What's Needed to Clean Up the Fashion Industry?

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CC BY 2.0. Mike Mozart -- Zara is a big player in the fast fashion industry

A new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation outlines steps to a circular fashion economy.

The fashion industry is notorious for being the second most polluting on Earth, next to oil and gas. Fast fashion brands have made clothes cheaper, trendier, and more accessible than ever, but this comes at the high cost of diminished resources, dangerous production conditions, chemical exposure, energy spent on transportation, and GHG emissions when these items are thrown in landfill.

Other reports have revealed the damage caused by polyester fabrics when washed. Tiny plastic microfibres become dislodged in the washing machine and flushed into waterways, where they are ingested by marine wildlife and enter the food chain. It brings a whole new disturbing meaning to the idea of "eating one's shirt."

circular fashion economy diagram 2

© Ellen MacArthur Foundation / A New Textiles Economy

Fast fashion pieces are not kept, nor are they designed to be; an estimated 50 percent of fast fashion items are discarded within a year of purchasing. Less than 1 percent of textiles is recycled, and one garbage truck full of textiles is landfilled or burnt every second.

Under these circumstances, the latest report on fashion from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is more needed than ever. Titled "A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's Future," the report outlines a vision and sets out actions for a circular clothing economy, in which the planet is no longer ravaged by our lust for new, trendy clothes, and this enormously influential industry is turned into a force for good.

While there is much to discover in the report's 150 pages (you can read the whole thing here), it boils down to four concluding solutions.

-- We need to get rid of substances of concern and microfibre release. The innovation and use of safer materials needs to be a major priority for the industry. You can do this by buying organic natural fibers when shopping for clothes.

-- We need to transform the way in which clothes are designed. Disposability must end. Emphasis should be put on "scaling up closing rental schemes; making durability more attractive; and increasing clothing utilisation through brand commitments and policy." Vice Impact interprets this as "the industry supporting and promoting short-term clothing rental businesses," which is a great idea.

-- We need to radically improve recycling. This requires better clothing design, collection, and reprocessing technology. Demand for recycled materials needs to go up, and the number of clothing collection points increased.

-- We need more renewable materials. We have to get away from using oil-based textiles, like nylon, polyester, fleece, and such, in clothing. Natural fibers can biodegrade more readily when they reach end of life and will not leach microplastics into water when washed.

circular fashion economy diagram 1

© Ellen MacArthur Foundation / A New Textiles Economy

As the report says, pursuing these goals would enable the fashion industry to boast better economic, environmental, and social outcomes -- opportunities lost by the current linear textiles system.

There is a healthier way to do things. We, as people who buy clothes for ourselves and our families, must choose consciously to support such transitions, and stop financing 'bad' fashion that is so damaging to our world. As Vice suggests, we should start repeating to ourselves, "I buy, therefore I keep," the antithesis of the fast fashion mentality.