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What we know—and need to know—about sustainable fashion

What we know

Consumers are buying more, and tossing more. According to the EPA, Americans threw away 16.22 million tons of clothing in 2014, 71 per cent more than in 2000 and 822 percent more than in 1960. On the positive side, the amount of clothing recycled has increased from 3 per cent in 1960 to 16 per cent in 2014, but the sheer volume outweighs these gains.

Clothing demand will keep climbing. Between 2009 and 2030, population growth and industrialisation in emerging markets will lift an additional 3 billion people—10 times the population of the United States— to the global middle class. A booming middle class means more money to spend and growing demand for goods and services.

The fashion industry has a significant footprint on people, land and water. The apparel industry employs approximately 60 million people worldwide, but many of these jobs can be unsafe or pay unfair low wages.

Cotton farming uses between 2.4 and 2.6 per cent of global arable land, but is responsible for 24 per cent of insecticides and 11 per cent of pesticides. It also uses a huge amount of water—to grow enough for a simple cotton t-shirt requires 713 gallons—and improper irrigation techniques have caused extensive damage, like the tragic shrinking of the Aral Sea.

Many companies are using technological innovation to go green. Just a few examples: DuPont has made a biodegradable polyester called Apexa; Modern Meadow will showcase a leather made from yeast this October; and Thread International supplies fabric made from discarded plastic bottles.

Some companies are testing new, innovative business models that could address consumption. Companies like Patagonia’s Worn Wear program and Eileen Fisher take back their clothes, fix as necessary, and resell to customers. Rental models like Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee allow customers to subscribe to a clothing service. The Renewal Workshop diverts clothing from the landfill and remakes it into renewed apparel.

What we need to know

We need to know how to define sustainable fashion. Though the technological innovations and circular economy models described above are important, we don’t have credible ways to measure their benefits. On their own, they probably are not enough to solve the industry’s sustainability problems—they’re either too niche, or can’t compensate for the huge production volume needed to serve a growing middle class with a resource-intensive, “take-make-waste” approach.

Rental, resale and repair services are promising solutions, but they need more study. With more information and analysis, we can develop a useful definition that considers what sustainability means for brands, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

We need to know the carbon footprint of the entire industry. Estimates range from 330 million to 832 million tons of carbon dioxide annually for clothing production, enough to heat and power between 31.6 million and 79.7 million homes for a year. Discrepancies aside, it’s generally agreed that emissions from the industry are massive and growing—one study predicts that apparel energy emissions will grow as much as 63 per cent by 2030.

We need to know how much waste we are creating—and what to do with it all. One study estimated between 40,000 square KMs (just bigger than Switzerland) and 120,000 square KMs (just bigger than Nicaragua) of textile scraps are left over from manufacturing each year.

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