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The destruction of unsold clothes shows the dark side of fast fashion
The textile industry is the world’s second-worst polluter, both in terms of production and waste. One of the biggest problems is vast amounts of unsold goods.
Fast fashion has a price. The environment is paying for it; and therefore, so are we. Many brands have built a unique business model based on the speed at which garments can be produced and sent to their stores. They have become giants by selling cheap, fashionable garments. They set seasonal trends and then swiftly launch new ones. But have we ever asked ourselves what happens to unsold clothing? Or questioned the environmental impact of constantly overhauling our wardrobe to keep up with ever-changing trends? In other words, we need to start asking ourselves if fast fashion can exist in a sustainable world.
Pollution in the textile industry
It’s hardly surprising that the textile industry is responsible for around 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This means that the textile industry consumes more energy than air and maritime transportation combined, leading the UN to set up the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. However, the textile production process is not the only polluting part of the equation; an often overlooked yet significant contributor to pollution is the overproduction of clothing. For many years, multiple luxury fashion brands – supposedly in order to avoid devaluing their image in the eyes of consumers – would burn unsold clothing and cosmetics to stop them from being sold at a discounted rate once they go out of season. In 2018, luxury Italian brand Stefano Ricci disclosed to the Wall Street Journal that in the financial year ending March 2018, Burberry destroyed over $38 million of clothing and cosmetics. According to Bloomberg, when investors asked for an explanation regarding this malpractice, the company responded by claiming they would make changes, promising to donate and recycle more garments and, in particular, to limit production to what customers will buy.
H&M is another example of a company that produces more than it can sell. This is aggravated by the fact the company has neither stopped nor diminished production, continuing to produce new clothing. In 2018 the Swedish giant announced it was sitting on the equivalent of $4,3 billion (and counting) of unsold inventory; many of these garments were then sold off at discounted prices.
The brand is still far from offering fashion that is ethical, fair, and durable. However, it has made steps in this direction. Since 2013, the company has offered a programme of clothing recycling in return for discounts, and by 2030, H&M aims to use only materials that have been recycled or come from sustainable sources. By 2040, the goal is to fully reduce or offset greenhouse gas emissions generated by the production process, taking into consideration new carbon capture processes. Moreover, H&M is collaborating with governments in the countries where it operates to install solar panels and other solutions that guarantee the availability of renewable energy. H&M has also started studying how to produce clothing from orange and pineapple peel.
Fast fashion vs. slow fashion: consumer habits are changing
Unfortunately, brands don’t become sustainable on their own: they are pressured by demand. For instance, H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson believes it is wrong to condemn consumerism. In October 2019, he told Bloomberg that aiming to reduce our footprint by encouraging people to buy less would have “terrible social consequences”. “We must reduce the environmental effect,” Persson said. “At the same time, we must also continue to create jobs, acquire better healthcare and all the things that come with economic growth.”
Perhaps what matters most is that consumers change their consumption habits. Many have already shown greater sensitivity in relation to environmental themes and manifested interest in buying sustainable products. According to a Nielsen report, 81 per cent of global respondents feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment, and 48 per cent of US citizens claim to want to change their consumption habits in order to reduce environmental footprint. In 2018, there was a total expenditure of $128,5 billion on sustainable mass-produced goods. Young people show the greatest sensitivity and concern: 53 per cent of males and females between 21 and 34 claim to have abandoned well-known brands in favour of eco-friendly brands; this percentage falls to 43 in the 50-64 age range.
Finally, there are consumers who buy second hand, followers of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto. Websites selling used clothing, such as ThredUp and Poshmark, have become famous over the past decade. People who no longer want garments that are still usable can sell them online. Buyers contribute to the process by avoiding the extra pollution that comes from producing new clothes. While this might have started as a simple trend, perhaps a way to earn a little extra money or simply a gesture of love for the planet, the used clothes market is now a serious business. ThredUp processes hundreds of thousands of used garments every day and has even recently started trading as a public company. Going green really does pay off.
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