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Fashion is big business, but is it green?

Sector could generate 49% of all greenhouse gas emissions in next decade.

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A presentation on April 24 during Sao Paulo Fashion Week in Brazil. Close to 60 per cent of all clothing produced is dumped in landfills or ends up in incinerators within a year.

THE fashion industry has long been an economic superpower of the world, worth of over US$2.5 trillion. In perspective, if the industry was a nation on its own, its value would be on par with the combined GDP of Australia and Spain in 2017. The business of fashion is not likely to go out of style anytime soon and is set to expand even further in the decades ahead.

Today, although an average shopper is buying more clothing than he or she did a few decades ago, the items are kept only for half as long - a phenomenon fuelled by fast fashion, a behavioural shift that started in the '60s in the United States and Europe. However, this trend is now taking shape in Asian countries like China. Coupled with an expected boom in the global middle-class population and rising incomes, there will be a corresponding increase in demand for clothes that reflect social statuses.

HOLES IN THE FABRIC

Between 2015 and 2030, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) estimates that the global middle-class will grow by 80 per cent to hit 5.4 billion. At the current rate that we are consuming fast fashion, by 2050 we will require three times more of the planet's natural resources then we used in 2000. This is not sustainable.

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The carbon footprint of the fashion industry is gargantuan - producing a single cotton shirt requires upwards of 2,700 litres of water, equivalent to the amount a single person drinks in 2½ years. A report released early last year by ClimateWorks Foundation and Quantis found that apparel and footwear industries accounted for 8 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, and within the next decade, this is set to increase to 49 per cent unless action is taken swiftly and immediately.

The rise of athleisure in recent years has seen the footwear industry join the ranks of fast fashion as brands accommodate changing trends and consumer demands. In 2017, demand for sport leisure styles surged by almost 20 per cent in the US alone, while performance apparel demand collapsed by 10 per cent. The athleisure lifestyle is centred on being "on-the-go" and this is influencing how sneakers are designed and produced. Brands need to carefully consider the materials they use and production methods to ensure they're eco-conscious.

However, a tsunami of change appears to be on the horizon. An increasing number of organisations are piling on the pressure for the industry to adopt sustainable development practices and support a circular economy. Most recently, 10 United Nations organisations have come together and established the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion in a bid to put a stop to the industry's environmentally and socially destructive practices.

BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO AN OLD WARDROBE

First and foremost, there's an opportunity to drastically slash the industry's carbon footprint. Recent advances in clothing production techniques have made it easier and more cost-effective for brands to adopt sustainable practices. For instance, environmentally-friendly dyeing processes that do not release toxic chemicals into water systems and the environment. On top of that, innovative new materials and fabrics are being created to consume less energy by drying quickly, saving energy both in the production process and in everyday use.

Secondly, how do we tackle the fallout of fast fashion? The waste currently generated is staggering - close to 60 per cent of all clothing is dumped in landfills or ends up in incinerators within a year of being produced, and only 1 per cent of clothing worldwide gets recycled. To support recycling, brands and designers need to create with longevity in mind - replacing environmentally-unfriendly fabrics, like mixed-fibre and synthetics, with more advanced monofibres, which can be recycled much easier.

Lastly, with the athleisure trend not expected to fade anytime soon, it should be a top priority for manufacturers to introduce sustainable, eco-friendly and even recycled materials in their production processes and supply chain. For instance, by just switching from sewing shoes to knitting, it can already drastically reduce the waste materials produced. On top of that, it eliminates the need for cheap labour as the work will be automated by a machine. This bodes well for an industry that has been traditionally built on poor child labour practices and exploitative practices of women and girls.

While recycling is a great starting point, the next logical question to ask is how can designers, brands and manufacturers take sustainability to the next level and even eliminate the need to recycle, encouraging consumers to use their purchases for longer. The onus here is on brands to take a step back and challenge the status quo - designing clothing with durability at its core, prioritising quality over quantity with the end-goal of eliminating fast fashion altogether.

STITCHING TOGETHER THE PIECES

To successfully fast-track the fashion industry into becoming sustainable requires the buy-in of many stakeholders in the public and private sectors. However, whether it's by buying fewer clothes designed to last longer or shopping for eco-conscious clothing, consumers arguably have the most important role to play in affecting real industry-wide transformation.

Over the past few decades we've seen many fashion brands come and go and this is largely determined by consumer tastes and demands. With such power to dictate market forces, what if these same consumers are empowered to make their voices heard around a rallying cry for more sustainable fashion, providing brands with the push to get on board or get left behind?

The tide is already changing - a 2018 YouGov report found that one in two consumers across the Asia-Pacific believe that businesses have a responsibility to ensure their supply chain does not harm the environment.

In an industry fuelled by new trends, we are presented with a unique platform to make sustainability "cool" and desirable. With a multitude of annual fashion weeks around the world, the stage is set to receive new lines of fashion that are both style-forward and pushing eco-conscious fabrics and designs.

Of course, it's not a simple road ahead. To breathe new life into an industry built on consumerism and easy and open access to resources like water and cheap labour is no small feat. Much will hang on our future leaders in fashion to continue innovating and reinventing century-old practices. But the work has already started, and I am confident we can ensure that this wonderful planet, which is not equipped to support our current consumption habits, survives for many more fashionable generations to come.

  • The writer is Vice President, Consumer Industry, Performance Materials Asia Pacific, at BASF South East Asia Pte Ltd
    Chemicals company BASF is working with fashion brands and manufacturers globally to drive adoption of more sustainable production and products.