This morning I opened my inbox to find reams of emails from brands hailing mid-season sale, up to 50% off, exclusive offer, enticing me to grab the best deal while it lasts. When we’re surrounded by messages from the fashion industry to own more, buy more and spend less, it’s hard to resist – and I have easily succumbed to these tempting offers in the past.
We are now producing and consuming fashion at a rate like never before. Since 2000, Europeans have purchased more pieces of clothing but spent less money in doing so: clothing prices in the EU have dropped by over 30%, relative to inflation. Meanwhile, the average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as they did 15 years ago.
Today, however, we face a climate crisis and we’re exceeding the planetary boundaries when it comes to natural resources. With our global population predicted to grow to 9 billion people, and an unprecedented culture of overproduction and mass consumption, we are pushing our planet to its limits. By 2030 the global apparel and footwear industry will grow by an estimated 80%. And if business continues as usual, we will require three planets’ worth of resources by 2050. So, if the fashion industry keeps feeding the beast of growth the way we have been for the past 20 years, it will continue to wreak havoc on our planet.
In the face of this, mass sales like Black Friday, Singles Day and Cyber Monday are only fanning the flames. This Friday, people across the globe will go crazy shopping for the cheapest offer available, some even fighting each other tooth and nail to grab products they probably don’t even need and probably could still live happily without.
In 2018, Black Friday generated USD 6.2 billion in online sales in the US alone – a growth of 23.6% from the previous year. Earlier this month, China’s annual Singles Day generated a record USD 38 billion in sales, up 25% since last year. While this growth drives the economy, such a dramatic increase begs the question – what strain are we putting on our planet and people to meet this rising demand?
“If the fashion industry keeps feeding the beast of growth the way we have been for the past 20 years, it will continue to wreak havoc on our planet.”
Who’s paying for the externalities when the prices are pushed to below the cost of making the products? Our planet and people are footing the bill. We’re invoicing our rivers, oceans, forests, labour force and coming generations.
We used to think we could shop our way out of a crisis to drive the economy – but today, to sustain humanity, we have to reduce our consumption and do business in an entirely different and sustainable way. This will entail consuming less, reusing more and recycling. But there is also the important notion of the price you pay. The current race to the bottom to meet consumer demand for low cost products puts even more pressure on our resources and labour rights.
It’s a vicious cycle when brands are producing in the hope to grow their markets and service their customers. Fundamentally, producing and consuming more garments means using more resources. In the pursuit of short-term sales and profit, a large share of fashion companies (and their customers) still ignores the severe environmental and social impact of production. The global apparel and footwear industry accounts for an estimated 6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, 17-20% of all industrial water pollution and up to 20% of pesticides. The sourcing of natural materials also damages fragile ecosystems and threatens biodiversity.
Not only does fashion breed harmful consequences in the manufacturing stage, but overconsumption is also generating an unparalleled amount of waste. While the demand for clothing is projected to increase at 2% per year, the number of times clothes are actually worn has dropped by a third compared to the early 2000s. So, as new clothing comes into our lives, we also discard it at a shocking rate. Fashion is primarily produced in a linear system of “take, make, dispose”, and 73% of the world’s clothing eventually ends in landfills.
In the past ten years we have seen some promising progress in addressing the consequences of growth. Many fashion players of all sizes have committed to targets on circularity. Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of luxury group Kering, has recently succeeded in rallying over 35% of the market behind bold ambitions to tackle CO2 emissions, plastics in the oceans and biodiversity loss. Recycling and take-back systems are increasingly being adopted to reduce waste and reintegrate materials back into the supply chain to create new products. These are all important and valuable steps in the sustainability agenda.
“Additional progress requires even bolder, more urgent leadership that dares to redesign the traditional ways of doing business and disrupt the entire system.”
Nevertheless, additional progress requires even bolder, more urgent leadership that dares to redesign the traditional ways of doing business and disrupt the entire system. That dares to create a new movement of forecasting better, producing smarter and producing less. That dares to develop new business models for reusing, reselling, recycling and working collectively to avoid overproduction and thus prevent excess stock and dependency on sales. I believe there’s a compelling business case for those who invest in long-term social and environmental sustainability, not just short-term profit.
To do this, brands will need to reassess their business priorities and the impact they want to make. I realise this is not an easy task!
Leaders must address the root of the problem. The fashion industry must ask itself how to approach profitability and reconfigure the parameters of success. It cannot tackle this alone, and dramatic change will require collaboration across the entire value chain, including organisations, policymakers, manufacturers and investors. And, ultimately, to involve civil society, consumers, you and I. We all need to act to do something different every day if we intend to protect nature and provide social justice for billions of people.
Starting today – and as a first step – I encourage everyone of you to think one extra time before jumping on the Black Friday train in the endless hunt for a bargain and ask yourself: Do I really need this?