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Fashion and Fashion Weeks: How do our clothes impact the planet?

Alexanne Heurtier
The cities of Paris, London, Milan, and New York, the most important fashion centers worldwide, host two times a year the major event in the fashion world: Fashion Week. It is considered the fashion event of the year where brands from all over the world present, share and discuss the latest fashion trends. As many other great events, Fashion Week has a considerable impact on the environment, due to the transportation of merchandise and the travel of people as well as the organization itself of the fashion shows. 

In more general terms, the fashion industry is known to have a strong negative impact on the environment. The fashion industry is becoming increasingly conscious of the consequences of its activities on the planet’s resources and the need to substantially change its mechanisms and operational modes. In 2018, almost fifty brands signed the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action to prove their commitment to the fight against climate change. All signatory companies share common objectives and the goal to reduce the global fashion industry emissions by 30% by 2030(1). Today, approximately 150 companies have signed the Fashion Pact, committing to a common core of environmental goals. 
This article will analyze the environmental impact of fashion and will answer the most relevant and essential questions. Let’s get started!

How is the fashion industry contributing to GHG emissions?

The fashion industry is considered accountable for approximately 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined!) (2). However, not only does fashion have an impact on the environment in terms of CO2 emissions, but the textile industry is also accountable for 35% of the plastic microfibers released in oceans and 20% of the industrial water pollution (3). 

This harmful environmental impact is multiplied by the increasingly high demand for the production of clothes. Today, production rates are higher than ever! What has become known as “fast fashion,” the sale of low quality and cheap clothes, has boosted the creation of new collections and products. The use of unsustainable materials accompanies this and an increasing amount of waste in the production and retail phases as collections are renewed every six months. The result? Tens of thousands of unsold clothing are destroyed each year.
It has become clear that the fashion industry needs a revolution to reduce its environmental impact and align to a more sustainable long-run trajectory. 

What about the environmental impact of Fashion Weeks?

Fashion has always had a close relationship with climate. As seasons change, fashion trends and products change too. For this reason, fashion weeks are held every year in February for the Autumn/Winter collection and in September for the Spring/Summer collection. This inherent relationship between fashion and climate has however taken a negative connotation. Fashion is no longer changing with climate, but actually changing climate. 

Just as the production of fashion products, Fashion Weeks have a significant impact on the environment too. As Fashion Weeks gather thousands of retailers and designers and hundreds of models and influencers, the environmental impact of Fashion Weeks is sometimes measured as the equivalent of lighting up the Eiffel Tower for 3060 years (4). The carbon footprint of the event includes traveling, accommodation, transportation of the collections and intercity traveling of fashion actors. On top of this, one should add press activities and the setting up of the different locations. 

How can the fashion industry become more sustainable? 

The first fundamental aspect that must be addressed to increase sustainability in the fashion industry is textile and materials used. It is crucial to shift to more sustainable and less polluting materials that minimize environmental impacts when produced, washed, and recycled.

Three main ways have been found for the fashion industry to improve its impact on ecosystems and climate change.
  1. First, switch to renewable energy. If fashion firms include at least 60% of renewable energy in their processes, emissions from the sector could be reduced by around 50% (5).
  2. Second, increase energy efficiency, that is reducing the use of energy to perform the same tasks. For instance, 10,000 liters of water are currently required for the production of a single pair of jeans (6). This amount must be reduced through energy efficiency practices.
  3. The third solution is to align the fashion industry to the model of circular economy. New recyclable materials should be used, and all materials that release microfiber plastics should be excluded. In addition, supply of clothes must be aligned to demand in order to avoid overproduction and consequent waste. Today, less than 1% of materials used to produce clothing is recycled (3). This percentage has to increase quickly.

Source: Ellen McArthur Foundation

How can the environmental impact of Fashion Weeks be reduced?

Concerning Fashion Weeks, several things can be done to increase sustainability. A first option is to combine seasons and gender fashion by having a single Fashion Week per year instead of two. A second solution is to increase the number of online events, continuing this 2020 trend, in order to decrease travel emissions. Finally, turn Fashion Weeks into climate awareness. Fashion Weeks are a great outlet to raise awareness of the environmental impact of fashion. On the one hand to encourage fashion brands to apply codes of ethics, which the Fashion Industry Charter does by promoting sustainability in the industry, on the other hand, to educate the audience about climate change issues

The importance of fashion in our society has awoken consumers’ consciousness.

As solutions for a more sustainable fashion supply have been outlined, it is important to highlight that consumers have a role to play too. They are actors of the change as much as retailers. The World Bank has provided a list of actions that consumers can implement to contribute to a sustainable fashion industry. These include repairing clothes, donating them, purchasing according to quality criteria instead of quantity, and buying second-hand clothing. We have already pointed out that firms waste many resources, and a lot of clothes go unsold and to waste, but consumers do too: they never use as much as 40% of purchased clothing in some countries (6).

However, research has shown that consumer awareness is increasing as more customers are pressuring their favorite brands to become more sustainable (7). According to the BCG, more than 50% of consumers consider the environmental and societal actions of brands, and a third has already stopped buying clothes of a certain brand because of its bad environmental practices. This demonstrates that consumers have the power to drive this change. 

In conclusion, fashion brands must reconsider their environmental impact and meet their customers’ demand by committing to more sustainable practices. As outlined in this article, many solutions already exist. By changing our shopping habits, we can all have a positive impact on the planet!

  1. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2018/12/milestone-fashion-industry-charter-for-climate-action-launched/
  2. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/costo-moda-medio-ambiente
  3. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/a-new-textiles-economy-redesigning-fashions-future 
  4. https://www.ordre.com/en/static/pdf/ZeroToMarket.pdf
  5. https://quantis-intl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/measuringfashion_globalimpactstudy_full-report_quantis_cwf_2018a.pdf 
  6. https://www.francebleu.fr/infos/societe/chiffre-du-jour-il-faut-10-000-litres-d-eau-pour-fabriquer-un-pantalon-en-toile-jean-1542962969 
  7. https://www.bcg.com/fr-fr/press/15may2019-press-release-france-pulse
Article written by Alexanne Heurtier