We Can’t Shop Our Way to Sustainability

Forget Fast Fashion. Although we decided to paint a different ‘F-word’ on a 110m2 wall located on one of Stockholm’s busiest shopping streets, in September this year. In the wake of the growing climate crisis, we felt it was time to speak frankly about fast-fashion and the far-reaching impact it has, not only on the environment, but also those working in the supply chain and on consumer behaviour.

The fashion industry is one of the most polluting in the world — accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions — and according to a report from The Business of Fashion and Mckinsey it’s estimated that by 2050 this will have increased to 25%. Not to mention further environmental issues such as the irresponsible cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan that has dried out the Aral Sea and the social toll with events like the Rana Plaza disaster, that saw a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapse and take 1,129 lives.

The problem is that fashion, in particular fast-fashion, is inherently destructive. In a bid to make ever larger profits, fashion’s business model is based on constant renewal and stuffing our wardrobes with more garments and trends that we didn’t even know we needed. And we’ve become addicted, studies show that not only are we buying more clothes than ever but also only keeping them for half as long, with 60% of garments purchased ending up in landfills or incinerators within the first year.

It’s an approach that proved to be incredibly profitable but gives little regard to the huge cost to our planet and the exploitation of poorly paid human labour. If environmental debt were to be reported on fashion’s balance sheet, the markets would have forced a change long ago. But we don’t put a price on the environment, and so the industry is continuing to indebt itself, with no amortisation in sight.

And you might be forgiven for thinking that fashion is starting to clean up its act. In light of growing consumer awareness, new environmental initiatives are being released at a dizzying rate; from carbon offsetting to recycled materials collections. With major fashion companies offering so called ‘guilt-free’ alternatives, we can continue to consume at the same unprecedented rate as before. When in reality, less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. Despite good intentions all the recycled-PET sweaters aren’t enough to counter the unprecedented strain on the planet’s resources. Every year the sum of impact reducing initiatives is offset by the continued growth of production and consumption. We cannot shop our way to sustainability, only by reducing product output and decreasing consumption habits, can we turn around issues surrounding the fashion industry.

A recent UN Report states that we have 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change. If we’re serious about reducing carbon emissions and moving into a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle, incremental changes made by brands will not do enough to significantly contribute towards the fight on climate change. So if solutions in the current business model aren’t possible, then we should look to change the model.

What we need now is legislation that holds the industry accountable for its practises, whilst simultaneously educating us, as consumers on the consequences of our purchases with it empowering us to make informed decisions. To jump start the process, we have a 5-point program that governments globally should look to implement:

  1. We need to demand greater transparency on the origin of garments, the current ‘made-in’ label that we’re familiar with only tells a fraction of the story. Currently only 7% of brands know the source of their raw materials, only by legislating brands to disclose their entire supply will they become accountable for their actions within it.
  2. Just as climate and environmental degradation is taxed in other sectors, such as the energy industry, a climate tax on garments would be an effective way to make it unprofitable to use, for example, fossil fuel-made polyester or heavily sprayed cotton that destroys growers’ health.
  3. Introduce a standard for how clothes should be analysed from a life cycle perspective, making it easier for consumers to compare different products. When the standard is clear, we urge governments to make it compulsory for the entire industry to follow.
  4. The current ecolabel system is in need of a total overhaul. With 463 ecolables, in 199 countries, across 25 industry sectors, it’s a minefield for both businesses and customers to navigate. Legislators should review all available industry certificates, ban the use of those which are not strict enough and make mandatory those that are required to achieve the UN development goals.
  5. Above all, we need to see a tougher grip on misleading environmental claims and greenwashing. Today brands are free to label collection with terms such as “Climate Smart” or “Conscious Collection”. Unclear naming is luring customers into a false sense that their action is doing “good” when the actuality is that any action has an impact. Using terms that instill a sense of climate neutrality/positivity, where it is unfounded should be prohibited by law.

Fashion has driven an entire system failure. The tipping point will come when an increase in general consumer awareness coincides with harsher legislation on responsibility in the fashion supply chain — at that point the old ways of doing business, at the expense of people and planet, will no longer be viable and responsible business will become financially sound for the industry as a whole. Let’s make sure this happens sooner rather than later.

August Bard Bringéus and Jakob Dworsky co-founders of Asket

The Pursuit of Less — We’re restoring the value of garments by creating meaningful essentials: A permanent collection of zero-compromise pieces.

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