Let’s Talk about Fashion’s Waste (& Over-Consumption) Problem

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When it comes to the fashion industry, it’s hard not to notice the elephant in the room: The fashion system has been built around sustaining over-consumption which has led to fashion’s enormous waste problem. Unfortunately, most brands’ sustainability initiatives completely miss this key point or outright ignore the overconsumption problem.

The simple truth is we can’t buy or produce our way out of the problems that the fashion industry is facing. While we can buy and produce more sustainably, we can never buy sustainability. Every garment created, no matter how clean the materials or ethical the working conditions are, has an impact of some sort. To get out of this mess, we will need new ways of thinking, and new systems to back it up. We will need a scheme that touches all three areas of the reduce, reuse, and recycle slogan, rather than just focusing on the latter.

The Rise of Overconsumption & Waste in The Fashion Industry

Like almost everything in our lives, over the past couple of decades, the pace that we consume fashion has sped up tremendously. The Fashion Industry churns out around 80 billion tonnes of fashion each year, for a world with 8 billion people on it. On average we are consuming 60% more than we did just 14 years ago, and more than 50% of that is disposed of in under a year. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation reports that if this continues, over 150 million tonnes of clothing waste will clog landfills by 2050.

When we start to think about the fact that most of the fashion created is made with synthetic materials that will never decompose, or if it does, it will release toxins into the environment as it does, we quickly realize that one of the most important problems to solve in the fashion industry today is overconsumption (hand in hand with overproduction) and waste.

Why is this happening?

When we boil it down, the problem we are facing today has been created in two folds: The rise of fast fashion propelled by consumer culture leading to the devaluation of garments, and the linear model of the fashion industry.

Fast Fashion:

Fast fashion as we know it started in the 1990s and since then production has continued to increase in speed and volume, all while the prices have decreased. The unique combination of offshoring production and the birth of the internet, allowed for fashion to become cheap, sometimes rivaling the price of our coffee. At the expense of garment workers, fashion became accessible and disposable to all.

In 2012 brands like Zara and H&M were praised for their ability to get a garment from design to on the store’s shelves in their stores worldwide in under two weeks. Around the same time, Instagram was coming of age, along with influencer culture. Leading to trend cycles that change almost monthly, and more garments heading to the landfills. This didn’t stay contained in fast fashion, it also changed how the luxury fashion industry did business. Fashion houses dabbled with see now, buy now, and added more “seasons” to their repertoire, to compete with the Fast Fashion brands that were oftentimes knocking off their creations.

All in all, this has led to the devaluation of garments. We’ve gone from seeing fashion as an investment, something that was intrinsically linked to your personal style and self-expression that you would wear for years, to something that we simply toss after a handful of times wearing it.

Fast fashion made clothing disposable, we no longer have any consideration or connection to the value of the garment or the craftsmanship of garment making. Tailors, local seamstresses, and cobblers became irrelevant in a system where buying something new is cheaper than getting it fixed.

In short, we have been conditioned to not value clothing.

Linear Fashion System:

The fashion industry, like most industries of the post-industrialized world, has been made on a linear system: Make, Use, Dispose. While 90% of the fashion and textiles that are disposed of could be recycled, they sadly aren’t. We don’t have the systems or consumer awareness in place.

Recently the idea of designing for obsolescence came into the public eye through the lawsuit against Apple which proved that they were designed for their products to be irrelevant in a few years. The same thing exists in fashion. Fast Fashion brands design for their garments to not last, using cheap materials and labor, oftentimes creating garments in a way that they fall apart after a few washes. This also happens with the trend cycles constantly changing, the clothing while maybe still wearable, becomes undesirable.

In a linear fashion system, this works in favor of the businesses, allowing them to continue churning out clothing with people ready to buy them, and the unwanted or unusable garments heading to the landfills.

It’s the linear model of growth that capitalism as we know it was built upon since the 1920’s.

In his classic 1928 book Propaganda,” Edward Bernays, one of the pioneers of the public relations industry, put it this way:

“Mass production is profitable only if its rhythm can be maintained — that is if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity… Today supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand… [and] cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda… to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable.”

This was further developed later in the 1950s when they tied in consumption with societal status.

As retail analyst Victor Lebow remarked in 1955:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

Yikes! What he describes is the exact linear model that fashion is still based on today: “consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” It’s clear in hindsight that these ideologies didn’t age well, and most would agree that we cannot continue on this way, but even with the awareness, we are still reliant on it a century later.

What Can We Do?

This might prove to be one of the hardest issues to tackle because it will take not only systems changes but behavioral change that goes against one hundred years of conditioning. We need to find a way that reduces consumption and waste but allows brands to find economic growth in new ways, as well as reestablish the value of a garment in the eyes of consumers.

While it would be great if there was a clear path forward, it’s going to be more like a winding road. It’s not as easy as telling consumers to shop less, forcing brands to produce less. The problem is much too complex for that, not to mention placing the responsibility on the consumers to undo the century of conditioning isn’t realistic or ethical. The change must happen on both ends.

I’ve broken it down into three solutions to work on in parallel. It’s important to remember for each brand the concrete solution will look different, but this is here to serve as a starting point to get the ideas flowing:

1. Reestablishing the Value of a Garment:

The most sustainable garment is the one that we already own. We need to re-establish the value of owning a garment for the long term. As well as building back an awareness of the craftsmanship that goes into garment making. We must shift the status symbol from having more to having things for the long term.

Brands can start by not buying into the short-term seasonal trends — promoting a personal style over trends mantra. Creating collections that consumers can build upon each year rather than needing a new wardrobe every season.

2. Finding Alternative Growth Strategies:

In order to curb consumption and waste, brands need to cut ties with the idea that growth means selling more products. It’s time to find alternative ways to add value for more sustainable growth. Brands should look to services, and experiences rather than pushing out more products.

Brands could create a garment that can be “upgraded” over time. Keeping the core of the garment the same, but being sent in for some new embellishments that go hand in hand with the style of the moment.

Capitalizing on the sharing economy, brands could create their own form of a rental scheme, allowing consumers to swap a limited amount of clothing out every month for a set subscription price.

The opportunities are truly endless when you start to brainstorm new ways to provide value without needing to push newness. The most important thing is to find the way that feels most authentic to your brand values and vision.

3. True Circularity

To eliminate waste we need true circularity that is put into practice. Brands must go further than using recycled materials, or scraps from the cutting room floor and calling it circular. To ultimately stop garments from heading to landfills we need to get systems in place to collect garments from consumers at the end of their life to ensure they are recycled.

Looking to On Running’s circular running shoe program that has put a subscription model in place to ensure the collection of the shoe brands can find inspiration on how to think full circle around the products they are putting into the market.

Along with all the systems change that comes with circularity, we need to start seeking and developing new ways of producing that would leave no trace at the end of life. Brands should be looking at how they can assist or help material science startups that are developing made-to-degrade materials.

While it might seem overwhelming or like a shot in the dark to change something that has been “normal” for so long, it’s starting to happen, we can see pockets of inspiration throughout the industry, and within consumer groups. The brands that are leading the way will be the ones who prevail in the new era of fashion and consumerism. This moment is the time when the future is created, what will define your brand throughout the 21st century?

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