Fast fashion, overproduction, and poorly-made and -chosen materials are rampant in today’s fashion industry. And these unfortunate realities are perpetuated by a relentless market demand: customers who over consume and gravitate toward cheaply-made (and therefore cheap-to-purchase) clothing items. With the fast fashion industry continually on the rise—and expected to grow an additional two to four percent in 2024—changes urgently need to be made.
These unsustainable practices have implications beyond our imaginations. The fashion industry contributes to significant environmental damage at all levels of the value chain, from product design and production to marketing to waste management. Luckily, the UN has recently stepped in to minimize the negative impact of each step of clothing production with a series of new legislations. In this post, I will discuss each piece of legislation and the problem they are intended to fix in three key categories: product design, marketing, and waste management—as well as share a brand that is acting as a role model in sustainability for each!
An alarming 80% of a clothing item’s environmental impact comes from the design phase—specifically, from the use of unrecyclable, undurable materials and wasteful dyes.
As fast fashion continues to increase in prevalence, fashion companies use increasingly lower quality materials. These materials wear down at rapid speeds, and thus contribute to further consumption and waste.
Additionally, the use of harmful dyes and reckless production techniques waste massive amounts of water. Behind agriculture, the fashion industry is the second highest consumer of water, using up a staggering 93 billion cubic meters of water per year. In fact, the dyeing and treatment from fabric alone contributes 20% of the world’s wastewater.
Along with clothing materials and dyes, a significant contributor to the environmental impact of the product design stage is packaging. Garment packaging is often nonrecyclable and wasteful. In fact, according to a recent OECD report, packaging accounts for 40% of the world’s plastic waste—more than clothing and textiles, which account for 11%. A sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to plastic packaging is wood-based packaging, like paper and paperboard. Unlike single-use plastics, these materials can be reused and recycled as many as 25 times (and possibly more), all while having a very low carbon footprint. Incredibly, wood-based packaging materials only emit 3-5% as much carbon as the clothing items they package.
To eliminate the massive carbon footprint caused by the product design phase, the UN has implemented the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR). This legislation seeks to ensure the longevity and durability of materials, which may require companies to focus more intently on the quality of their stitching and seams, as well as the recyclability of the materials they use. It may also require clothing producers to develop creative solutions, like 3D sampling.
3D-sampling brands carry a significant impact in this movement. Take, for instance, TrueToForm’s 3D body measurement software for apparel design and fitting. This technology allows product design to run more smoothly—and less wastefully—for custom-made and made-to-measure clothing in particular. TrueToForm’s technology enables companies to create a three-dimensional scan of their clients’ bodies and create their clothing accordingly. And in addition to its use for custom and made-to-measure wear, TrueToForm can also be used in the product development process for ready-to-wear apparel to assist in the 3D sampling process. Whereas previously design teams had to drape 3D samples on standard avatars, teams can now scan in their fit models and prototype on 3D models that represent their brand’s fit standard demographic.
This way, companies get the fit right on the first try, without wasteful tweaks or unnecessary use of fabrics. The foundational tools for how garments are made—including unrealistic and inconsistent sizing—do not represent people’s real bodies and are harmful to the earth, as nearly 70% of online apparel is returned due to poor fit. This is where 3D sampling has the opportunity to create real change. By ensuring a perfect fit, companies like TrueToForm can vastly minimize the environmental impacts of returns, overproduction, and wasted fabric in the cutting and design process (which, on average, tends to be about 15% of the fabric).
Another pressing issue in the fashion industry is the use of greenwashing in marketing. Greenwashing refers to the practice of companies providing misleading information in their advertisements regarding their environmental friendliness. These advertisements are intended to deceive consumers into believing that their products have a greater positive environmental impact than they actually do.
To target this marketing-related problem, the UN has established the EU Green Claims Directive, which requires that all claims made in advertisements be backed by evidence.
To create successful sustainable fashion marketing campaigns and truly make an impact, brands would be wise to follow in the footsteps of Ecoalf, a pioneer in the sustainable fashion industry. Ecoalf’s well-known ad campaign “#BecauseThereIsNoPlanetB,” for instance, is part of a global effort to remove marine debris from the bottom of oceans and rework it into quality yarn to make garments. And bonus points to Ecoalf for donating 10% of their revenue from sales to the ECOALF Foundation! Rather than conveying a false perception of sustainability to a consumer base who may not know any better, hopefully the recent UN legislation provides an opportunity for brands to preach honesty and action, much like Ecoalf.
The problems continue far after the production phase, with the nearly nonexistent use of perfectly usable leftover textiles and fabric scraps. In fact, less than 1% of fashion textiles are recycled. Instead, a truckload’s worth of products are sent to the landfill every second. The UN’s legislation to address the rampant misuse of waste is called the Extended Producer Responsibility, an amendment to the Waste Framework Directive. This legislation requires companies to finance the collection, sorting, and recycling of textile waste. Additionally, it will likely ban the destruction of unsold goods, giving them the chance to find a second purpose.
A small brand we see excelling in this arena today is Doodlage, a clothing company based in India that creatively employs creative solutions to achieve great sustainability thresholds. Doodlage works with eco-friendly fabrics like organic cotton, corn fabric, banana fabric, and most importantly, the left-over discarded textiles from large manufacturers. By sourcing fabrics that are unused by other retailers, and would otherwise go to waste, Doodlage combines disparate fabrics to create cohesive, eco-friendly clothing pieces. As explained by the company, “With 40% of garment production being done in India, Bangladesh, and China, these companies alone produce enough waste to be able to create 6 billion garments from just scraps and leftovers.” Kudos to Doodlage for being a part of this solution.
One small business that excels in all above areas is Los Angeles-based intimates and basicwear brand Proclaim. Proclaim’s bras, underwears, and basics are created from completely recyclable, and durable materials, including recycled plastic bottles and TENCEL, a cellulosic fiber developed from wood pulp. Their organic cotton is made without toxic substances or polluting pesticides. And what’s more, their environmentally-friendly products are packaged in equally environmentally-friendly packages which are 100% compostable. So not only are their products made from recycled and non-wasteful materials, their products can then be recycled again and again. Additionally, with careful pattern layouts and techniques, Proclaim ensures they create the least amount of fabric scraps possible.
Hopefully, the UN’s new legislations for the design process, marketing efforts, and waste management will encourage more brands to follow in the footsteps of the mentioned companies—TrueToForm, Ecoalf, Doodlage, and Proclaim—each of which is a pioneer in the fashion industry in its own way.