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Insight 02.09.2021

Making fashion sustainable by choosing longevity

Making fashion sustainable by choosing longevity

What influence do we as individual consumers have on how sustainable the global textile industry is? Quite a bit, as it turns out. What clothes we buy and how often we do so determines how sustainably one of the world’s largest industries is going to evolve.


The fashion industry is a complex creature whose influence touches a multitude of sectors: from agriculture for the procurement of its raw materials to the chemical sector for the colouring and processing of garments as well as the production of synthetic fibres, to the manufacturing sector for the sewing and finishing of clothes, to retail, e-commerce, marketing, and finally real estate for the physical shop floor space. This influence goes so far that there is hardly an environmental or societal ill that the textile industry is not accused of causing. Its vast appetite for cotton leads to allegations of soil depletion and lack of biodiversity due to intensive farming, the chemical treatments that textiles go through pollute rivers, synthetic fibres release microplatics into the ocean, endangering animals and humans alike, while textile manufacturing is singled out for low-paid labour and hazardous working conditions. Last but not least, city planners point their fingers at the growing presence of mass-market brands for displacing longstanding local shops and turning the world’s high streets into a bland, uniform dystopia.

While most of these issues lie beyond the influence of the individual consumer, there is one area in which each of us can make an immediate, tangible difference, namely in the way we shop for our clothes.

According to some estimates1, the world’s population buys 15 garments and 2 pairs of footwear per human being every year. At the same time, excess clothing is constantly disposed of, mostly ending up on landfills or inside incinerators.

Indeed, consumers are being encouraged to buy and discard clothes with ever rising frequency, a tendency that is being reinforced by promotions on social media. Given the vast amount of clothes in circulation, if their average wear period were to be extended even just by a tiny fraction, the repercussions on the textile industry’s global environmental footprint would be enormous. In other words, by buying marginally more expensive clothes that last slightly longer, consumers can drastically reduce waste without being left out of pocket.

In this spirit, some brands have started offering in-house repairs for some of their items, but of course consumers don’t need to wait for such services being offered, since nothing prevents us from having our garments mended at repair shops, which do exist.

There are encouraging signs that the awareness of consumers is evolving. In a recent survey, 88% of consumers state that they believe more effort should be put towards tackling pollution and respondents are voicing a willingness to pay 66% more for sustainable goods2. In Japanese there is even a specific term, “cospa” (コスパ), short for ‘cost performance’, to indicate the economic advantage of durable items that can be worn for years.

In conclusion, if people gently move away from frequent purchases of short-lived garments to buying fewer but longer-lasting items, clothing manufacturers will be forced to adjust their business models accordingly, making a lasting difference across the world’s supply chains, from the cotton field to the shop floor.

 

UBP Impact Team

read the full document with charts

1Euromonitor International Apparel & Footwear 2016 Edition (volume sales trends 2005–2015); World Bank, World development indicators.
2McKinsey & Company, 2020. Survey: Consumer sentiment on sustainability in fashion.

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