“When it comes to the climate emergency, in fashion less is more”
21 January 2020
"Fashion is always about what is next. For the fashion industry itself to have a future, sustainability needs to be next."
Today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, our Global Chief Operating Officer & President, International, Wolfgang Blau took part in a leadership roundtable discussing redesigning growth within the fashion industry.
Here, he writes a think piece for CEO Agenda 2020 about how the fashion industry should tackle climate change and the role that media companies play in this.
Last December, the annual United Nations Climate Summit, COP 25 was expected to respond to passionate calls for action from the scientific community and from millions of young people around the world. And yet, governments and industry gathered in Madrid missed another opportunity to act decisively.
The Madrid summit was also the first time that the fashion industry came under intense scrutiny and was held accountable during a global Climate Summit. The global perception of fashion is changing rapidly. The textile industry - and especially fashion as its most visible representative - are now regarded as major contributors to the climate crisis. For the fashion industry to not suffer a similar loss in public trust and respect as the oil and automotive industries, it must act quickly now.
As humans, we always have and always will be in need of clothing, and the way we dress is an important medium to express our individuality and celebrate our cultures. Fashion evokes imagination, aspiration, dreams, and pleasure. The world is now looking to the fashion industry to harness its power of imagination and creativity to also come up with new ways of producing and consuming fashion.
Our current over-production and quick disposal of fashion and textile products have alarming impacts on ecosystems and communities across the world. Fashion production generates 10% of global emissions and puts extreme demands on our water reserves. The chemicals needed for turning raw materials into textiles require high energy use while the production of synthetic materials such as polyester results in especially high levels of carbon emissions.
Global Fashion Agenda estimates that in 2015 alone the global textiles and clothing industry was responsible for the consumption of 79 billion cubic metres of water, 1715 million tons of CO2 emissions and 92 million tons of waste. By 2030 and at current growth rates, these numbers could increase by at least 50 %.
Only twenty years ago, most fashion companies still produced two collections a year. Ten years later this had increased to five collections and now some brands are offering 24 or more collections per year. Clothes, rather than being cherished as precious products of creativity and craftsmanship, are now often regarded as “throwaway” goods with ever shorter life cycles.
The United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which Conde Nast has joined as the first media company, confirms that current operations cannot deliver the reductions we desperately need before 2030.
A large part of the industry now claims to be ready to step up to the climate challenge and if you listened only to the statements of fashion executives at major industry conferences, you would consider the problem as almost solved. But are companies and consumers truly ready to challenge and rethink the way we produce and consume fashion?
Even in the unlikely scenario that all textile producers would suddenly use sustainably sourced and biodegradable materials, the industry’s total consumption of biomass and energy would still be unsustainable. The rapidly increasing volumes of sales and textile consumption per person mean that all such savings in biomass, water usage and carbon emissions are inevitably lost.
Here is an extraordinary fact - the Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that simply doubling the time that we use each item of clothing could halve the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. The only way to make fashion sustainable is to overcome the current textile throwaway culture, a challenge which should not seem insurmountable, as that throwaway culture is only a few decades old.
The fashion industry, governments and non-governmental organisations need to work together as partners to promote sustainable materials, while decisively incentivising ways to increase the longevity of clothes and re-use of textiles, such as circular “take-back” programs, shared ownership and rental fashion - ultimately disincentivising throwaway fashion.
For this to happen, both industry and consumers will need to agree on these concepts: For the sake of humanity and our planet, when it comes to fashion, less is more.
To sell or to consume fewer clothes per year does not have to mean being less profitable as a company or being less fashionable as a consumer and fashion lover.
Fashion is always about what is next. For the fashion industry itself to have a future, sustainability needs to be next.