By 2030, at its current pace of growth, the fashion industry is expected to be worth $3.3 trillion. It will manufacture 102 million tons of clothes and shoes. For comparison, that is the weight equivalent to a half million blue whales. If nothing changes, the world is expected to experience a serious climate-related catastrophe in the 2040s. Many coastal regions will be underwater, food will be scarce, and the coral reefs will be extinct, according to the United Nations’ predictions.
How are these two things related? Fashion is a massively polluting industry that is accelerating the pace of the predicted climate disaster. In 2015, the sector generated 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. (It also responsible for a fifth of the global water pollution, and a third of the microplastics in the oceans.)
In recent years, the fashion industry appeared to be rising to the challenge of lessening its impact on the planet. But in a disheartening shift over the last year, the pace of improvement seems to be slowing.
Progress has stalled out
That’s according to a new report produced by three organizations with expertise in the fashion industry, including the nonprofit organizations Global Fashion Agenda and Sustainable Apparel Coalition, along with the consulting firm Boston Consulting Group. Based on the report’s own scoring system, the Pulse Index, which takes into account the sustainability targets across fashion brands and the implementation of those targets, the industry improved by six points last year, but only improved by four points this year.
“The industry is still improving when it comes to sustainability,” says Morten Lehmann, Global Fashion Agenda’s chief sustainability officer, and a coauthor for this report. “The problem is that the pace of improvement is slowing down, while the industry as a whole is growing between 4% and 5% every year.”
In other words, fashion companies are not changing their ways fast enough to counterbalance the devastating environmental impacts that come with growing so quickly as an industry. This is important information, because many major fashion companies have made headlines over the last few months for their sustainability efforts. Last year, Adidas pledged to using only recycled plastic by 2024, while Nike says it will shift to renewable energy by the end of this year. A glance at H&M’s website shows that the company currently makes 57% of its products from recycled or “sustainably sourced” materials, and Gap’s website says that that it will get all of its cotton from “more sustainable sources” by 2021.
But don’t let this fool you: The fashion industry is still far from sustainable. In fact, the report finds that 40% of all fashion companies have not even begun to take sustainability seriously by setting targets and rethinking their supply chain. Among the rest of the 60%, a lot of the improvement is happening with small companies (or those with less than $100 million in revenue a year, which includes many startups) and mid-sized companies (which make less than $1 billion in revenue a year). Among the biggest players in the market, which make billions in revenue every year, the pace of improvement has basically stalled out.
Going at it alone isn’t working
According to Lehmann, the industry can only move forward if big companies start working together to share solutions. There are some major infrastructure challenges that the industry needs to tackle, like building recycling facilities for clothes and shoes, developing more sustainable new materials, and using technology to make the supply chain less wasteful and more efficient.
Things will move along a lot faster if companies work together. “Companies seem to be reaching the limit of what they can achieve alone,” Lehmann says. “We need a new paradigm where brands actually work together to share solutions. Otherwise, things are not going to improve fast enough to avert disaster.”
We’re already seeing some efforts at open collaboration, but usually among smaller brands. Allbirds, for instance, worked with a petrochemical company in Brazil to develop foam out of sustainably sourced sugar rather than oil–and the company makes the formula for this new material open-source so that any other sneaker brand can use it. Everlane has been working to eliminate virgin plastic from its entire supply chain (including its offices and packaging), a process that involves a lot of legwork to find the right suppliers, as I reported in this month’s magazine. Everlane’s CEO Michael Preysman says he is eager to help other brands improve their supply chains as well–and some startups, like the flip-flop brand Hari Mari, have eagerly taken him up on this offer.
But in the grand scheme of things, these are just small steps. To fix a crisis this enormous, companies need to be sharing ideas and implementing solutions much more broadly and with more speed.
Your wallet activism is working
The report points out that in order to bring about the change we need, pressure must come from many fronts. Government and policymakers need to create policies that force brands to comply with higher standards, investors need to support brands with strong missions, and the media must continue to draw attention to the problems in the industry.
But you, as a consumer, also have a role to play. There’s some evidence to suggest that many brands are working on sustainability partly because of consumer pressure, according to the report, which found that 38% of 3,000 consumers surveyed around the world say they actively switched from their preferred brand to another brand because it “credibly stands for positive environmental and/or social practices.” Young consumers are even more likely to do so, with nearly half of them switching brands based on these considerations. “Consumers are actively punishing brands that do not have eco-friendly practices,” says Lehmann. “And the next generation is even more likely to do this. Brands are listening.”
Consumers’ concern is growing throughout the world. The report found that 75% of shoppers across the five countries–United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Brazil–viewed sustainability as extremely or very important. The researchers also found that there’s been a stark increase in positive mentions about sustainability in fashion across social media globally. In other words, we need to continue to apply pressure to the industry to do better.
We can reward brands that are working to make things better, and punish brands that don’t care enough about the future of the planet, and your efforts as a consumer are more important than ever. There’s a good chance that you’re already worried about climate change. After all, a record number of Americans are anxious about it. According to the report, anxiety about global warming and natural disasters are the two top triggers for “conscious consumerism.”
If you’re feeling helpless about the future of the planet, one small way to channel this anxiety is to think carefully about what you buy, and who you’re buying it from. That’s one way to get the fashion industry to think beyond next season.