Fashion’s environmental footprint is one of the largest of any industry in the world, although it’s nearly impossible to measure the true scope of its impact. (The oft-quoted stat that it’s the second most-polluting industry in the world has been disproven several times over.)
However, according to a 2018 report released by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the apparel industry produces 20 percent of global water waste and 10 percent of global carbon emissions, while 85 percent of textiles — 21 billion tons — are sent to landfills each year. Consumers are purchasing more clothes, and keeping them for half as long, driven by fast fashion, fast marketing and a digitally driven thirst for newness.
And yet, while revenues increase when consumers buy more clothes, there is also evidence that implementing sustainable practises can actually increase profits. Allocating resources more efficiently, building better working conditions and using sustainable materials could boost margins by 1-2 percent by 2030, according to a 2017 report released by Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group. When companies hold themselves accountable publicly, it can also create goodwill with consumers.
But how can the industry do better overall? That was the big question in a salon discussion at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, held in November 2018. The group, populated with industry insiders leading the sustainability conversation, determined that fashion can make immediate changes by investing in biotech, sustainable packaging, air and climate and the circular economy.
When it comes to bioengineering fabrics — which some argue carry a lighter environmental impact than natural fabrics — the challenges come in scalability. How can substitutes for leather, for instance, be made easily available? As one participant noted, the industry “really survives on 10 fabrics,” many of which were developed hundreds of years ago. “Ten years is a blink of an eye in biotech,” one expert said.
In order to scale as quickly as the industry wants them to scale, the companies developing bioengineered materials — from biodegradable materials to lab-grown leather and synthetic diamonds — have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in hopes of meeting industry demand, even if consumer demand is currently minimal.