What everyone’s getting wrong about sustainable fashion

I went to a sustainable fashion panel in London recently. The panelists were upbeat and passionate. They spent a lot of time talking about all the ways individual consumers can do better. They called upon industry to take action. They expressed optimism about things getting better, people waking up to the crisis, companies trying to do a better job of making their operations more sustainable. And they were wrong, wrong wrong.

First of all, things are not getting better. Consider the fashion industry specifically: 100 billion garments are produced globally each year, and of these, 20% are never sold. Carbon emissions from the fashion industry eclipse those of the aviation and shipping industries combined, and are projected to increase by 63% by 2030. Even as consumers seem more aware, they’re not slowing down their consumption of clothes. Not even close.

Zara, which drops 24 collections per year, announced last June that by 2025 all of their fabrics will be sustainable. But does the company have any intention of reducing the sheer volume of garments being pumped out into the world? Probably not. Sustainability initiatives by retailers tend to focus on swapping sustainable for conventional fabrics, rather than producing less. But here’s the thing: even if the 20 billion garments produced each year that go straight to an incinerator or a landfill are made of 100% organic cotton, they’re still part of the problem. Using sustainable fabrics is important, but so is reducing the sheer volume of production and the waste in supply chains, and part of that means doing a better job of predicting what consumers are actually going to buy.

Of course, companies are profit-driven, and public companies respond to the short-term demands of their shareholders. That’s why it’s unrealistic to expect that companies will solve this crisis on their own. It’s also unrealistic to place the onus on individual consumers. Of course we all must do our part, but no matter how many plastic straws or steaks we each individually refuse, it won’t be enough. Placing all of the emphasis on personal choices has the unfortunate effect of letting governments off the hook, when a massive reorientation of public policy is what will ultimately be required to address this crisis.

But governments are failing to muster the moral courage to do what must be done. Last year, the UK government rejected a set of proposals to address the environmental impact of the fashion industry, including a 1p per garment levy and a ban on incinerating or sending to landfills clothes that could be recycled. Today, legislation is being introduced on the floor of the US Congress to make companies, not consumers, responsible for plastic waste. But even as we drown under a tide of plastic waste that is growing too voluminous even to be recycled, the bill lacks bipartisan support and stands no chance of passing.

So: the fashion industry’s contribution to the climate crisis is getting worse, not better. Incentives are not aligned for companies to fully tackle this problem on their own. The individual efforts of consumers alone are not enough. And governments are failing on the job. What to do?

Yes, we all must continue to look for ways to reduce our own individual carbon impacts. But it’s critical not to lose focus: we must all emphatically demand that our policymakers do better. This is the most impactful action any of us can take on an individual level to address the crisis.

On a personal level, I’m extremely privileged to be a founder in residence at Founders Factory, which gives me the opportunity to channel my professional energy into action. The company that my cofounder Julia and I launched last year was initially focused on helping influencers launch their own fashion lines. But even though we did everything as sustainably as we could imagine — surplus fabrics, ethical production, everything made to order locally — we came to find that putting more new clothes out into the world wasn’t what we wanted to do. The amount of waste in the fashion industry is alarming, and it’s not getting better. This is the problem we want to address, and we’re working on a solution that taps into the power of influencers to help brands solve it. We’re excited and optimistic: the scale of the problem is so massive that even if we can tackle a tiny portion of it, we can have an enormous impact.

As dire as things may seem, it is at the end of the day important not to lose hope and resign ourselves to environmental apocalypse. There is, after all, so much productive action we can all take. Personally I take inspiration from looking to Gen Z: I hope they can walk the walk to meaningfully reduce their own consumption, but I also hope they can bring real zeal to bear in demanding action. It really is now or never.



Co-Founder and Co-CEO @ Wovn → www.wovn.co

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