Refashioning clothing’s environmental impact

Our clothes provide comfort, protection, an expression of individuality, and jobs, with more than 300 million people working along the clothing industry value chain. But for all the growth it generates, the industry also encourages considerable waste: for every 5 garments produced, the equivalent of 3 end up in a landfill or incinerated each year.

This ‘take, make, and dispose’ business model has outsize costs to the environment, society, and the industry itself. Total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production clock in at 1.2 billion tons a year, more than those emitted by all international flights and maritime ships combined.

Replacing this linear business model with a circular design one would help recapture more than $500 billion in industry losses every year and still mitigate negative environmental impacts. Major brands, including H&M and Nike, are already taking notice. Nike instituted a Sustainable Manufacturing and Sourcing Index, which works to incentivize and reward improved environmental, health, safety, and labor practices at the factories along its supply chain. H&M has committed to using 100 percent recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030. Other companies have embraced circular concepts by disrupting the traditional clothing market and establishing various clothing rental services. China’s YCloset, for example, serves customers with monthly rental subscriptions in more than 100 Chinese cities since launching an app in 2015.

A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with research and analytical support by McKinsey, outlines how we might build a new textiles economy based on the principles of a circular economy. Below are some highlights:

Design out waste and pollution

The fashion industry’s design and manufacturing innovations have led to substantial advantages, including water and stain repellence, as well as increased durability. Yet a number of the chemicals behind these innovations raise concerns due to their potential adverse effects during clothing production, use, and after-use phases.

Many of these potentially harmful substances can be designed out by creating new fibers that fill vital functions—versatility, lightness, ease of care—but come with a much lower production footprint. One way to do this is waterless dyeing, an innovation that helps mitigate the industry’s toxic wastewater discharge from clothes dyeing, which accounts for 20 percent of industrial water pollution globally.

There’s even room to innovate with ‘moonshot’ solutions in areas where progress is scarce—for example, in fabric design. Existing programs that bring together stakeholders to spark innovation include Ashoka’s partnership with the C&A Foundation’s global Fabric for Change initiative, and Fashion for Good, which supports innovation throughout clothing’s production stages.

Keep materials in use

On average consumers wear clothes 36 percent fewer times than they did 15 years ago. If the number of times a garment is worn were doubled on average, greenhouse gas emissions would be 44 percent lower. Globally, customers miss out on up to $460 billion each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear. Tastes, trends, and styles change, but new business models could satisfy the complex human needs filled by fashion without having customers buy, and then throw out, new clothes so frequently.

The new textiles economy will offer a number of attractive options to increase the lifespan of clothes for consumers.

  • Fashion subscription models, where customers pay a monthly fee to have a fixed number of garments on loan at any one time, offer a compelling advantage for some customers. Curated short-term rentals allow access to evolving trends while solving for excessive waste, clutter, and the guilt associated with throwing clothes out.
  • Repair options, baked into the sale of the garment through warranties, will encourage customers to buy fewer articles of clothing, invest in ones that they truly need, and consider holding onto the ones they have for longer. Patagonia’s ‘IronClad Guarantee’, for example, offers returns, replacements, or mending if a product gets damaged or does not perform to satisfaction. To maximize the value of these offerings, returning items should be made as easy as possible through free shipment and transparent guidelines.
  • Enhanced resale models offer an attractive opportunity for unwanted clothes durable enough to be used again. One option is to sell used clothing alongside new clothing, which may reposition resale from a fringe to a mainstream activity. This could be low-risk and high-reward for brands because it would create additional profits while feeding into the perception of quality and promoting a brand’s interest in increased use of its clothing.

Improving recycling would allow the industry to capture the material value of clothes that reached the end of their life. Currently, less than 1 percent of textiles produced for clothing is recycled into new clothes, representing a missed revenue opportunity of more than $100 billion a year, not including the additional high costs for landfilling and incineration. To allow for recycling at scale, clothing design and recycling processes would have to be better aligned.

The industry would also need to stimulate demand for recycled materials, by cementing brand commitments to recycled fabric use in clothing. To this end, increasing the share of recycled materials in garments is one of four actions in the Global Fashion Agenda, a call to action onto which 64 fashion companies, representing 143 brands, have already signed.

Regenerate natural systems

Virgin materials will likely always be required for some textiles, particularly when no recycled materials are available. Textile production can become more renewable and regenerative by transitioning to more effective and efficient production processes that generate less waste, need fewer resources, reduce water use in water-scarce regions, are energy efficient, and run on renewable energy.

Renewable solutions can also be cost effective by reducing exposure to cost volatility of some resources. The price of oil, for example, has been historically volatile, exposing businesses to unexpected input cost spikes for polyester and other plastic-based fibers. Additionally, many of the key cotton-producing countries are under high water stress, including China, India, the U.S., Pakistan, Turkey, and Brazil. Water management and other environmental conditions have significant impacts on the availability of cotton, and therefore lead to price fluctuations.

Instead of cotton, the clothing industry make clothes from recycled plastics, or plastics made from biomass sources including crops, algae, or waste materials such as old vegetable oil. Other natural resources could include fast-growing plants that need low amounts of treatment and water, combined with processes that need fewer resources.

While there are ongoing efforts to minimize the negative impacts of clothing production, creating a wholesale circular economy in clothing requires system-level change. Stakeholders need to rally behind the objectives of a new textile economy, setting ambitious joint commitments, reinforcing voluntary initiatives and jump-starting innovation in all stages of clothing production. The drawbacks in the way we design, produce, and use clothes are clear. With circular design, fashion doesn’t have to cost the earth.

Editorial note

Some data in this article have been updated to reflect evolving analysis. This article has been updated to correct the number of garments that are sent to landfill or incinerated each year.

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