​6 things fast fashion has to do now to help stop climate change

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While last week was Fashion Revolution Week and full of fashionistas asking 'Who made my clothes?' there are industry wide issues that can only be resolved with systematic change. Sarah Richards reports back from Fashion Revolution Week's Fashion Question Time.

Georgina Wilson-Powell 2 May 2019


Saturday’s pebblefest was one of thousands events to take place globally supporting Fashion Revolution Week. 

Fashion Revolution was founded in response to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh where over 1000 garment workers lost their lives when the building they were working in collapsed. On the 6th anniversary of the disaster Fashion Revolution organised a Fashion Question time, hosted publicly for the first time at the V&A Museum in London. 

Sarah Richards from Olive Road London was in the audience, here are her six takeaways from the discussion.

"We have 11 years to solve climate change. To stick with the fashion business model as it is at the moment is not fast enough. We need to understand the culture – the systemic part that fashion plays in this," Mark Sumner, panel member and Lecturer in Sustainability Fashion & Retail, University of Leeds.

On the panel were: 

Mary Creagh, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and MP for Wakefield
Laura Balmond, Project Manager for Make Fashion Circular, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Hendrik Alpen, Sustainability Engagement Manager, H&M Group
Dr Mark Sumner, Lecturer in Sustainability Fashion & Retail, University of Leeds

Plus Sarah Ditty, Policy Director of Fashion Revolution.

Fashion Revolution Week talk

6 things fast fashion has to do now to help stop climate change

1) We need ALL fashion brands to be more transparent

Wednesday saw the launch of Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index, a review of global brands and retailers’ disclosure on their social and environmental impact. 

Sarah Ditty asks companies to ‘work together towards a systemic reform of the fashion industry. Where human rights in the supply chain and environmental protection are the norm rather than the exception. When transparency and sustainable practices are implemented in fashion’s value chain.'

Mark Sumner is in support of the index: ‘What we need to look at is those brands and retailers that are demonstrating and doing good things like H&M who have all sort of different models. They don’t have the answers yet but they are trying. There are some brands out there that don’t even know they have to ask the question on climate change. It isn’t on their agenda."

Fashion brands need to be more transparent

We need all fashion brands to sign up to industry wide supply chain transparency

2) Admit that fast fashion is a social and human rights issue

Mary Creagh MP reflects on the ‘Fixing Fashion’ Environmental Audit Committee Report published in February: "The real costs of what goes into clothes are not truly priced. The true value of the labour that goes into the clothes, the fibre and water content and the carbon emissions when they are transported to us. At the moment those costs are externalised onto developing countries. They are at risk of losing their fresh water supplies, they are the ones that lives are lost when their buildings collapse, we are systematically undervaluing other people’s problems"

Read our full interview with Mary Creagh MP here.

She makes it clear that a climate emergency isn’t necessarily in line with social needs. ‘In switching to a low carbon economy we have to make it transition to ensure we don’t create winners and losers. Fashion shouldn’t become something that only the rich people can enjoy and the poor people can go round in sacks’ 

Hendrik Alpen supports this and says: ‘We need to bring the consumers with us. Make sustainable fashion accessible and affordable to everyone whilst ensuring workers still have a livelihood.’

"We have 11 years to solve climate change. To stick with the fashion business model as it is at the moment is not fast enough"

3) Support clear industry wide legislation 

"We recommended 1p is added to each garment's price," Mary refers to the Fixing Fashion report. 

"The Government are saying we will do it by 2025 but we need much more radical action. Our government is going to introduce a virgin plastics tax on anything that contains less than 30% PET to stimulate the market of recycled products. Should recycled textiles be part of that? Legislation needs to represent how we get to net zero [carbon emissions] and those targets need to be forceful and not just voluntary." 

Mary goes on to ask"‘There are only 10 major retailers that are part of the waste recycling action programme (WRAP), why isn’t every retailer mandated to be part of it?" 

She wants company chief executives to be accountable for checking and reporting on their greenhouse gas emissions. "Once they know they are responsible for that they can’t forget it. We could buy one share in these organisations and demand these things are put on the table."

Fast Fashion brands need to add 1p tax onto clothes

Mary Creagh MP is pushing for 1p tax to be added per garment paid by the producer to fund recycling and upcycling programmes

4) Help educate us about synthetic vs natural textiles

"It isn’t as simple as saying that all synthetics are bad," says Hendrik. 

Mark agrees: "Polyester as a fibre is more durable and lasts longer than a cotton or wool garment. In terms of longevity it is an important part of fashion."

Mary asks: "As these [Polyester] are a product of the fossil fuel industry, if fossil fuels are going to be expensive will Polyester suddenly become an expensive material?’ 

Laura explains: "Last year there were 100m tonnes of fibres that were produced for all textiles. Over 60% of those are plastic based so it is difficult to swap out like for like. Where would we find 60 billion tonnes of natural fibres from as soon as you needed them?"

Cotton growing in a field

The right answer isn't always a simple swap when it comes to fast fashion textiles

5) Adopt a circular economy model and embrace recycling

"What we need to do is change the business model to increase clothing's use and keep it in use much much longer. We need to ensure that the materials that are going into clothes are safe and come from renewable sources. How the garments are constructed should be aligned to how they are deconstructed enabling them to go back into the system. It is a huge systemic rethink of what needs to be done," Laura proposes. 

From a retailer’s point of view Hendrik agrees. "Moving to a circular model definitely makes business sense. But there are practical challenges. How do you get hold of the garments and what do you do with them? How do you bring them back into the production cycle?"

Back to the fibre issue, Laura highlights: "The most significant block at the moment is not that something is made from cotton or polyester but the reasonably simple materials' palette of the fashion industry is being blended together in all sorts of different ways. As soon as you mix cotton with elastane and polyester there are no recycling technologies that can deal with that."

"Today less than 1% of the materials in the fashion industry are put back into the system. We want to get to the position where we are as close to 100% as we can be."

"In the last 15 years clothing production has doubled. We are using the clothes almost 40% less than we were 15 years ago"

6) Stop selling more and more clothes just for the sake of it

"Fashion brands will need to innovate, to help their customers to consume less and take better care of their clothes and use them longer," Sarah Ditty states in her opening speech.

Laura adds: "In the last 15 years clothing production has doubled. We are using the clothes almost 40% less than we were 15 years ago."

Mark asks us as consumers to participate and get engaged. "There are something like 30 to 40 billion pounds worth of clothing wasted in the UK. If we carry on consuming the way we are consuming, people won’t be able to buy polyester, or cotton, or have clothes made because there will be a labour shortage. We won’t have a fashion wardrobe."

Mary says she is saving her fashion in a ‘future generation drawer’ so her daughter can wear her clothes she no longer wants. We all need to have a long hard look at our wardrobes and work out the stuff that we're too old for, too thin for, too fat for and start shifting things out to have a second life."

Laura concludes: "Today the fashion industry contributes around 2% of carbon emissions. If we carry on the way we are that figure in 2050 will be a quarter, just for the fashion industry. Fashion should be durable, passed on, swapped and reused."

Click here to read about how to set up your own local clothes swapping event.

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