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Degrowth as the Bridge Between Fashion and Sustainability

Trine Schack Soerensen writes about the detrimental impact of fast-fashion on the environment and human rights and how we, as consumers, can contribute towards changing it.

Every year, 92 million tonnes of textiles waste is estimated to be produced globally. Imagine a rubbish truck filled with clothing being dumped in landfill every second, and you’ll get the idea. According to the 2017 Pulse Report produced by Global Fashion Agenda, by 2030, an estimated 148 million tonnes of clothing is expected to be discarded every year. Although fast fashion brands like H&M claim to produce 57% of their products using recycled or ‘sustainably sourced’ materials, less than 1% of fibres used in garments actually end up being recycled. Instead, most of the ‘sustainably sourced’ materials such as recycled polyester comes from the recycling of plastic bottles rather than old garments.

As consumers we may be misled by ‘made from recycled materials’ labels and believe that we are buying a seemingly sustainable product. In truth we are being greenwashed by a simple marketing strategy. Part of the problem can be sourced back to the lack of industry standards for what ‘sustainably sourced’ must entail, and consumers cannot count on fast fashion companies to help clarify. Consumers are not all at fault when they are lured into excessive consumption by claims such as these.

When the Norwegian Consumer Authority called out H&M for misleading sustainable marketing, they proposed policies, such as enforceable reporting standards and legal requirements for transparency in production processes and supply chains, to also have an important role to play in preventing greenwashing in the fashion industry.

While H&M claims to be committed to environmental innovation, renewable energy and improved materials, experts argue that none of these initiatives will be effective if H&M continue producing 3 billion clothing garments every year. Dr Patsy Perry, Lecturer in Fashion Marketing, states that the most effective means of reducing the environmental footprint of the fashion industry is to increase the lifetime of each garment which slows down clothing consumption. Even with less resource intensive production and a shift towards environmentally-friendly growth, the capitalist centred growth path of the fashion industry is simply not viable. With the pace fast fashion is working at, governments and consumers must recognize that infinite growth is impossible on a planet that is finite in nature.

Prioritising Quality over Quantity may Hold the Key to De-growth:

Succeeding the growth of fast fashion over recent years, consumer behaviour has weighed substantially more towards quantity rather than quality. UK respondents in Nosto’s ‘Sustainability in Fashion Survey’ have generated hope for changing attitudes. With 52% wanting a more sustainable fashion industry and 32% willing to pay more for a product from a brand believed to be committed to sustainability, consumers ought to realise that they have the capability to steer the fashion industry to favour quality over quantity.

Not all households have the same flexibility to simply change their consumption, as income differentials and overall income inequality constrain households to consuming clothing from low-priced brands. However, if we as consumers realise that the consensus of achievable sustainability within the current economic growth theory of capitalism is fictitious, the fashion industry may effectively shift towards a slower-working and smaller production system: a system in which excess demand is no longer met with even greater excess supply through new clothing collections promoting overconsumption, and where exposure of non-sustainable activities is not twisted into a new source for profits.

Has the Pandemic Accelerated the Move Towards De-growth or has it Done the Opposite?

Concerning the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, an Ipsos poll shows that 65% of global respondents agree that climate change should be prioritised within economic recovery. A YouGov survey reveals that 39% of consumers will shop with an environmentally friendly mindset and 64% of consumers want to support local businesses following the impacts of Covid-19.

Despite the good intentions of UK consumers, fast fashion retailers like Boohoo and ASOS have seen huge online sales increases during the pandemic. Even in the midst of allegations concerning unacceptable working conditions in July, Boohoo planned to pay out hundreds of millions of pounds in bonuses to executives and shareholders, once again proving that fast fashion retailers prioritise and reward profits over people and the planet. The pandemic has shown that the future of fashion is online, and fast fashion brands are leading in the shift towards online shopping.

Optimistically, US online consignment and thrift store thredUP research shows that whilst fast fashion is expected to grow 20% over the next decade, second-hand fashion is estimated to grow 185% over the same period. The pandemic has motivated second-hand shoppers to be sustainable by buying used goods. Although critics argue that the second-hand marketplace is still encouraging excessive consumption, second-hand shopping still decreases the total consumption of clothing. Each additional time a garment is worn, soil, water and atmospheric pollution is reduced. Evidently, second-hand shopping provides an additional channel for consumers to reduce the environmental footprint of their fashion consumption.

Covid-19 shows how individual actions have consequences that impact all levels of society, high and low. Firms should likewise think of the consumer-driven trend of degrowth as an opportunity to sell better, not more, thus emerging more resilient and adaptable. With this opportunity to reset, rethink ‘businessas-usual’ and establish a better system, the environment and basic human rights may prioritise economic yields.

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