As clothing ‘salvage markets’ swell with unwanted goods, fashion brands announce new sustainability drives
Affordable Clothing & Throwaway Culture
‘Fast Fashion’, a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on rapidly producing large volumes of affordable clothing, has seen a monumental rise over the last few years. The production of such goods generally utilises low-quality materials, alongside the replication of high-end brands or popular style trends, to bring inexpensive fashion to the masses. Whilst this makes clothing far more accessible to individuals on smaller budgets, it has also helped fuel a throw away culture. Fast Company forecasted that apparel companies will introduce 160 million tonnes of clothing into the world per annum by 2050. This is up from 53 million per year in 2016[i]. Yet much of this will ultimately end up in landfill- in the US alone, 11 million tonnes of clothing waste are thrown out per annum[ii].
Partly in response to the obvious negative environmental impacts, there has more recently been growth in demand for of second-hand clothing, and this is expected to continue, with analysts predicting the total second-hand market to reach “US$80 billion by 2029, representing almost double the size of the US$43 billion fast fashion industry. The resale segment will lead the second-hand market at US$44 billion, while the traditional thrift sector will make up US$36 billion of the market.”[iii]
However, the low quality often seen in fast fashion products has a negative impact in the resale market. Thrift Stores and charity shops are finding themselves unable to re-sell a substantial portion of clothing, instead opting to ship to ‘salvage markets’. As CBS report, at one such salvage yard, Ghana's Kantamanto market (operating in a country of just 30 million), around 15 million items of used clothing from Western countries arrive each week[iv]. Here the residents work to salvage what they can from the clothes- cleaning, tailoring, and re-dying what is usable. Yet shockingly it is estimated that up to 40% of the clothing bales shipped to Ghana ultimately end up in landfill.
Kantamanto Market, Ghana, Source: CBS News
Brands Seek to Promote Sustainability
In an attempt to address sustainability issues, as well as growing consumer concern, many larger clothing brands are introducing new measures & partnerships. For example, UK-based brand Superdry recently announced a partnership with Oxfam. The company will introduce ‘give back boxes’ for consumers to donate their pre-loved clothing. Having donated, customers can then scan a QR code available on the box, where they will be given the chance to enter a prize draw to win a £100 Superdry voucher.[v] Whilst on the one hand this encourages recycling, it could be argued it also incentivises more purchases, the scheme is also only on trial at 22 stores initially. It follows a similar concept called Shwopping run by Marks & Spencer, again in collaboration with Oxfam.
Tommy Hilfiger is currently testing the application of the Higg Index Sustainability Profiles on its products, in partnership with The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and its technology partner Higg. This will allow the brand to display its items alongside their environmental impact information, in order to provide transparency. The six-week trial will be applied in European markets, across an assortment of Hilfiger products on its official websites.
Other past efforts to address sustainability have seen major brands such as Levi’s pledge to reduce wastewater, Nike move to 100% renewable energy, and Adidas eliminate Virgin plastic from its supply chain.
The Rise of Sustainable Clothing
Positively, several sustainable clothing brands have also emerged, hoping to change our relationship with fashion. These range from providers such as Allbirds who produce sustainably sourced apparel using natural materials, to Everlane who create simplistic, long-lasting clothing. Further, Quince, a sustainable clothing provider, has sought to utilise transparency as a means to win the trust of its customers. The brand lists the costs involved in production under each item, a concept that could revolutionise what consumers expect from retailers in the future. Reassuringly, these strategies do appear to be working- there has been a marked spike in sales for responsible and eco-friendly brands like Veja (+24% YoY), and Stella McCartney (+42%) and Ganni (+47%) who also were among the top trending brands last year.
Fast Fashion has been in part responsible for a rapid culture change in how we buy and use clothing. As the Ellen MacArthur foundation noted, the frequency with which we wear our clothes, has dropped by 36% over the past decade and a half. Further “many of us wear clothes only 7 to 10 times before they end up in a landfill, with studies showing that we only really wear 20% of our overflowing closets.”[vi] The ultimate question is, can sustainable clothing reach the masses; or are consumers too caught-up in the world of Fast Fashion and throw-away culture?