generation prefer to buy from sustainable sources. Gen Z is a generation for which the phrase ‘saving money to save the planet’ has meaning.
Viewing the entire fashion industry as an ugly head of capitalism without concern to anything but profits is futile. At Delta Global, we’ve worked with brands like Tom Ford, Coach and MatchesFashion. We’ve helped those labels to produce sustainable packaging. Brands and retailers, overall, do care about their carbon footprint. They, after all, occupy the same planet as we do.
We work primarily within the luxury sector. That means we do not encounter brands who deal in fast fashion, which has attracted much criticism regarding its sustainability. Those brands would answer that argument by pointing to their sales and popularity. We are, they will say, only responding to consumer demands.
It’s a hard argument to refute. Which makes it critical to shift our consumer habits, forcing the more reckless producers of fast fashion to reassess their practices. One of the easiest ways we can do this is via the resale market.
There are already lots of resale platforms, some of which have gained considerable success. In the US luxury sector, thredUP and Poshmark are especially popular and successful, reaching valuations of $1.3 billion and $7.5 billion respectively.
These types of apps will be vital to resale market growth. While I would never discourage anyone to donate clothing, it is worth remembering how difficult it is to recycle textiles. Most clothes feature accessories, fixtures, labels and components that can make them unrecyclable. Globally, only 12% of clothing materials end up being recycled.
Resale has the great advantage of placing used clothing in the hands of somebody who wants to wear it. This is much preferable than having them end up in landfills. And, once the biggest fashion brands enable resale at mass market scale, taking ownership of resale through their own stores and ecosystems, it will become a consumer norm.
This is, tentatively, beginning to occur. We’ve already seen Gucci partner with the resale specialists The RealReal and use Alexander McQueen use Vestiaire Collective to explore resales on its own site. More luxury labels will surely follow.
Around a year ago, a new word entered fashion vernacular – Swishing. Named after the noise of rustling through clothing rails, Swishing is the expression coined by Futerra CEO Lucy Shea for swapping clothes, albeit in the setting of champagne gathering.
Like resale, swapping clothes means unwanted items have a greater chance of avoiding the incinerator. Shea has discovered that, if you host an event in plush surroundings providing an event rather than a venue for cold exchange, then plenty of people find the appeal of free clothing alluring.
Her website has around 10,000 visits per month. Swishing parties are now hosted across the globe and the term has become the generic word for clothes-swapping parties. People are encouraged to bring clothes they’d be “proud to pass on” and, given the party-feel of the meetups, designer labels are more commonly encountered than moth-eaten castoffs.
The UK alone discards around 1 million tonnes of clothing per year. Clothes swaps can help diminish that figure and lesson the environmental impact of the fashion industry. That they are becoming events that attract the curiosity of thousands must be welcomed. And if brands utilise their popularity, organising regular swapping events of their own, then a new mainstream consumer experience awaits.
Renting clothes, once the great hope of sustainable consumerism, has seen its impressive progress halted by the pandemic. What began as a way to wear pricey, high-end clothing became a way to ‘borrow’ pieces for events, parties, wedding and holidays. At its pre-pandemic peak, high street stores such as H&M wear regularly renting to consumers.
But now, weddings and holidays have seen a succession of delays and restrictions. And Runway shows, which attracted renters and spawned the thriving rental app Rent The Runway have either been cancelled or compromised, attracting much less attention than regular fashion weeks. In short, there has been little runway to rent.
It was once predicted with confidence and regularity that nobody need buy a wedding dress or event clothing again. The model would shift, and on attending parties, we would simply hire the outfit that suited the occasion, rather than buy something we’d likely never wear again. But the rental market, particularly in the luxury sector, has diminished alarmingly.
But the news from China is that the rental market is slowly reviving. YCloset, a rental app powered by e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba, are banking on a similar rental uptick to that of 2008, when the global recession attracted luxury clothing renters en masse. They predict the same will happen now, due the economic downturn caused by Covid-19.
As an essential component of sustainable consumerism, the fashion industry must hope that rental returns to commercial prominence. Without it, a reduction in global carbon emissions may forever remain a remote objective.