Fashion – allows you to express yourself and defines your style. But it comes at a cost. The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined.[i]
With a growing global demand for clothing, negative environmental impacts continue to rise. Production and consumption of clothing yield large energy demands resulting in staggering levels of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity degradation, aquatic pollution, and a significant source of pre-and post-consumer waste. The rise of fast fashion – buying large amounts of cheap clothing, drives a shorter fashion cycle and an increase in discarded merchandise.
- One garbage truck full of clothes is burned or sent to a landfill every second.
- Clothing can sit in a landfill for up to 200 years.
- The average person wears a piece of clothing 7x before throwing it out.
- 60% more clothes were sold from 2000-2014 but kept half as long. [ii]
According to EcoExperts, the fashion industry currently ranks as the third highest polluting industry, behind fuel and agriculture. From harvesting materials, to manufacturing, to transportation, each step in the process is a strain on the environment and natural resources.
- Making one pair of jeans produces as much greenhouse gases as driving a car 80 miles.
- It takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt – an average person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years.
- 85 percent of the world’s leather is tanned using chromium, which is the fourth worst pollutant in the world.
- Textile dyeing is the world’s second largest polluter of water, leftover water is dumped in ditches, streams, or rivers.
- Washing clothes releases half a million tons of plastic microfibers into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.
Advancements/Improvements in the fashion industry
Realizing a commitment was needed to change the path of the fashion industry, the UN created the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion in 2019. This alliance drives sustainable goals to improve working conditions, reduce the industry’s waste, and decrease water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. From the production of raw materials to consumption and disposal, the alliance promotes collaboration, knowledge sharing, harmonization, and outreach and advocacy between the private sector, governments, and other stakeholders.
Creating a circular economy is an essential element in moving toward a more sustainable industry. A circular economy aims to eliminate waste through a closed-loop system that promotes reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recycling to keep products, equipment, and infrastructure in use for longer periods of time.
Examples of Circular Economy in the fashion industry include:
- Patagonia – Worn Wear program allows you to trade in gear for credit on new gear, shop used apparel, repair apparel with DIY guides, or send it back to have repaired.
- ECOALF – Upcycling the Ocean programs involves over 2500 fishermen who collect trash in the ocean and turn it into quality yarn to produce fabric.
- The North Face – Renewed program refurbishes, repairs, and resells used North Face clothing.
- Adidas – Implemented the Three-Step Loop strategy to use recycled materials, make recycled materials part of a loop that can be used over and over again, and engineer materials to be biodegradable.
The VF Corporation, manufacturer of brands that include Vans, Timberland, The North Face, and Smartwool, is a leader in sustainability. Climate, materials, traceability, chemistry, water, human rights, and circularity are just a few of the areas in which the VF Corporation has set aggressive goals.
Regarding circularity, they plan to lead the large-scale commercialization of circular business models through brand-led recommerce (giving clothes a second chance) and rental initiatives by 2030. Through creativity, innovation, and growth they plan to make their products affordable, accessible, and flexible by designing for durability, designing out waste, and designing for recyclability.
Alternative Business Models
Not only are manufacturers embracing rental and reuse strategies, but new companies embrace sustainability as a fashionable, alternative option. An encouraging shift in consumer behavior shows an increased demand for sustainable products. Sixty-two percent of Generation Z prefer to buy from sustainable brands while 73% of Generation Z and 68% of Millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products.
Alternative business models such as ThredUp, Rent the Runway, Armoire, and Renewal Workshop provide options for consumers to contribute to the reduction of waste.
ThredUP’s mission is to inspire a new generation to think secondhand first. With the economic uncertainty during COVID, more consumers shifted to thrift shopping and selling clothes online. ThredUP sent out 6.5X more donation clean out kits in April 2020 compared to prior months and saw a record-breaking month for new website visits in May 2020. The ThredUP 2020 resale report states that resale is expected to grow 5x over the next 5 years. Secondhand and sustainable fashion will become the top two channels of shopping in the next 5 years with fast fashion falling to 10th place.
Rent the Runway and Armoire allow women to rent clothes instead of buying them. Jacqueline, an Armoire customer states, “I wanted something that was ethical and sustainable…I can always dress the part without breaking the bank, giving up my sense of self-expression, or sacrificing my values.”
The Renewal Workshop opened its first factory in 2016. They Partner with brands like Carhartt to repair damaged, returned, or unsellable apparel. Through June 2020 they have diverted 284,799lbs of textile waste from landfills.
Colorado State University research team studies alternative business models
Alternative business models look good at first glance, but are they sustainable? Rent the Runway has six million subscribers that rent from four to unlimited pieces of clothes each month. What is the carbon footprint of transporting so many deliveries and the effect of dry cleaning each article of clothing?
An interdisciplinary team of researchers, innovators, and professors from Colorado State University will begin a two-year project exploring alternative business models from a supply chain perspective to promote sustainable consumption. The unique strengths and expertise of the team allows for a scientific, innovative approach. The team will be the first to develop a tool that measures and compares carbon footprints of alternative business models including consumer use and disposal. Upon successful completion of the project and creation of the tool, businesses and consumers will have the knowledge to make better production, spending, and conservation decisions.
Four different colleges are represented on the research team allowing for a unique view of the problem and innovative solutions from different perspectives. Colleges represented include:
- College of Health and Human Services, Merchandising – Sonali Diddi, PhD
- College of Business, Management – Zac Rogers, PhD and Lumina Albert, PhD
- Warner College of Natural Resources, Ecosystem Science and Sustainability – Rich Conant, PhD
- College of Liberal Arts, Economics – Anders Fremstad, PhD
Join the movement to make fashion more sustainable
Career opportunities in carbon management and sustainability are on the rise as corporations in the fashion industry and governments look to make a positive impact on the environment. Skills to help organizations evaluate and manage carbon emissions are in high demand. How can you get involved?
Join a professional organization to help lead change and network.
- Net Impact is an organization that inspires and equips emerging leaders to build a more just and sustainable world.
- The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) empowers sustainability professionals across the workforce and around the world. A robust career center can be found on the ISSP website with extensive job postings, professional development events, and member discussion forums.
Build on your knowledge to understand, develop, and implement carbon management strategies earning a Graduate Certificate in Carbon Management with Colorado State University.
- Learn alongside members of the CSU alternative business models research team and make an impact in the fashion industry.
- Gain knowledge to analyze carbon production and manage offset emission levels to improve the fashion industry’s carbon footprint in careers such as sustainability manager, agricultural consultant, textile chemist, or supply chain manager.
Together, manufacturers, governments, and consumers can turn around the damage from the fashion industry to create a more sustainable future. Wear what matters.