Consumption of clothing has increased 400% in the past two decades, with 80 billion garments purchased annually around the world. The truth is, our planet can no longer keep up. 

Every garment begins and ends with the earth, which does not have bottomless resources for materials and endless space for landfills. The fashion industry is considered the second largest polluter on earth, contributing to 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions.

Here are some of the challenges we addressed in the Ethical Fashion Report research this year:


Most companies are not carrying their weight when it comes to climate change

While 30% of the industry’s emissions are related to retail, consumer use and end-of-life, a massive 70% come from supply chain activities. Many brands have made targets and started taking action towards reducing emissions in company-owned retail stores, offices, and warehouses, but the majority still lack commitments that address the area where they can make the greatest difference—their supply chains.

Although climate change affects everyone, people living in low- and middle-income countries, where most of the world’s clothing is made, will face the greatest impacts. Projections show large numbers of clothing factories near low-lying river deltas in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, could be underwater due to coastal flooding in coming decades. For example, over half of Ho Chi Minh City’s garment factories are expected to flood by 2030.

We know that climate change is one of the biggest issues facing us, so in our research, we look to see if companies have publicly committed to a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030. We also check if companies have committed to figuring out a decarbonization pathway for their supply chain in alignment with the 2018 UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. Unfortunately, we found only 29% of companies had a public target for decarbonisation in the supply chain. Even more disappointing? New Zealand and Australian companies are lagging behind global brands on addressing climate change. Of the 37 companies that haven’t committed to reducing emissions, 35 are headquartered in New Zealand or Australia.


The fashion industry is dangerously reliant on virgin fibres and fossil-fuel-based synthetic fibres (looking at you, polyester)

Sixty-five per cent of all clothing is made from synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon and spandex. These fibres use an estimated 342 million barrels of oil per year to make. Even worse? These pesky textiles can take up to 200 years to decompose in a landfill, emitting emissions along the way. And it’s not just poly that harms the planet. You might think materials like cotton are the saving grace because they’re natural and plant-based, but the truth is they are highly water-intensive due to farming and dyeing and require loads of pesticides that end up in waterways. Every year the fashion industry uses 93 trillion litres of water—this is enough to meet the needs of 5 million people.

Thankfully, there are plenty of more eco-friendly alternatives out there, so our research looks at how much of a company’s clothing is made with sustainable fibres such as organic cotton, organic linen, recycled polyester and responsible wool. We found that 87% of companies use at least some sustainable materials in their collection—a significant improvement from 2019—but only 16% opt for more sustainable options for over half of their clothing. Raw fibre creation is really resource-intensive, so it's good to see more and more companies getting on board. However, companies need to urgently move away from speciality “conscious collections” and prioritise sustainability in all sourcing decisions. It's also really important that companies are aware of how their material choices affect the planet, so we check if a company has assessed the environmental impact of its top fibres. To our surprise, 76% have! Lastly, we look at how companies are managing water and chemical use. Just over half of all companies have started to track water use and wastewater quality, with 30% of companies improving wastewater and 17% reducing water usage.


Many fashion models are currently linear—they need to become circular

The cotton is grown, a t-shirt is made and worn, and then it’s eventually sent to a landfill to decay. But what if it could skip landfills and be turned into an entirely new t-shirt? Circular fashion recognises the value of used clothing as a material resource that can be used to create further value in the form of new goods. Essentially, it’s about “closing the loop.” This can be achieved by things like recycling to make sure we use existing resources, instead of taking more from the earth. Using virgin fibres—meaning newly grown or produced, non-recycled fibres—is a highly emissions-intensive process, accounting for 38% of all emissions in the apparel value chain.

For the first time, the Ethical Fashion Report has introduced a focus on circularity by incorporating elements of three lifecycle phases: design, in-use and end-of-life impacts. We check if companies have an understanding of the issues related to these phases and if they’ve implemented circular design features to address these issues, such as designing for recyclability by not using non-biodegradable glues and coatings. We found that 19% understand the environmental impacts at all stages and actively design for circularity. We also see if companies share the impacts of product use (e.g. laundering) and disposal with customers—22% of companies do.

Unfortunately, less than 1% of textile products are recycled into new garments. This isn’t all on companies though. Many cities, and even countries, don’t have the necessary technology and infrastructure to recycle textiles, so it’s going to take collaboration between businesses and governments to make circular fashion accessible. Organisations in New Zealand are currently taking action on this, but in the meantime, we can rely on things like repair services to extend the life of our well-loved clothes.


The fashion industry’s reliance on overproduction and overconsumption to drive profit is wreaking havoc on the planet

To reach a carbon-neutral world by 2030 (meaning carbon emissions are equally offset with carbon reduction) fashion must find a new business model that doesn’t depend on continuous sales growth through the number of clothes sold—aka “fast fashion”. Too often, companies place massive orders and then aren’t able to sell all of their stock, so it either gets burned or sent to a landfill. If the industry were to reduce excess inventory by just 10%, emissions could be reduced by 158 million tonnes by 2030. The bottom line is: just like we buy way more than we need, so do companies.

This year, we looked at whether companies have assessed the impacts of overbuying and overproduction, and if they have a strategy to reduce this impact through both forecasting and responsible product disposal. Our research found half of companies are starting to address the issues of overproduction, with many relying on donating unsold clothing to charity shops as opposed to just throwing it away. While this is a lower-impact method for disposal, it’s not the perfect solution. It’s estimated only 10-20% of what second-hand stores collect is sold. The rest is sent overseas where it can negatively impact local communities and the environment. But more on that another time.

Want to know more about the fashion industry’s impact on climate change? Check out "The Climate Challenge” chapter in the Ethical Fashion Report!

 

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