IIt’s been a pretty long year for the fashion industry. With a return of awards season – and a gradual return to an unrestricted coronavirus life – the sartorial stakes were high. And not just because people wanted to make up for the many months they spent wrapped up in home clothes.
Because while the world was on hiatus, the climate crisis was raging. With fatal floods, fires, a deep freeze and the United Nations “Code Red” report, it has been impossible to ignore the ecological damage that has been done this year. And of course, like all industries, fashion has an important role to play when it comes to finding solutions.
Fortunately, then, it seems that progress has been made. In 2021, the rental fashion market continued to grow. This was partly due to increased media coverage and the number of celebrities, such as Holly Willoughby and Laura Whitmore, proudly wearing their rented items to high profile events. According to GlobalData, the rental sector will be worth £ 2.3 billion by 2029.
Elsewhere, the red carpet has been transformed. What was once a place reserved for extraordinary groups to never wear again, has become a stage to re-wear the same clothes or to create new pieces from old ones. Everyone did it, from Lorde (whose outfit at the Met Gala was made using waste fabrics) to the Duchess of Cambridge, who re-donned a Jenny Packham dress she wore for the first time in 2019 at the Royal Variety performance at Royal Albert Hall in November.
Such things may seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but they send a message to the masses. One that promotes more sustainable ways of consuming. Luxury brands are also adopting new green manufacturing processes to reduce their carbon footprint. Take Hermès, who created the first bag using Sylvania mushroom skin, while Alexander McQueen has launched a partnership with Vestiaire Collective second-hand e-tailers inviting trusted customers to sell their unworn pieces.
Meanwhile, many independent British brands, such as Phoebe English, have drastically reduced their production to only produce one collection per year. As for the rising fashion stars of 2021, well, they’ve all been environmentally conscious designers, like Harris Reed, whose debut show at London Fashion Week in September featured gender-fluid wedding and groom dresses made with fabrics from Oxfam.
“The industry in general has moved to become more sustainable this year,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, director of Consumer Product at trend forecasting firm Stylus. “In particular, we are seeing good work in using more sustainable fabrics and we are also seeing that they are being marketed well with clear messages.”
The pandemic may also have helped trigger a change in the way we consume clothes. “I think there has been some sort of cultural awakening, as tough questions about the industry and its practices are circulating more widely,” suggests Bel Jacobs of Fashion Act Now, the climate crisis campaign group that has evolved. by Extinction Rebellion.
“This is the result of multiple emergencies, from the pandemic to Black Lives Matter and the climate and ecological emergency itself, and seeing how fashion deeply intersects with each one. We are starting to understand that fashion is essentially extractivist, exploitative, racist and even sexist in the way it works. So many good people are currently trying their best to transform this ship. “
That said, this is no time to be complacent. Society may have realized the urgency of the climate crisis – and the consequent need to correct their consumption habits – but that doesn’t mean that every sustainable fashion initiative you see is always a positive force.
“We have definitely not moved away from fast fashion in 2021,” says Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis: the price of fast fashion and the future of clothing. “Zara and H&M are back to pre-pandemic sales levels by the fall and are expected to continue to increase.”
Today the environmental consequences of fast fashion are well documented. During the week of this year’s Fashion Revolution, it emerged that 200 million trees are felled each year to produce cellulosic fabrics, with 35-40 percent of those coming from ancient woodlands. Meanwhile, two percent of global wastewater comes from fabric dyeing, according to the United Nations Environment Program. It has also been estimated that around half a million tons of plastic microfibers lost when washing synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon or acrylic end up in the ocean every year. In addition, around 140 million pounds of clothes are sent to landfill in the UK every year. Pair all of this with the rates and mass production methods employed by fast fashion brands and it’s a recipe for disaster.
The data is far from encouraging. Maria Chenoweth, CEO of Textile Reuse and International Development (TRAID), says people may have more knowledge when it comes to the consequences of fast fashion, such as deforestation and increased carbon emissions, but these concerns have yet to impact our shopping habits.
“The apparel market is growing and is expected to reach £ 67 billion in the UK by 2026,” says Chenoweth. “The concept of sustainability has gained tremendous popularity in fashion, but it is evidently having little impact on the reversal of fast fashion growth. We need to stop blaming individual consumers and instead focus on retailers and brands responsible for the ongoing overproduction of cheap disposable clothing. ”
Meanwhile, misleading business strategies like greenwashing – when brands promote environmentalism without actually employing the sustainable business practices suggested by their marketing materials – appear to have increased this year given the number of brands keen to capitalize on fashion demand. eco-friendly without making any tangible changes to the production of production processes.
“Conscious collections, bragging about having factories that install solar panels on their roofs … this won’t affect the kind of changes needed to meet the climate goals that the companies themselves have set themselves or the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement,” he adds. Thomas. “As long as bags are PVC-coated and clothes are on the other side of the planet, where people are paid half the living wage – because poverty and climate change go hand in hand – and brands continue to overproduce and push overconsumption,” fashion is a major polluter, if not more so, as it was before the pandemic ”.
The problem is such that some activists are unsure whether fashion, a fundamentally consumer-based industry, can ever be environmentally friendly. The rental sector, originally considered greener given its circularity, has also been questioned. In July, a study published by the Finnish scientific journal Environmental research letters suggested that renting clothes could be even worse for the planet than throwing them away due to a number of hidden environmental costs, such as delivery, packaging and dry cleaning.
“I would question our continued use of the word sustainable in relation to fashion,” says Shonagh Marshall of Fashion Act Now. “If you look at consumption, it is on the rise and some of the largest fashion companies, such as Kering, have seen higher profits in the first half of 2021 than before the pandemic. There have been some interesting material innovations, but it still needs to be scaled down to a level to make a significant difference.
Evidently many brands need to take stock and really review their businesses if we are to see real progress when it comes to moving away from fast fashion. “They need to stop attributing profits to people and the planet,” says Chenoweth. “And stop selling the dream that constantly updating our wardrobe will make us better and more desirable human beings when the reality of fashion is labor exploitation and environmental catastrophe.”
Of course, we can also do more on an individual level. “Consumers should understand the power they have to have a positive impact,” says Francesca Muston, vice president of fashion at trend forecasting firm WGSN. Asking the right questions to brands you like, he says, is key. “If something is marked sustainable, green or eco, ask why and how? Look for sustainable options – you’ll leave a trail of data for retailers to analyze and respond to, “he suggests.
How you choose to take care of your clothes is also crucial. By prioritizing items you already own, washing them sparingly, and avoiding drying them in the dryer, you can extend their life and thus avoid the need to purchase multiple items to replace them. However, as Muston points out, the best thing you can do is actually very simple and doesn’t require you to purchase anything. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the label says; if you don’t wear something, it’s not sustainable, ”he points out. “So probably one of the most important things you can do is wear your clothes and love them.”