While this seems incredible, it’s not. Over the past 15 years, clothing production has doubled — yet the length of time that we actually wear these clothes has fallen by nearly 40 percent. In the EU, falling prices have seen people buying more clothing than ever before while spending less money in the process.
This is not sustainable. Something has to give.
In our recent report, we propose the idea of a “wellbeing wardrobe,” a new way forward for fashion in which we favor human and environmental wellbeing over the ever-growing consumption of throwaway fast-fashion.
What would that look like? It would mean each of us cutting how many new clothes we buy by as much as 75 percent, buying clothes designed to last and recycling our clothes at the end of their lifetimes.
For the clothing sector, it would mean tackling low incomes for the people who make the clothes, as well as providing support measures for workers who could lose their jobs during a transition to a more sustainable industry.
Since the start of the year, fast fashion giants H&M and Zara have launched around 11,000 new styles combined — and ultra-fast fashion brand Shein has released a staggering 314,877 styles.
Fashion is accelerating. Fast fashion is being replaced by ultra-fast fashion, releasing unprecedented volumes of new clothes into the market.
Since the start of the year, fast fashion giants H&M and Zara have launched around 11,000 new styles combined.
Over the same time, ultra-fast fashion brand Shein has released a staggering 314,877 styles. Shein is currently the most popular shopping app in Australia. As you’d expect, this acceleration is producing a tremendous amount of waste.
In response, the fashion industry has devised a raft of plans to tackle the issue. But the problem is many sustainability initiatives still place economic opportunity and growth before environmental concerns.
Efforts such as switching to more sustainable fibers and textiles and offering ethically-conscious options are commendable. Unfortunately, they do very little to actually confront the sector’s rapidly increasing consumption of resources and waste generation.
We must give renewed attention to repairing and caring for clothes we already own to extend their lifespan.
On top of this, labor rights abuses of workers in the supply chain are rife. Over the past five years, the industry’s issues of child labor, discrimination and forced labor have worsened globally. Major garment manufacturing countries, including Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam, are considered an “extreme risk” for modern slavery.
Here’s what we can do to tackle the situation:
We need to have serious conversations between industry, consumers and governments about limiting resource use in the fashion industry. As a society, we need to talk about how much clothing is enough to live well.
On an individual level, it means buying fewer new clothes, as well as reconsidering where we get our clothes from. Buying secondhand clothes or using rental services are ways of changing your wardrobe with lower impact.
The growing slow fashion movement focuses on the quality of garments over quantity and favors classic styles over fleeting trends.
We must also give renewed attention to repairing and caring for clothes we already own to extend their lifespan, for example, by reviving sewing, mending and other skills.
Shifting fashion from a perpetual growth model to a sustainable approach will require policymakers and the industry to bring in a wide range of reforms and reimagine roles and responsibilities in society.
What’s more, the wellbeing wardrobe would mean shifting away from existing fashion business models and embracing new systems of exchange, such as collaborative consumption models, co-operatives, not-for-profit social enterprises and B-corps.
What are these? Collaborative consumption models involve sharing or renting clothing, while social enterprises and B-corps are businesses with purposes beyond making a profit, such as ensuring living wages for workers and minimizing or eliminating environmental impacts.
There are also methods that don’t rely on money, such as swapping or borrowing clothes with friends and altering or redesigning clothes in repair cafes and sewing circles.
Finally, as consumers we must nurture a diversity of clothing cultures, including incorporating the knowledge of Indigenous fashion design, which has respect for the environment at its core.
Communities of exchange should be encouraged to recognize the cultural value of clothing and to rebuild emotional connections with garments and support long-term use and care.
Let’s work towards wardrobes that are good for people and the planet — rather than let a tidal wave of wasted clothing soak up resources, energy and our very limited carbon budget.
Shifting fashion from a perpetual growth model to a sustainable approach will not be easy. Moving to a post-growth fashion industry will require policymakers and the industry to bring in a wide range of reforms, and reimagine roles and responsibilities in society.
You might think this is too hard, but the status quo of constant growth cannot last. It’s better we act to shape the future of fashion and work towards a wardrobes that are good for people and the planet — rather than let a tidal wave of wasted clothing soak up resources, energy and our very limited carbon budget.
Each year, we sell and buy 2 billion t-shirts and produce 23 billion shoes. How can we balance our love of fashion with the need for sustainability? Watch these videos:
Samantha Sharpe PhD is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Her current research focuses on understanding the intersection of climate change and the future of work, and understanding organisational adaptation behaviours at the firm, sector, and geographical levels.
Monique Retamal PhD is a Research Principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, specialising in sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and the circular economy in the Asia-Pacific region. Monique has qualifications in environmental engineering, water resources and the social sciences, and 15 years’ experience in urban sustainability research and consulting. Monique’s interdisciplinary PhD investigated the prospects for emerging business models such as the sharing economy to contribute to sustainable consumption in Southeast Asian cities. Her recent research has focused on the sustainability of packaging and plastics; the clothing industry; metals and e-waste; and policies for a circular economy.
Taylor Brydges PhD is a Research Principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures. As part of the Resource Stewardship team, her research focuses on sustainable production and consumption, the circular economy, and the fashion industry. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Taylor holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies (with Minors in Political Science and Sociology) and a Master of Arts in Human Geography from the University of Toronto, and a PhD in Human Geography from Uppsala University, Sweden.