The long-term stability of the global fashion industry requires the total “abandonment” of the fast fashion model and the adoption of a new mindset by both businesses and consumers, a new study has revealed.
In the US, the average consumer now purchases one item of clothing every 5.5 days, and in Europe there has been a 40% increase in clothing purchases from 1996 to 2012, according to the study – ‘The environmental price of fast fashion‘ by Scandinavian scientists published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment.
“The drastic increase in textile production and fashion consumption is reflected in the emergence of fast fashion, a business model based on offering consumers frequent novelty in the form of low-priced, trend-led products,” the study notes. “This business model has been hugely successful, evidenced by its sustained growth, outperformance of more traditional fashion retail and market entry of new players such as online retailers, who can offer more agility and faster delivery of new products more frequently.
“As a result, brands are now producing almost twice the number of clothing collections compared with pre-2000, when fast-fashion phenomena started, and the overall increase in clothing-production demand is estimated to be 2% yearly.”
The fashion industry is also water-intensive, and the authors of the study estimate around 200 tonnes of water are required to produce one tonne of textiles. The industry is also responsible for around 190,000 tonnes per year of oceanic primary microplastic pollution.
“Ultimately, the long-term stability of the fashion industry relies on the total abandonment of the fast-fashion model, linked to a decline in overproduction and overconsumption, and a corresponding decrease in material throughput,” the authors say. “Such transformations require international coordination and involve new mindsets being adopted at both the business and the consumer levels.”
Investment in the latest pollution-control technology is “an essential requirement” for the short-term future of the textile industry, necessary to remove chemicals, heavy metals and other toxic substances from waste streams, the study says. “Yet, using cleaner processes will increase production costs, a cost that is ultimately borne by the consumers, potentially ending cheap and fast fashion, leading to economic declines within the fashion industry.
“However, streamlining industrial processes, including a reduction in the numbers of chemicals used, might also save costs in manufacture, providing economic incentives to implement more sustainable practices. Similarly, creative business models built on proactive design act to reduce waste, avoid surplus production and, thereby, creating a more stable business environment.”
The authors suggest switching the system from linear (take, make, dispose) to circular with the following three approaches: narrowing (efficiency), closing (recycling) and slowing (reusing). They also highlight new business models such as renting, leasing, updating, repairing and reselling.
“Slow fashion is the future. However, we need a new system-wide understanding of how to transition towards such a model, requiring creativity and collaboration between designers and manufacturers, various stakeholders and end consumers,” the authors explain.
“We need new system-level understanding on how to make the transition towards better sustainable balance in the fashion industry. Moreover, a functional system for textile recycling must be constructed. One of the most difficult challenges going forward will be to change consumer behaviour and the meaning of fashion. Consumers must understand fashion as more of a functional product rather than entertainment, and be ready to pay higher prices that account for the environmental impact of fashion.”