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Image: H&M

If things do not change fast, the fashion industry could use a quarter of the world’s remaining global carbon budget to keep warming under 2℃ by 2050, and use 35 percent more land to produce fibers by 2030. While this seems incredible, it is not. Over the past 15 years, clothing production has doubled, while the length of time we actually wear these clothes has fallen by nearly 40 percent. In the European Union, alone, falling price tags have prompted people to buy more clothing than ever before and to spend less money in the process. This is not a sustainable model for the global fashion industry. 

In a recent report commissioned by the European Environmental Bureau, we propose a new way forward for fashion in which we favor human and environmental wellbeing over ever-growing consumption of throwaway fast-fashion. This “wellbeing wardrobe” would mean cutting how many new clothes we buy by as much as 75 percent, buying clothes designed to last (a nod to the durability standard that was recently posed in the European Commission’s package of sustainability-centric legislative proposals), and recycling clothes at the end of their lifetime. For entities in the apparel segment, this would mean tackling issues of low income for the people who make the clothes, as well as implementing support measures for workers that could lose jobs during a transition to a more sustainable fashion industry.

Sustainability Efforts by Industry are Not Enough

Fashion is accelerating, and fast fashion is being replaced by ultra-fast fashion, which sees unprecedented volumes of new clothes released into the market. Since the start of the year, fast fashion giants H&M and Zara, alone, have launched around 11,000 new styles combined. At the same time, ultra-fast fashion brand Shein has released a staggering 314,877 new styles. As you would expect, this acceleration is producing a tremendous amount of waste, and in response, the fashion industry has devised a raft of sustainability-centric plans. The problem is that many sustainability initiatives still place economic opportunity and growth before environmental concerns. 

Efforts, such as switching to more sustainable fibers and textiles and offering ethically-conscious options, for instance, are commendable. Unfortunately, they do very little to actually confront the sector’s rapidly increasing consumption of resources and waste generation. On top of this, labor rights abuses  in the supply chain are rife. Over the past five years, the industry’s issues of child labor, discrimination, and forced labor have worsened globally, with major garment manufacturing countries, including Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam, considered an “extreme risk” for modern slavery. 

Here is what can be done to tackle the situation … 

1. Limit resource use and consumption

We need to have serious conversations between industry, consumers, and governments about limiting resource use in the fashion industry. As a society, we need to talk about how much clothing is enough to live well. On an individual level, this means buying fewer new clothes, as well as reconsidering where we get our clothes from. Buying secondhand clothes or using rental services are ways of changing your wardrobe with lower impact. 

2. Expand the slow fashion movement

The growing slow fashion movement focuses on the quality of garments over quantity, and favors classic styles over fleeting trends. We must give renewed attention to the manufacturing of more durable products, and then repairing and caring for clothes we already own to extend their lifespan, such as by reviving sewing, mending and other long-lost skills.

3. New systems of exchange

The wellbeing wardrobe would mean shifting away from existing fashion business models and embracing new systems of exchange, such as collaborative consumption models, co-operatives, and not-for-profit social enterprises, and B-corps. Collaborative consumption models involve sharing or renting clothing, while social enterprises and B-corps are businesses with purposes beyond making a profit, such as ensuring living wages for workers and minimizing or eliminating environmental impacts.

There are also methods that do not rely on money, such as swapping or borrowing clothes with friends and altering or redesigning clothes in repair cafes and sewing circles. 

4. Diversity in clothing cultures

Finally, as consumers, we must nurture a diversity of clothing cultures, including incorporating the knowledge of Indigenous fashion design, which has respect for the environment at its core. Communities of exchange should be encouraged to recognize the cultural value of clothing, and to rebuild emotional connections with garments and support long-term use and care.

What now?

Shifting fashion from a perpetual growth model to a sustainable approach will not be easy. Moving to a post-growth fashion industry would require policymakers and the industry to bring in a wide range of reforms, and re-imagine roles and responsibilities in society. This may seem too difficult. But the status quo of constant growth cannot last. It is better we act to shape the future of fashion and work towards a wardrobe good for people and planet – rather than let a tidal wave of wasted clothing soak up resources, energy, and our very limited carbon budget.

Samantha Sharpe is a Research Director for the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Monique Retamal is a Research Director for the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Taylor Brydges is a Research Principal at the University of Technology Sydney. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)