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Fast on fashion, slow on sustainability: Clothing companies and the circular economy

Fast on fashion, slow on sustainability: Clothing companies and the circular economy


Few companies across the fashion industry, including textile manufacturers and clothing retailers, have made circular fashion commitments that could help reduce the industry’s environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions, according to the 2022 S&P Global Corporate Sustainability Assessment.

Less than 10% of textile and textile retailing companies have publicly committed to avoid exaggerated sustainability claims , despite growing consumer cynicism about the fashion industry’s environmental claims.

Slightly more than half of all companies in the fashion industry currently track and disclose at least one aspect of their Scope 3 emissions, according to the 2022 CSA.

At Paris Fashion Week last week there was talk of collections “made to last.” Yet the fashion industry, known for rolling out new clothing trends at a rapid pace, has been slow to embrace a sustainability trend gaining traction in many sectors, including retail: the circular economy.

Circularity is the practice of extending the lifespan of goods and reusing materials. Evolving the fashion industry’s business model to include more circularity could cut textile waste and pollution and help brands rebuild trust with an increasingly skeptical consumer base. The fashion industry is a major contributor to climate change and environmental harm around the world. According to the UN, it is responsible for about 20% of global wastewater, 9% of the microplastics that end up in the ocean annually and as much as 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year.

Fashion companies appear to be aware of the risks their environmental footprints pose to their performance. New data from the 2022 S&P Global Corporate Sustainability Assessment, or CSA, shows companies in the fashion industry choosing environmental management, impacts from products and services and climate strategy most frequently as their top material issues. Yet only a small fraction of companies have committed to integrating the circular fashion commitments that would help address one of the industry's biggest environmental challenges — the growing popularity of fast fashion and the disposable wardrobe.

Fast fashion refers to rapidly produced, cheaply made garments that typically do not last long in consumers’ hands, resulting in more frequent customer purchases, the overproduction of clothing beyond demand and more waste ending up in landfills or polluting the air when incinerated. Due to its use of mostly oil-based synthetic fibers, fast fashion is responsible for about half of the industry's total emissions. It’s also continuing to grow: The global fast fashion market, valued at $193.2 billion in 2021, is projected to become a $276.5 billion market by 2027.

The end result is millions of tons of clothing and shoes dumped into landfills or incinerated each year. Currently, the average American throws away about 70 pounds of clothing each year, and the average European tosses out about 25 pounds of textiles annually. Yet only about 1% of the material used to produce clothing globally is recycled, the European Commission has found. 

Circularity can be introduced into clothing manufacture at multiple points in a garment’s life cycle, starting with the early, crucial design stage. Designers can choose to select recycled fibers or materials with lower environmental impacts for garment production, and design decisions can influence how easily a garment can be repaired or recycled. At the production stage, a manufacturer can work to minimize waste by recycling scraps or repurposing unsold or defective inventory. In the use phase, companies can offer garment rental or repair services to help consumers extend their clothes’ lifespan. Finally, in the post-consumer stage, companies can offer take-back programs to consumers to recycle old garments or to stock for secondhand resale.

Data from the 2022 CSA, which asked textiles, apparel and luxury goods companies about circularity for the first time, shows the industry is in the early days of committing to these circular fashion principles, offering programs such as repair services and recycling options, and investing in new ways to manufacture longer-lasting items.

Almost half of assessed companies in the textiles, apparel and luxury goods industry have at least one circular fashion program in place, but only 31% have publicly committed to any aspect of the circular fashion business model. And very few companies — about 16% — are recording at least one performance metric to track how many pounds of materials those programs are removing from the waste stream.

Just under one-third of companies have a program to recycle or reuse unsold goods in order to avoid their destruction, or to allocate research and development resources toward circular fashion initiatives. About one in five companies has a consumer repair program on offer. The two circular fashion principles that companies most frequently committed to are implementing design strategies for cyclability (25.7%) and increasing the share of items made from recycled post-consumer textile fibers (22.9%). These companies have begun holding themselves more accountable for their products’ end-of-life at the design stage and have committed to recapture the value of discarded products and materials into new collections via closed-loop recycling, minimizing the use of virgin inputs. 

At the same time, only a few companies have committed to increasing the number of post-consumer products collected through take-back schemes or resold through re-commerce platforms.

Behind on disclosing and curbing greenhouse gas emissions

Without significant changes to the fashion industry's business model, its impact on global warming and its environmental harm will only increase, studies have found.

McKinsey estimated in 2020 that the fashion industry would need to cut its current emissions levels roughly in half from current levels by 2030, or down to a total of 1.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, to help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C relative to preindustrial levels, the temperature target set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Without any abatement measures, the industry would likely produce up to 2.7 billion metric tons of emissions by 2030.

Greenhouse gas emissions occur in three areas of a company’s activities. Scope 1 covers emissions from direct operations, and Scope 2 includes emissions associated with purchased energy. Scope 3 indirect emissions — those that occur up and down a company's value chains, including at suppliers and during consumption — make up the majority of the fashion industry's emissions profile, according to the World Resources Institute.

Yet quantifying and reporting Scope 3 emissions remain a bigger challenge for companies than reporting Scope 1 and Scope 2. Measuring Scope 3, and ultimately cutting indirect emissions, requires transparency from suppliers and a framework for monitoring emissions related to how consumers use products.

Slightly more than half of assessed companies in the fashion industry currently track and disclose at least one aspect of their Scope 3 emissions, according to the 2022 CSA. Of those that do disclose Scope 3 emissions, 23.7% disclose upstream transportation and distribution emissions, while 22.5% disclose emissions associated with upstream purchased goods and services. These two categories together make up more than 87% of the fashion industry’s Scope 3 emissions, according to the World Resources Institute.

The CSA data shows that only a few companies track emissions associated with their use of sold products or the end-of-life treatment of sold products, such as landfilling, incineration and recycling — one of the phases of a product’s lifecycle where circularity can help curb emissions. McKinsey estimated in 2020 that promoting changes in consumer behavior and shifting to business models that promote clothing rental, resale and repair, reduce washing and drying and increase recycling and collection to shrink landfill waste could cut 347 million metric tons of emissions by 2030.

Adopting a circular business model is one of many ways the fashion industry can reduce its environmental impact. Other options include expanding energy efficiency in manufacturing and transitioning to renewable energy, according to studies by McKinsey and by the World Resources Institute.

Rebuilding consumer trust in sustainability claims

A quarter of respondents to a 2021 survey by McKinsey in the U.K. said their purchase decisions were driven by sustainability, while 80% of consumers in a U.S. survey said sustainability was an important factor when selecting a brand to shop, according to the 2023 State of Fashion report from McKinsey and The Business of Fashion. Yet the ubiquity of fast fashion and greater public understanding of its associated environmental and climate impact is eroding public trust in clothing brands. Consumers do not appear to believe brands’ sustainability claims, and this skepticism leads to mistrust even toward brands that are taking action.

Reporting on circular fashion practices and tracking results could help companies retain or rebuild consumer trust, as could committing to hold themselves to higher standards of transparency and accuracy in marketing practices. Companies have had the opportunity to commit to ethical marketing practices for decades. Sustainable advertising, as well as production and consumption, were key themes at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, and before that, at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

However, companies across many industries appear hesitant to publicly pledge they will apply ethical marketing and advertising practices, such as providing accurate and balanced information, rejecting exaggerated sustainability claims, protecting vulnerable market segments and abstaining from disinforming customers on competitors’ products.

For example, only 8.4% of clothing companies have publicly committed to avoiding exaggerated sustainability claims, the 2022 CSA shows. Some of this reluctance to make public declarations may stem from a lack of standards in this area as well as increased regulatory scrutiny over sustainability claims: The 2023 State of Fashion report from McKinsey and The Business of Fashion found that 79% of fashion executives consider the lack of sustainability standards to be the greatest hurdle to improving how consumers view their sustainability efforts.

Europe leading the way on circular fashion programs

European companies are ahead of peers in other regions in adopting circular fashion programs, such as producing designs that remain in style for longer; creating programs to repair purchased products; dedicating funding for circular-fashion related research and development; and recycling, reusing or reducing the amount of unsold goods.

This trend holds true especially when it comes to tackling one of the biggest sustainability challenges for fashion: shifting consumer behavior through education. In Europe, 35% of textiles, apparel and luxury goods companies assessed in the 2022 CSA are working to educate customers on how to use products more sustainably and make them last longer. In comparison, only 7% of North American companies, 3% of Asia Pacific companies and no companies in Latin America covered in the 2022 CSA have consumer education programs.

Europe has been a leader in establishing policies and strategies related to sustainable fashion. France in 2021 passed a law that included new requirements for the fashion industry on waste and waste prevention, materials reuse and liability for environmental or sustainability marketing claims. The European Commission in March 2022 outlined a plan for setting mandatory minimums for the inclusion of recycled fibers in textiles, "tight controls on greenwashing" and action to address the release of microplastics from textiles.

In the U.S., the New York State legislature is considering a bill called the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act that would require clothing companies operating in the state that have more than $100 million in annual revenue to map out and disclose their supply chains and environmental footprint and set science-based emissions reduction targets.

Compared with its progress in implementing circular fashion programs, supply chain management is a relative strength for the fashion industry. A significantly higher percentage of the fashion industry is working on understanding and disclosing supply chain risks than adopting repair programs or reducing clothing waste. The 2022 CSA found that about 65% of assessed companies in the textiles, apparel and luxury goods industries, as well as retail companies that derive most of their revenue from apparel, footwear and jewelry, are disclosing at least one aspect or key piece of information about their supply chains. About 49% of these companies are integrating environmental, social and governance information into their supply chain management strategy, and about 45% are conducting supply chain risk assessments and taking corrective actions where needed.

Circular fashion could present new opportunities

The adoption of circular business models would allow companies to reduce the harm they do to the environment and their contribution to climate change. But there is also a business case to be made. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that moving fashion to a circular system could unlock $560 billion in economic opportunity.

The apparel resale market and secondhand market are growing, as is demand for rental clothing. The apparel resale company thredUP estimates that the global secondhand clothing market will grow 3 times faster than the overall apparel market by 2026. The market research firm Technavio forecasts that the rental market, driven by demand for elegant outfits for special events, could reach $3 billion by 2026, with more than 40% of that growth coming from Asia Pacific.

Clothing manufacturers and retailers have traditionally skirted these offerings in favor of producing and selling new garments, but circular fashion could help companies reach new customers who prefer to shop secondhand or rent clothing. Putting a new emphasis on cutting clothing waste and investing in the research and development to support the design of longer-lasting products could also help companies rebuild trust with consumers by showing them they are taking action to make the fashion industry more sustainable.

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