Could 2020 be the tipping point for Sustainability in Apparel?

From the Desk of Deborah Weinswig from Coresight Research

The global fashion industry is big, with about USD 2.5 trillion in sales and accounting for about 3 % of global GDP in 2018. Commensurate with its size, it also creates its share of waste, producing about 20 % of global waste water and accounting for about 10 % of global carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). The industry consumes water as well, requiring 10000 litres of water to grow the cotton needed for a one-kilogram pair of jeans—and that does not even include the massive amounts of water used to process the cotton and fabric.

And, the issues surrounding waste have grown: The number of garments produced doubled over a 15-year span, also according to UNECE.

Once these garments are worn out or no longer wanted, they are most likely incinerated or end up in landfills. About 5 % of US landfill space is occupied by textiles and only about 15 % of post-consumer textile waste is recycled, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. This is equal to more than 82 pounds per US resident.

Fast fashion’s frequent replenishment of low-priced apparel has made apparel practically disposable, exacerbating the issue of apparel ending up in landfills and increasing apparel’s total impact as consumers replace (and dispose of) garments more regularly.

And while many garments are made from wool or cotton, which are biodegradable, many are made from synthetic materials that do not biodegrade.

How should the apparel industry address this issue?

One solution is recycling. For example, H&M offers a programme that lets consumers drop off used clothing. Wearable clothing is sold as second-hand apparel, textiles that cannot be re-worn are converted for remake collections or cleaning cloth. Textiles that cannot be reused are turned into acoustic and thermal insulation. Similarly, Inditex has announced that all of its clothes will be organic, sustainable or recycled and that renewable sources will provide 80 % of its energy by 2025. There are many other examples of designers upcycling fabrics, using recycled materials or accepting used goods such as jeans for recycling.

Another solution is rental and resale. The consumer’s mindset is changing—he or she does not necessarily need to own new clothing and is willing to wear used clothing regularly. Companies such as Poshmark, The RealReal and ThredUp are key players in the USD 7 billion re-commerce market, but major retailers and brands such as Nike, Target and Walmart are also getting into the USD 1.2 billion rental subscription market. These supplement the broader second-hand market that includes traditional options such as Goodwill, Salvation Army and yard sales.

The younger generations—specifically, Gen Zers—are also driving change. In a recent survey by First Insight, 62 % of Gen Zers said they prefer to buy from sustainable brands, while 73 % said they are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Whatever brands and retailers do, it is clear consumer expectations around sustainability will only continue rising.

The increasing focus and purchasing power of emerging generations, along with rising consciousness in the industry, could push the apparel industry past the tipping point towards a more sustainable future.

Coresight Research’s contribution to this developing conversation is its new EnCORE framework, which is designed to help retailers and brands frame their approach to sustainability. We will launch EnCORE and discuss its components in an upcoming series of reports—keep any eye out for these on