To satisfy today’s climate conscious consumer, some major fashion brands label themselves ‘eco-friendly’ – or a buzzword equivalent – by blowing minor progress out of proportion and turning climate goals into marketing campaigns. In April 2022, the same month that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that surpassing warming of 1.5°C is “almost inevitable”, the internet was swarming with online retailers promoting Earth Day-themed collections that have little to do with climate mitigation and much to do with profit.

The global fashion industry emits 1.2 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, according to the Ellen MacArthur foundation, a charity committed to creating a circular economy where materials are reused and recycled rather than thrown away. This figure excludes emissions that come from the manufacture and transport of millions of garments, most of which are produced in China, Bangladesh and India in coal-powered factories.

GlobalData, Energy Monitor’s parent company, estimates that across its full life cycle, the fashion industry has an annual climate footprint of closer to 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent – similar to that of the EU. In other words, the fashion industry contributes more to the global climate crisis than the aviation and shipping industries combined, and will eat up a quarter of the world’s remaining carbon budget by 2050.

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Extinction Rebellion activists hold a banner during a demonstration in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on 27 November 2021. (Photo by Ana Fernandez via Getty Images)

The fashion industry’s greenwashing habit has earned it negative media attention for deceiving the well-intentioned consumer, but its exploitative tendencies run much deeper and all along the value chain.

Fast fashion embodies the industry’s most polluting and unethical practices. Characterised by the mass production of clothes, it involves cheap labour, cheap materials and a quick turnaround from catwalk to store shelves. The term ‘fast fashion’ was coined at the turn of the century, but the industry only surged in recent years when technological advancements gave rise to social media and online retail.

The business case for green products

Owing to a lack of regulation, major fashion brands are driving sales by marketing themselves as sustainable.

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Nearly 60% of the environmental claims made by some of the largest UK and EU fashion brands, including H&M and Zara, are “misleading” or “unsubstantiated”, according to a report by the Changing Markets Foundation, a partner organisation to NGOs, published in June 2021.

The UK government’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) took notice of the issue, publishing a Green Claims Code in 2021 to help shoppers identify misleading claims and warning businesses that a failure to comply with consumer law will result in legal action.

“Now is the time for the fashion industry to take a fresh look at what they are telling customers and make any changes needed to comply with the law,” said Cecilia Parker Aranha, the CMA’s director of consumer protection, after the launch of the Green Claims Code. “Businesses that can’t back up their claims risk action from the CMA and damage to their reputation in the long run.”

In the EU, the European Commission is working on two legislative initiatives to educate consumers and create a standard for sustainability claims. Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition and Substantiating Green Claims will come into effect in July 2022.

In March 2022, the Commission also announced ‘Digital Product Passports’ for EU products to increase supply chain transparency as part of its proposal for a Regulation on Ecodesign for Sustainable Products.

The concept of green certification is controversial, however. Also in March 2022, the Changing Markets Foundation published a report called Licence to Greenwash, which demonstrated that all ten certification schemes used by fashion brands to measure their sustainability act as a smokescreen for destructive industry practices and “procrastinating on progress on the issues of circularity and overproduction”.

What action is lacking from the fashion industry and government policy is increasingly made up for by campaigners and consumers. Some argue that any new production is detrimental, whether it is labelled ‘eco’ or not.

“The true meaning of circularity is that absolutely nothing goes to waste,” explains Venetia La Manna, a "fair fashion" campaigner and co-founder of Remember Who Made Them, a garment workers’ support group. “The fast fashion business model just does not lend itself to not wasting anything.”

Almost a quarter of UK consumers bought second-hand apparel via resale channels in 2021, and the market is set to surge at an annual growth rate of 10–15%, according to consultancy McKinsey & Company. The resale market is growing 11 times faster than traditional retail and will be worth $84bn by 2030, with fast fashion lagging at $40bn by 2030, according to a GlobalData report.

While La Manna believes real change must come from the top, she has confidence in the younger generation’s fashion-forward mindset. “A lot of us are getting more savvy," she says. "[We] won't take things at face value and don't believe that brands will save us from the climate crisis.”

Value-minded consumers are steering the fashion industry towards circularity, and in the interest of staying relevant, fashion brands must now find a way to fit in.

Covid-19: fast fashion catalyst

Covid-themed surveys found that consumers’ desire to live more meaningfully and act responsibly increased significantly during lockdown, sparking hope that the pandemic would act as a sustainability turning point for fast fashion brands. Yet with the closure of shopping outlets and confinement of consumers to their homes, both shopping and entertainment shifted online, where retail therapy has become more convenient and tempting with personalised and targeted advertising.

“We had this idea that people would realise how little they needed and how they could buy less, but I don't think [the buying] slowed down,” says La Manna. “Fashion has become even faster since the pandemic.”

Owing to delivery on demand, online shopping generates double the carbon emissions of traditional shopping. Noteworthy among fast fashion brands is the option for free returns. During lockdowns, this encouraged consumers to order clothes, try them on and send unsatisfactory items back at no extra cost, further doubling what is already a substantial carbon footprint.

Valeria Botta, programme manager for circular economy at the Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS), an international network of NGOs that defends environmental interests in standards development, describes this as a “reverse logistical” problem that marketplaces must consider if they want to become more sustainable.

Within the EU, reverse logistics are not currently regulated, although the recent Commission proposal for the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, which should become law by 2024, sets a precedent for online market surveillance and laws concerning the sustainability of products sold online. The regulation also includes provisions on ensuring green claims are credible and creating Digital Product Passports for textiles with requirements on environmental sustainability.

The Ecodesign proposal is one of a package of 16 legislative initiatives and other policies that seek to promote a clean, circular economy and will directly impact the textile value chain. This includes an EU strategy for sustainable textiles, unveiled on 30 March 2022, that aims to “make sustainable products the norm”.

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The Commission claims that its textiles strategy can save an amount of energy equivalent to the EU’s current imports of Russian gas by 2030 (150 billion cubic metres of natural gas).

“We [ECOS] are here to make sure that the legislative initiatives that come [from the textile strategy] will be ambitious and strong,” says Botta.

The European Apparel and Textile Confederation has welcomed the textiles strategy but calls for “smart and realistic implementation”.

“If wrongly implemented, such an unprecedented wave [of regulation] may cause a complete collapse of the European textile value chain under the burden of restrictions, requirements, costs and [an] unlevel playing field,” the trade association said in a press release on 30 March. “On the contrary, the changes ahead can boom the entire textile ecosystem and create a model of successful green and digital transition in manufacturing, which starts in Europe and expands globally.”

Textiles: genesis and catastrophe

As policymakers lumber towards action, time-conscious sustainable fashion advocates continue to fret. The UN Environment Programme reckons that the equivalent of one garbage truckload of textiles is landfilled or burned every second. Consumers keep clothing for half as long as they did 15 years ago (more than half of fast fashion products are thrown out within a year of production), and in that time, production has doubled. Making 1kg of garments emits 23kg of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the fashion industry as a whole contributes as much as 10% of global GHG emissions.

“This is an industry built on colonialism,” cautions La Manna. “Those colonialist structures are still very much in place [with the] exploitation of underpaid workers, and [there is the] gross overproduction of clothing [which] involves too much water, too many fossil fuels, too much waste [and] huge emissions from transport and shipping… Every kind of environmental impact you can think of is right there in the production process.”

Tackling textiles will be no easy feat: the fashion and textiles industry is the fourth largest worldwide, equivalent to 2% of global GDP (the apparel industry alone reached $1.5trn in revenue in 2021).

After oil and gas, textile production is the second most polluting industry. According to the World Bank, 93 billion cubic metres of water is consumed in apparel manufacturing annually – equivalent to the consumption needs of five million people. Of the total material input used to make clothing, 87% is disposed of in landfill, while 35% of microplastics in the ocean currently are directly attributable to the synthetic materials used in textiles.

Botta remains optimistic the EU’s textiles strategy sets a precedent for real change. “We need clothes that are durable and designed to be mended and loved, that are free from toxic chemicals and produced in a sustainable and fair way, and that don’t add to microplastic pollution," she says. "I really hope that initiatives launched at the end of March will do just that.”

The EU intends to make transparency on the number of discarded products by large enterprises obligatory and impose measures banning the destruction of unsold textiles by 2024. It will also launch an initiative in the latter half of 2022 to curb the release of microplastics from textiles into the environment.

Long-awaited climate regulations overlook human rights

Policymakers’ new spotlights on greenwashing and textiles mean the pressure is on for a fast fashion overhaul. Yet the industry’s human rights violations remain in the shadows. La Manna says that while fast fashion brands will use their insubstantial environmental progress to appear ethical, many do not even mention workers' rights.

Garment workers’ rights came under scrutiny in 2020 when hundreds of factories in Leicester in the UK were exposed for severely underpaying and overworking employees in dangerous conditions. In July 2021, a Sky News investigation revealed that conditions had not improved, and the anti-slavery charity Hope of Justice argued that the audit and enforcement approach was not working because "factory bosses are getting really creative and innovative" in hiding human rights abuses.

With Leicester’s recent exposure, and Bangladesh’s 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy – when 1,100 garment workers died and 2,000 were injured after a building collapsed – the EU’s textile strategy has come under fire for its omission of a garment workers’ rights chapter. 

Given that environmental considerations are typically coupled with social ones, a truly sustainable economy is expected to account for the rights of its workers and those it negatively impacts.

“There are three things that fast fashion could do to truly be circular,” says La Manna. “The first is to pay its garment workers living wages. The second is to commit to a 95% reduction in overall output, and thirdly to spend money cleaning up existing waste that it is responsible for.” She cites examples like Kantamanto market, a Ghanaian market where sellers attempt to upcycle imported clothing waste from the fashion industry, and Chile's Atacama desert, a fast fashion dumping ground inundated with 59,000 tonnes of landfill annually.

In the US, there has been movement in addressing garment workers’ rights. In September 2021, California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 62, a law that requires factories to pay their workers an hourly wage and holds brands and retailers liable for wage theft in their supply chains in California, including when third-party contractors are involved. In New York, state lawmakers proposed the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act in February 2022. If passed, the law will require companies in the state with more than $100m in revenue worldwide to map out their supply chains and disclose the associated social and environmental risks.

In the garment supply chain, blockchain promises to enhance traceability and transparency. It could assist retailers and brands in recording and tracking product information throughout the manufacturing process, and enable consumers to monitor how garments progress from raw materials to finished goods. Climate-conscious consumers would no longer be at the mercy of marketing-savvy fashion brands, but in a position to spend their money on exactly what they choose.