We celebrated the extended summer, enjoying the warm September. But it is a sign of global warming, which increasingly makes each of us think about our sustainability actions in our daily lives. And it’s not just about thinking now, but taking real action. The consumer culture that has dominated for decades contradicts sustainability. The global events of recent years, such as Covid-19 and the economic crisis caused by the Ukraine war, have slowed it down as we think about different values that prompt us to change our behavior. But to truly help our planet, both consumers and brands must reject, reduce, and slow down the well-known business principle – if there’s demand, there will be consumption.
One of the biggest drivers of consumption throughout history has been fashion. New collections and bi-annual sales have created a consumption pattern. In addition, mega sales events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, turn the whole world into a shopping ritual. It’s a fast fashion business model based on quick response to the latest fashion trends while maintaining low prices, promoting greater consumption. This also makes the fashion industry the third-largest polluting sector in the world, accounting for about 10% of our annual carbon footprint.
Clothing brand Patagonia, whose DNA is rooted in environmental concerns, boldly stood against Black Friday sales in 2011 by publishing a provocative ad in The New York Times with the text “Don’t buy this jacket”. Beneath the jacket image, detailed information was provided explaining why buyers should not purchase this product, highlighting what its production means for our planet.
12 years have passed, and the relevance of environmental conservation has increased radically, and brands have become much more active in making their businesses more environmentally friendly. Almost every major retail fashion brand is involved in some sustainability initiatives. Let’s look at the directions in which sustainability initiatives are being implemented in the fashion industry.
A brand not only ensures high-quality products for a longer lifespan but also encourages customers to care for and wear their clothing or shoes with care and love, supporting them and maintaining a connection with the brand even after the purchase. For example, Patagonia has long offered free repairs for worn-out or damaged clothing to deter customers from buying new garments, thereby extending the life of clothing. Other outdoor clothing and shoe brands like Lowa, Komperdell, and Jack Wolfskin offer not only warranty periods but also post-warranty support for product repairs or component replacement.
Swedish fashion brand ASKET has included as the first step in its Revival program a guide on care tips, providing customers with a repair DIY kit when purchasing a product, and even selling stain removal and laundry products. But their program doesn’t stop there.
Today, less than 1% of materials used in clothing production are recycled each year. This means thousands of tons of textiles end up in landfills.
Retail company H&M’s initiative, the Garment Collecting program, has been successful for 10 years. To encourage people to bring in their old textiles to any of their stores, they receive a discount voucher in return. Meanwhile, Lindex has committed to making 100% of its materials recyclable or sustainably sourced by 2025.
However, Denise N. Green, Associate Professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design at Cornell University, points out that recycling used textiles is extremely difficult because current recycling methods cannot handle various materials simultaneously. Fabrics need to be sorted by type, and finding jeans made from pure cotton, for example, is not possible nowadays.
However, there are brands like POMP that go further by producing clothing exclusively from cotton, simplifying recycling and ensuring that microplastic particles do not end up in the world’s waters.
The fashion industry is already investing in developing new environmentally friendly materials. These materials include recycled polyester, organic cotton, and plant-based alternatives such as pineapple leather and textile materials made from mushrooms. Pioneer brand MoEa offers vegan sneakers, producing shoes from bio-materials using fruits and vegetables like corn, apples, cacti, grapes, and pineapples. Furthermore, some of their shoes utilize all five components. Even better, these shoes are recyclable; when sent back to the company, they are used to produce new sneakers’ rubber.
There is still a long way to go because it’s often much cheaper to produce from conventional materials. Nevertheless, zero-waste fashion is growing.
Thrift stores, here known also as “humpalas”, have become trendy and powerful platforms worldwide. Being fashion-forward means not only buying for oneself but also selling clothing or shoes that could still serve but no longer fit the desired style or size. Green Story Inc. highlights that buying and wearing secondhand clothing instead of new reduces CO2 emissions by an average of 25%. While trend forecasting company WGSN has concluded that the Resale business attracts younger, environmentally and cost-conscious shoppers. It predicts that resale volumes will almost double from 2022 to 2027, indicating broad opportunities for growth in this direction.
The demand is so high that many platforms have emerged. Notable brands include Vinted, eBay, thredUP, and Imparfaite. Competition is fierce in this category and standing out to attract sellers/buyers is key. Depop is a platform where goods can be purchased from celebrities and influencers. There are platforms that specialize in selling only bridal dresses or high-end fashion house accessories, with a special team verifying the authenticity of each product. Even here in Latvia, there are several brands that follow this business direction: Northern Grip, Andele Mandele, and Restok. The charitable organization Otrā elpa operates based on this business model, aiming to earn funds that can be invested in charitable projects.
Clothing rental is not quite new. In the past, when a chic evening dress or a tuxedo was needed for rare occasions, it could be rented. But nowadays, the rental business model has taken it to another level – not only for special occasions but also for everyday wear. For example, the platform Nuuly offers a subscription fee of $98 per month, and every month, the customer receives six pre-worn clothing items. After wearing them for the month, the customer sends them back and receives a new package with six chosen garments from different brands for the next month. The returned clothing items are cleaned and, if necessary, repaired before being offered for rental again.
There’s also the trend of outfit repeating, where people choose to wear the same outfits more than once, openly promoted by fashion icon Anna Wintour.
Digital technologies offer shoppers the opportunity to use features such as virtual fittings with AR technology and 3D body scanning technology that support sustainable fashion. Furthermore, it is predicted that various solutions of this kind will continue to develop. This not only enhances the shopping experience for the buyer and ensures that the product fits and suits them but also reduces the need for returns, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Experts emphasize that it’s good for companies to undertake various initiatives, but they must ensure complete sustainability cycles for the industry to change its position in the pollution rankings. The aim should be a closed-loop business model to truly make noticeable improvements in the environment. It’s crucial to produce physically durable products with emotionally long-lasting design that can be worn again and again, using environmentally friendly materials as much as possible.