Accusations of cruelty and recklessness have long plagued the clothing industry, especially luxury fashion. Practices such as killing animals so people can wear fur and burning unsold produce instead of giving them away have exposed the industry to global criticism.
The global apparel market is huge and growing — from $1.5 trillion in 2021 to around $2.3 trillion by 2025, according to Statista.
Clothing is one of the most environmentally damaging industries in the world. It’s a sinkhole. According to the World Resources Institute, approximately 20% of industrial water pollution is attributable to the manufacture of clothing. The garment industry uses 5 trillion liters (1.3 trillion gallons) of water each year for fabric dyeing alone. Levi’s says it uses about 1,000 gallons of water to make a pair of jeans.
The World Bank calculates that the garment industry contributes 10% of annual global carbon emissions and will reach around 50% by 2030 if the practices continue.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 80% of fibers used for clothing end up in landfills and incinerators. In China – the world’s largest clothing manufacturer – coal-fired textile factories produce around 3 billion tonnes of soot a year, a major contributor to air pollution.
At a time when sustainability is increasingly important to consumers, fashion brands say they’re turning away from wasteful and un-eco-friendly practices. But some of these claims are little more than hype. Greenwashing is a marketing strategy that brands use to present themselves as environmentally conscious. In the absence of global standards, however, it is difficult to verify these claims.
There are signs of progress. A bill recently introduced in New York State would require companies to comply with the sustainable investing program called ESG – environmental, social and governance. Known as the “Fashion Act”, the bill takes a radical approach to liability. This would apply to global apparel and footwear companies with over $100 million in revenue doing business in New York.
The proposed law would require manufacturers and retailers to list and track at least 50% of their supply chain, from raw material producers to retail stores. Affected companies must publish an annual “Social and Environmental Sustainability Report” that includes all policies, processes and activities that identify and mitigate potential environmental and social impacts.
A unique feature of the proposed law is that the New York Attorney General and citizens — through a citizen lawsuit — could challenge a business perceived to be non-compliant. Violators would be subject to a fine of up to 2% of annual revenues over $450 million.
The Fashion Act would be the first law in the world to target the fashion industry‘s sustainability practices.
A movement called “ethical fashion” aims to reduce harm to people and the environment from the production and distribution of clothing. It is a broad and vague concept.
Major brands committed to ethical fashion include Eileen Fisher (who claims to have taken back and reused more than 1.6 million pieces of clothing since 2009), Christian Dior, Nike, Adidas and Everlane.
The global ethical fashion market is estimated at $5.8 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $8.3 billion in 2025, according to Research and Markets’ “Ethical Fashion Global Market Report 2021”.
“Fast fashion” refers to the practice of producing large volumes of inexpensive clothing with rapid inventory turnover. It allows consumers to frequently refresh their wardrobe to keep up with fashion trends. But it’s far more damaging to the environment than traditional clothing operations. It’s the antithesis of ethical fashion.
Some fast fashion brands – including H&M, Shein and Zara, three of the biggest – are responding to criticism by recycling and upcycling clothes to reduce waste.
Predictive analytics firm First Insight surveyed shoppers in 2019 and found that apparel durability was becoming a high priority. The investigation revealed that:
- Most Gen Z shoppers (aged around 10-25) prefer to buy durable brands.
- Gen Z and Millennials (between their 20s and early 40s) are collectively the most likely to make purchasing decisions based on values and principles.
- Re-commerce (selling second-hand goods) is popular across all generations, while Gen Z and Millennials are the most likely to buy upcycled (repurposed) items.
The rise of Millennials and Gen Z shoppers portends greater environmental scrutiny of clothing brands.