Circular fashion: the new normal?
Right now, people are buying less stuff. Maybe they’ve learned to live with less, or maybe they’re reassessing what’s important. (That’s loungewear by the way - with online searches for the elasticated waistband good stuff rising 411% year-on-year for the period!) Overall though, clothing sales in the UK have nosedived. In fact at the time of writing, as a nation, we’re buying 25 percent less clothes than before the UK went into lockdown.
This drop in demand for clothing could be a really good thing for the planet, because the fashion industry has been producing too much, for too long. Not only does the fashion industry do more damage to the planet than all international flights and shipping worldwide, but the waste it creates is truly mind-boggling; an estimated 350 million tonnes of fast fashion end up in UK landfill each year. For those of us who can’t picture 350 million tonnes of clothes, that’s the equivalent of 50 million African elephants. And for those of us who can’t picture 50 million African elephants, sadly you never will, because there are only 415 thousand of them left in the world.
However, as sales slumped and mother nature caught her breath, retailers in the UK and Europe cancelled their orders and stopped paying factories. The people who make our clothes have paid that price. Four million Bangladeshis are believed to work in garment factories making clothes and an estimated two million of them have now lost their jobs. The effect on communities there has been devastating.
While we’re on the subject, the people who make our clothes right here on our own doorstep are suffering too. Boohoo is being investigated for allegations of modern slavery in their factories in Leicester. They are accused of paying employees £3.50 per hour and are also reported to have failed to provide protective masks for workers. There’s no justice in the fact that they have seen a boost in profits since lockdown. It’s not just Boohoo either, another study showed that 98% of ASOS workers felt unsafe at work.
Poor treatment of factory workers is far from new, but Covid-19 has shone a great big spotlight on the darkest side of an industry which has been in a race to the bottom with price wars. Retailers including Primark, Poundland, and big supermarkets have forced the middle market to lower their prices. This means that suppliers often accept orders they can’t produce and then outsource and subcontract without the retailers knowing. This means many brands have no idea who made their clothes - and under what conditions. Many high street brands have made huge profits over the last few decades due to industry practices prioritising speed, volume and cost, creating a completely unequal and fragmented supply chain. Value is not spread evenly across this supply chain and there is very little loyalty from the brand to their supplier, as brands are forever chasing a lower price.
With the economy so uncertain at the moment, many of us are already feeling the pinch on our pocket - and others are worried that the hard times are yet to come. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Primark has announced a huge profit boost post lockdown. They have credited a surge in demand from “pent up shoppers”; painting a mental image of savage shoppers, bursting out of their cages to queue patiently outside Primark where they can satisfy a deep-seated primal urge to spend their hard-earned cash. Is this really what’s happening?
For many families, Primark can seem like the only viable option, so some further data on what shoppers are buying would be interesting. Are people rushing out to buy staple essentials they actually need? Or are they using retail therapy as a desperate reaction to lockdown? One thing is for sure, that if we are to drown out the noise of the fast fashion giants trying to convince us to buy more, for less - education on sustainable alternatives is crucial.
Particularly now, there is no doubt that the fast-fashion model is built on exploitation of both people and planet. It relies on cheap manufacturing, over-consumption and short-term garment use. We urgently need transparency, so consumers know where their goods are really made. Ideally retailers would implement a block chain (a digital record of transactions) for their supply chain. This could include the origins of the fibre right through to distribution. True transparency will help us to understand the process the garment has been through and in which part of the world. This means we can further develop smart labels that customers can scan to get the full information about their products’ journey.
A hope for the future
Our ability to recover requires a paradigm shift towards circularity. We need an urgent focus on clothes that are long-lasting, recyclable and do no harm to people or the planet. Both consumers and brands will play an important role in the culture shift on the way we think about clothing and an industry that relies so much on creativity and rapid change (think seasonality) is perfectly positioned for progress.
Rather than being dropped as a priority, sustainability is still high on the agenda of big business. Several brands have already dropped seasonal collections and global fashion industry leaders have written an open letter to the fashion industry committing to sustainability through adjusting seasonality and less waste in fabrics.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative has attracted some of Fashion’s big players, including H&M, Nike and sustainability queen, Stella McCartney. Clothing repair and rental businesses are showing that it is possible to design solutions that take people, planet and profit into account. Take Nu Wardrobe (an online community community for clothing lend and swap) for example - or Rent the Runway that was valued at 1 billion last year. And we’re seeing promising innovation beyond resale too, with recently launched social enterprise Ambio-N making it easier for brands to plug their supply chains with sustainable materials.
Our efforts are not a drop in the ocean. People are now consuming more consciously and are willing to change old habits to have a smaller impact on our planet. Google Trends data shows that searches for “sustainable clothing” have increased gradually over the last 6 months and veganism is on the rise. 1 in 5 Brits cut down on meat consumption during COVID-19 pandemic according to the Vegan Society.
McKinsey report that European shoppers want fashion players to act responsibly and consider the social and environmental impacts of their businesses. People are also keen to buy more durable items, keep them for longer and repair them rather than throw them away. In fact, since Covid-19, newness has been cited as the least important factor when it comes to choosing clothes.
Little things that make a big difference
Three things each of us can do to ensure that Covid-19 acts as a window of change for the planet:
1. Stop doing newness for newness sake
If you’ve got an event coming up, before you get excited about buying something new, take a good look at your current wardrobe for what you can reuse or upcycle. Alternatively, DePop and charity shops or clothing rental companies are your ‘new’ best friend. In other words; buy less, waste less and wear an item more. Check out our minimalist’s guide to a capsule wardrobe.
2. Avoid trend-led clothing
Seek out durable fabrics in classic styles that suit your body shape and personality. These will last you a lifetime (or almost). Think about it, those leg warmers, very very low rise jeans and whale tail looks are definitely not coming back!
3. Support the brands who are doing it right already.
Covid 19 has shone a light on the negative impact of industry practices on both people and planet, indicating a desperate need to slow down manufacturing and introduce more sustainable practices throughout the supply chain. We love Fashion Revolution’s sentiment that “our capacity for empathy is strengthened by our shared global experience.” Covid-19 has touched all of our lives and we really are in this together. No judging, no shaming - we’re all on the same journey. As shoppers, we can focus on buying less clothes, buying more durable items when we do - and increasing the lifetime of the clothes we have, by repairing, recycling or passing them on. Are you with us?
Looking for ways to prolong the life of your clothes? Check out our Fferal Family tips for upcycling worn out t-shirts into macrame plant holders at home.