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Putting ‘fast fashion’ out of fashion: EMF unveils a new design for the clothing industry

With Black Friday deals just over and Christmas sales looming around the corner, the temptation to treat ourselves to some new clothes can be difficult to ignore. Many of us are prone to making spontaneous purchases we later regret, taken in by a bargain on garments which all too often end up consigned to the back of the wardrobe.

Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned, says the EMF
The concept of ‘fast fashion’ - the quick turnaround of styles at affordable prices - encourages modern society’s throwaway culture, with much clothing used only for a short time before being replaced. The environmental and economic effects of this attitude, according to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), are only going to get worse - and truly ambitious change is required to avoid this.

The report, titled ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’, was launched on Tuesday (28 November) by MacArthur and British fashion designer Stella McCartney, who has a long track record of environmental campaigning and awareness-raising within the fashion industry, and seeks to use sustainable and cruelty-free materials in her own collections.

According to the report, while clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years, clothing utilisation (the number of times a garment is worn) has drastically decreased: in China, a consumer market second only to the US, utilisation has dropped by around 70 per cent in that time.

And while consumers are buying more, and using less, recycling of clothes is low: it is claimed that less than one per cent of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing.

This leads to huge losses: more than $500 billion (around £373 billion) of value is apparently lost per year due to clothing underutilisation and lack of recycling. Globally, consumers who throw away their wearable clothes lose out on an annual $460 billion (£343 billion). And the cost to dispose of those garments is vast: in the UK, approximately £82 million every year is spent on landfilling clothing and household textiles.  

A dangerous trajectory

It is not just the economic impact that is shocking; the report claims that 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources are used annually across the textiles industry as a whole, producing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes per year, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The trajectory proposed by the report is concerning: by 2050, on its current course, the fashion industry will use over a quarter of the world’s carbon budget, consuming 300 million tonnes of non-renewable resources annually.

Environmental pollution comes post-production, too: the report notes that many common textiles (such as polyester, acrylic and nylon) contain plastic microfibres which are released into the water supply when garments are washed.

The damaging effect of microbeads in cosmetics has captured public attention over the last few years, resulting in a UK ban effective from January 2018, and the EMF’s report shows that microfibres from textiles in fact contribute to 16 times more of ocean pollution than microbeads - that’s half a million tonnes of minute plastics entering the marine environment every year, some of which will end up in the stomachs of the deepest oceans’ inhabitants.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's ambitions for a New Textiles Economy

Complete system change

So, after a barrage of seemingly damning statistics, what can be done to alter the course of the fashion industry? What the report suggests is not simple: the New Textiles Economy can only be achieved with paradigm change, a complete overhaul of the current system.

Behind the report is the EMF’s Circular Fibres Initiative (CFI), launched in May this year and bringing together key stakeholders from across the industry, including Nike and H&M, to build a circular economy for textiles. The CFI aims to transform the global clothing industry from a linear model to a circular model, in which materials are fed back into the system, whether through reuse or recycling, preserving the value of the resources as well as the natural environment.

While the report acknowledges the steps already taken in the industry towards more ecologically sound practices, spurred on by growing customer awareness (for instance actions to reduce environmental impact), it says these measures are not enough. Rather than merely mitigating the impact of ‘substances of concern’ (textiles containing microfibres, or those than cannot be easily recycled), the report calls for change to be effected at the design stage, encouraging innovation for new and better-quality materials, created with recycling processes in mind, which would allow the industry to capture more value from materials over the long term, while limiting the initial consumption of resources.

Speaking of the report, McCartney said: “[It] presents a roadmap for us to create better businesses and a better environment. It opens up the conversation that will allow us to find a way to work together to better our industry, for the future of fashion and for the future of the planet.”

Putting ‘fast fashion’ out of fashion: a new design for the clothing industry
The EMF has support from a number of big industry players, and the report mentions commitments already in place, for instance a call to action by the Global Fashion Agenda, a new initiative towards circularity in the fashion industry, which has garnered signatures from 64 global companies (including Adidas and Asos).

However, the CFI hopes to effect change beyond individual brand commitments, bringing together manufacturers, retailers, reprocessors, policy-makers and the public to alter the fashion industry fundamentally; it is certainly an ambitious proposal.

The full New Textiles Economy report can be read and downloaded on the EMF website. The New Textiles Economy follows 2016’s New Plastics Economy, which aimed to inspire innovative rethinking around society’s use of plastics.  

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