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What Does A Sustainable Future For The Fashion Industry Look Like?

Fashion has become one of humanity's most damaging enterprises

Fast fashion’s relentless cycle of producing cheap, disposable clothing has led to staggering environmental consequences: the rapid depletion of natural resources, the generation of immense waste, and a significant contribution to global pollution.

Beyond the environmental toll, the industry’s focus on cost-cutting has resulted in exploitative labour practices, with workers enduring poor conditions and meagre wages.

And the allure of constant newness has driven an uncontrolled overconsumption, leading to a culture where garments are quickly discarded, exacerbating landfill overflow and environmental degradation.


A woman carrying shopping bags on her shoulder


There is some good news!

As consumers have become more aware of these issues, the calls and campaigns for a transition to a more sustainable and ethical model for the fashion industry have grown in number and voice. And this shift is now recognised by many within and without fashion as not just a trend, but a necessary evolution for an industry that needs to reconcile its glamorous image with a sincere commitment to sustainability and social responsibility.

We've written at length on the ColieCo blog about the problems with the fast fashion megabrand-driven paradigm and the environmental and social damage it has wreaked across decades of off-the-rack overconsumption. But what of the future? What does the model we replace fast fashion with look like? And how do we get there?

In this two part series, we're going to examine firstly, the necessary characteristics of any sustainable fashion future, and secondly, how we can get there, transitioning to the new model and by doing so, consigning the profit-over-people-and-planet fast fashion model to the bin for good.

What does the future of sustainable fashion look like?

In this first blog post in the series, we're going to look at seven key characteristics of a truly sustainable future model for the fashion industry. 

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1. It is fair

True sustainability encompasses mutually interdependent social, economic, and environmental dimensions. Environmentally sustainable practices lose their integrity when human cost is ignored, and long-term sustainability cannot be achieved without stable foundations for more equitable, healthy and resilient societies.

This means that the environmental sustainability of any global industry, including fashion, is intrinsically linked with the well-being, rights and working conditions of its workforce, making it impossible for fashion to transition to a sustainable future  without a revolution in the treatment of its workers.

Like their counterparts across industries, textile, garment and retail workers who are treated and paid fairly, and who work in safe and comfortable conditions, will be more empowered to engage with and commit to sustainable practices both at work and at home. And the ethical treatment of workers will foster greater consumer trust, further reinforcing burgeoning support for sustainability initiatives.

Smaller is stronger

Small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) will continue to lead the way in improving conditions for workers in the industry. One of the key advantages of SMEs in the ethical fashion space is their ability to maintain transparency and traceability in their supply chains by working closely with their suppliers and artisans. This close-knit relationship allows for better monitoring of working conditions and ensures that workers are paid fairly and treated with respect.

Cooperatives also offer a promising model for ethical and sustainable fashion. By being owned and operated by the workers themselves, cooperatives ensure that the interests of the employees are directly represented in the decision-making process. This democratic structure helps to promote fair wages, safe working conditions, and a mutually supportive work environment.


A woman working at a sewing machine in a small atelier


2. It encourages responsible consumption

A central and unresolvable conflict between the fast fashion model and any sustainable future for the fashion industry lies in fast fashion's encouragement of consumers to make frequent, bulk purchases of cheap, poor quality, readily disposable items.

This inherent feature of the model drives a hugely inefficient consumption of vast amounts of water, energy, and raw materials, contributing to resource depletion and pollution. It also leads to an enormous amount of textile waste, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimating that a garbage truck's-worth of textiles is landfilled or burned every second.

Promoting a greatly reduced, responsible consumption of clothing is essential for several reasons. Firstly, it can significantly decrease the environmental damage caused by excessive production and waste. By shifting consumer behavior towards buying fewer, higher-quality items, the demand for resource-intensive production decreases, leading to less pollution and waste.

Secondly, responsible consumption supports fair, ethical labour practices. The fast fashion industry's race to the bottom in pricing inevitably results in poor working conditions and inadequate wages for garment workers. Reducing consumption and focusing on sustainable, ethically produced clothing can improve these conditions.

Lastly, it encourages a cultural shift towards valuing quality and longevity over quantity and disposability, fostering a more mindful and sustainable consumer culture.

Changing consumer behaviour

The fashion industry can work to reduce consumer consumption through several strategies. Slow fashion ethical and sustainable brands are increasingly embracing circular models, focussed firstly on extending garment lifespans, and secondly on looking at minimum impact end-of-life for garments. These models variously involve designing products for durability, adjustability, reuse and recycling, and offering services like alterations, repairs, clothing rental, resale and in-house recycling.

Additionally, slow fashion brands are working to educate consumers about the environmental and social impacts of their choices to help encourage more responsible consumption patterns. By promoting transparency and sustainability certifications, brands are building trust and encouraging consumers to make informed, ethical purchasing decisions.

3. It creates zero waste

The fashion industry produces copious amounts of waste at each and every stage of production. From the use of environmentally-damaging raw materials, to heavily polluting fabric production processes, to brands' frequent rejection of pre-ordered fabrics, to wasteful pattern cutting processes, to unsold retail stock, the end-to-end fast fashion model could hardly have been engineered to produce more waste.

The two most critical areas for change are in the production of fabrics and in brands' garment manufacturing models.

Textile production

Traditional textile manufacturing processes are notoriously wasteful, with natural materials used which rely heavily in their cultivation on pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and high volumes of water, like cotton. These materials can be replaced with fibres derived from natural materials like bamboo and wood which require fewer and less synthetic chemicals and much less water, and produce fewer environmental pollutants during their cultivation.

Similarly, the industry continues to rely heavily on virgin, oil-derived synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon, which consume vast amounts of energy and water and are heavily polluting during their production. Fabrics made from recycled fibers derived from post-consumer plastic bottles or pre-consumer textile waste can help divert waste from landfills and reduce the need for virgin materials.

Garment production

We've discussed previously how transitioning from a ready-to-wear model to a made-to-order model like the one we use at ColieCo can save up to 40% of all of the fabric produced through an end-to-end production process - a critical step to reducing the amount of waste produced by the industry. 

By producing to order, waste can be eliminated by ensuring that fabrics which aren't ultimately wanted or needed aren't produced in the first place, by eliminating waste from the pattern cutting process, and by reducing the overproduction of garments to zero.


A woman designing clothing for zero waste


Moreover, made-to-order production can enhance the quality and uniqueness of garments, customising them to fit the customer's needs and preferences, thereby increasing the likelihood of an extended lifespan and further reducing consumption.

Reducing and eliminating waste from their business models is going to require brands to examine their end-to-end processes step by step, identifying the key problem areas and addressing them one by one.

Critically, brands are going to need to:

4. It uses innovative materials

The use of new, innovative materials and fabric management systems can significantly reduce the fashion industry's environmental impact in three areas.

Lower impact botanical origin fabrics

One key approach is the development of new fibre processing methods that can help produce lower-impact fabrics of botanical origin. Traditional cotton farming, for instance, is water-intensive and often involves heavy pesticide use. In contrast, fibres like lyocell and hemp can be produced using more sustainable practices. TENCEL Lyocell, the fabric used in our TENCEL Intimate collection, is derived from sustainably-sourced wood pulp and employs a closed-loop process that recycles water and organic solvents, minimizing environmental pollution. Such innovative methods not only reduce resource consumption, but also lower the overall carbon footprint of fabric production.

Recycled fabrics

Fabrics made from recycled materials present another significant opportunity to reduce the fashion industry's ecological footprint. By recycling post-consumer plastics, such as bottles, and pre-consumer textile waste into new fibers, the industry can divert waste from landfills and reduce reliance on virgin resources. Recycled polyester, for example, has become a popular alternative to virgin polyester, offering similar qualities but with a much lower environmental impact.

Utilizing recycled materials helps mitigate the accumulation of plastic waste and decreases the demand for new, petroleum-based textiles, which are energy-intensive to produce. Similarly, recycling textiles reduces the need for new fibers, conserving natural resources and reducing the pollution associated with textile manufacturing.

Reclaimed fabrics

Reducing the impact of fabric production on the environment also needs to involve making the best use of all of the fabric we produce, which means firstly, reducing overproduction, deadstock and line-ends, and secondly, ensuring that deadstock and line ends have a second chance of becoming garments.

Deadstock is the term used to describe surplus fabric produced by mills and manufacturers, which isn't ultimately used by the brands who've ordered its production. Line-ends are partial rolls of fabric which haven't been used up by garment manufacturers. Historically, both deadstock and line-end fabrics have often been discarded and ended up in landfill sites or incinerators.

By working with specialist suppliers who rescue these materials, slow fashion brands can repurpose deadstock and line-ends to create new garments without producing additional fabric, effectively reducing waste. This practice not only conserves resources but also promotes a circular economy within the fashion industry, where waste is continuously repurposed and reused.


Colourful fabric swatches


5. It produces quality, long-lasting garments

Because the fast fashion model relies on high volumes of low margin sales, built in to the very model itself is an incentive to produce low-quality, short lifespan garments. For the fast fashion retailer, not only can a brand save valuable pennies and push their tight margins by cutting corners in fabric quality and garment construction, but the sooner a garment falls to pieces, the sooner their customer is prompted to shop again.

What follows is a devastatingly damaging and self-reinforcing cycle of high paced, high volume production, consumption and disposal.

Breaking this hyperconsumerist cycle is probably the single most important - and arguably the most difficult to achieve - element of the transition to any sustainable future for fashion.

Either as consumers, we are going to need to choose to change our habits, demanding and seeking out higher quality, longer lasting garments, or whether by carrot or stick, brands are going to produce more of the same.

6. It is circular

Circularity is an innovative approach that aims to redefine the fashion industry by minimizing waste and making the most of resources. The concept encompasses several elements designed to create a sustainable, closed-loop system.

When sustainable fashion professionals talk about circularity, they'll commonly mention several elements we've already covered in this blog post, including material innovation and designing for garment longevity (both working to extend garment lifespans, or 'lengthening the loop') and production efficiency and reclaiming fabric (both working to minimise waste, or 'fixing the leaks').

Another element working to 'lengthen the loop' is the introduction of alteration and repair services. Alteration services can increase garment use and extend garment lifespans by helping brands' customers achieve their perfect fit. And repair services can reduce both waste and the need for new purchases.

What about 'closing the loop'?

For those garments still holding their own but which might have lost some of their appeal or no longer fit the customer, the industry will need provide and promote resale models, allowing customers to participate directly in a circular economy and garments to have multiple owners over their lifecycle.

And for those garments which are too worn to be resold, brands will need to offer take-back programs, where customers return their clothes for responsible recycling or upcycling. Recycling involves breaking down old garments into fibers that can be spun into new fabrics, while upcycling transforms discarded items into new, higher-value products. From a technological perspective, garment recycling is still in its infancy, but has the potential to significantly reduce the demand for new raw materials.


Rolls of recycled fabric


7. It is transparent

Fashion bloggers and journalists have started talking a lot about 'transparency' in the fashion industry. But what exactly does does the word mean in context?

Transparency refers to the openness and clarity with which brands communicate about their supply chains, production practices, and sourcing of materials. This means providing detailed information about the entire lifecycle of their products, from raw material extraction, through manufacturing, to retail. Transparency measures brands are starting to use include disclosing the origins of materials used in garments, the environmental impact of production processes, the locations of factories, and the working conditions of employees.

The importance of fashion brands acting transparently cannot be overstated. Firstly, transparency fosters accountability. When brands disclose - or refuse to disclose - their practices, they are held accountable for their impact on the environment and on workers’ rights. This accountability can lead to improvements in labour conditions, fair wages, and safer working environments. It also encourages brands to adopt more sustainable practices.

Secondly, transparency builds trust with consumers, who increasingly want to support brands that align with their values. By being transparent, brands can earn consumer trust and loyalty, differentiating themselves in a competitive market. 

Lastly, transparency empowers consumers to make informed decisions. When brands provide clear information about their practices, consumers can choose to support companies that prioritize sustainability and ethics. This shift in consumer behavior can push the entire industry towards more responsible practices.

SMEs are once again leading the way

Many SMEs in the slow fashion domain have been able to successfully trace and document their supply chains by working closely with their suppliers and the independent artisans who create their garments. Any successful sustainable future for the fashion industry will require the megabrands to follow suit. 

The future will also need to see brands focusing more of their efforts on assessing the holistic impact of their activities on the environment, how those impacts measure against sustainability goals, and work they can undertake to progress towards achieving those goals, and communicating out to customers and other stakeholders, openly and honestly, how they are faring in their efforts to transition to a more sustainable business model.

Next time

Having looked at those key elements we're going to need to see in any blueprint for a sustainable fashion future, in our next blog post we'll be examining what we're going to need to do in order to actually get there. Can we rely on brands to act of their own accord in levelling up their standards? Can we expect consumers to drive change across the industry? Or are we going to need legislators to shape the future?

As always, please reach out with any questions or suggestions - we always appreciate your feedback and welcome anyone interested in joining the conversation.

Nicole x

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