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A recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has called for the wasteful global apparel industry to adopt a new vision which would see it change the way clothing is produced and used. But is the fast fashion industry genuinely ready to change its hugely profitable linear model?

The global fashion industry is dirty and polluting, it is incredibly wasteful and it uses resources inefficiently. Workers in its supply chains are horribly exploited, be it in South East Asia, Africa, Central America, Eastern Europe, and even the United Kingdom. Many of us already know all of this, or are at least vaguely aware of it. So do we need yet another report to tell us this is the case?

Yes, say the team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, who recently launched the elaborately titled ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’ in London. We’ve seen a number of reports in a similar vein to this in recent times, including in the past 18 months alone Greenpeace’s, Time out for fast fashion, the Global Fashion Agenda’s massively hyped Pulse of the fashion industry, WRAP’s Valuing our clothes: The cost of UK fashion and, going a little further back, GLASA’s, The state of the apparel sector.

None, however, have been quite as meaty as this 150-page effort from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The report’s summary of findings itself comes in at 40 pages, four pages of which are dedicated to testimonials from the fashion industry. It sounds like many people have contributed to or worked on the report. There is a core project team, followed by further contributors, an expert panel, participating organisations and then a list of more than 100 contributors. Having written plenty of reports on the fashion industry myself, I can only suggest that coordinating input from so many people and organisations must have been some serious undertaking. Was it worth it?

The report does contain some depressing statistics, albeit ones that don’t actually come as a huge surprise. It warns that, “if the industry continues on its current path, by 2050, it could use more than 26 per cent of the carbon budget associated with a 2C pathway.” The report also tells us that less than 1 per cent of material used to make clothing is recycled into new clothing (closing the loop in the fashion industry? I think not). It suggests that a truckload of clothing is wasted every second across the world, and that the average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by 36 per cent in 15 years. Over the same period, global clothing production has doubled. We have the dominant fast fashion industry to thank for these grim statistics, so it does seem somewhat ironic that H&M, the world’s best known fast fashion brand, is a global partner with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Readers can make of that what they will.

“The current system for producing, distributing, and using clothing operates in an almost completely linear way,” says the report. “Large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short period, after which the materials are largely lost to landfill or incineration. It is estimated that more than half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year.”

This itself is a startling statistic. But is it really a surprise? Isn’t the point of fast fashion to encourage people to shop more and more? Making garments that will last, using timeless, classic styles is completely inconsistent with the revenues/profit maximising goals of the fast fashion industry. We all know that.

The report continues: “The trajectory of the industry points to the potential for catastrophic outcomes. Demand for clothing is continuing to grow quickly, driven particularly by emerging markets, such as Asia and Africa. Should growth continue as expected, total clothing sales would reach 160 million tonnes in 2050 – more than three times today’s amount. This would result in a substantial increase in the negative impacts of the industry.”

The report also touches on the issue of microfibres being released into the sea. It says that half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres are released per year from washed clothes – 16 times more than plastic micro-beads from cosmetics – contributing massively to ocean pollution.

So what is the solution? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation calls for four actions to be taken by the global fashion industry: to phase out substances of concern and microfibre release; to increase clothing utilisation, for example by the industry supporting and promoting short-term clothing rental businesses; to radically improve recycling rates; and to move to renewable materials.

The first two of these we would wholeheartedly agree with. Indeed, Greenpeace and its ‘Detox’ campaign has already been addressing substances of concern for many years, and major brands have done a lot of work in recent years in terms of tightening up their Restricted Substances Lists, which tell suppliers which chemicals can and can’t be used in their products, and in what quantities.

On microfibre release, this issue has only come under the spotlight relatively recently. We believe the technology will soon become available to reduce fibre shedding from polyester materials and also to prevent fibres leaving the laundering phase and entering waterways. There are already some interesting tech developments here, and we believe it will only be a matter of time before one gains some market traction. But brand support and financial backing is needed.

The industry supporting short-term clothing rental businesses? We hope to be proven wrong, but it is difficult to see such initiatives working on any kind of significant scale. Clothing is such a personal thing and, being blunt about it, as long as it is retailed so cheaply by the fast fashion industry, why would people want to rent it?

The report also talks of the need to radically improve recycling rates, and to move to renewable materials. We are seeing actions in both these areas, but nowhere like enough. The fact that just one per cent of clothing is currently recycled is pitiful, and we certainly don’t expect that figure to change in the near future in the US, the worst culprit of all when it comes to the landfilling of used clothing. Certainly not when it has a climate change sceptic as its President.

Yet we do need to change, otherwise we are sleepwalking into an environmental catastrophe. “The trajectory of the industry points to the potential for catastrophic outcomes,” acknowledges the report. “Demand for clothing is continuing to grow quickly, driven particularly by emerging markets, such as Asia and Africa. Should growth continue as expected, total clothing sales would reach 160 million tonnes in 2050 – more than three times today’s amount. This would result in a substantial increase in the negative impacts of the industry.”

We would go along with all of this, although as we said earlier, the fact that the fashion industry is unsustainable in its current guise is nothing new. We know all that. Those of us who write about these things for a living know that the water table is falling in Bangladesh as hundreds of wet processing factories continue to each consume as much as 300 litres of water to produce just one kilogram of fabric. We know about the unmitigated damage done to China’s rivers and waterways which have had untreated textile effluent pumped into them for the best part of two decades. We know about worker exploitation in Myanmar, in Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Bangladesh, Turkey and so on.

We know this isn’t a particularly pleasant industry once one begins to scratch beneath the surface, although that is not to say that there aren’t a lot of people in our industry who are doing everything in their power to improve things on the sustainability front.

However, the nub of this issue, for us, lies in a question which this report doesn’t answer. Namely, will hugely profitable fast fashion brands such as H&M and Zara be willing to fundamentally change their business models if that is what is needed to make our industry more sustainable? In 2017, Inditex, the Spanish parent company of Zara, made US$5.8bn in profits. The story of surging profits is the same at H&M and Primark. As a business model, fast fashion works. It keeps millions of people around the world in jobs and shareholders happy. That is not to defend it, rather to state a simple fact.

The Ellen MacArthur report points to the need for systemic change in the fashion industry, yet the only people who can really drive that change reside in the boardrooms of the world’s leading fast fashion brands. Sustainability teams can only do so much, and if we are talking fundamental, systemic change, then that needs to come right from the top. Will those at the very top really be prepared to change a winning, hugely profitable business formula? Sadly, the phrase, “turkeys voting for Christmas,” is one that springs to mind, although it would be great to be proved wrong on this, by far the most important issue facing the global apparel sector.

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