A fashion fan’s guide to shopping smarter
While sustainable fashion has gone mainstream, it can still be tricky to make informed choices when clothes shopping. Cyndi Rhoades, founder of Worn Again Technologies, explains the issues within the garment industry and offers tried and tested tips for buying in a world where fashion is more ‘circular’
On the streets of Amsterdam, calling in on vintage stores and boutiques in The 9 Streets to the characterful shopping experiences of UK charity shops – I’ve been on a lifelong mission to source style sustainably. Now, due to climate change and increased awareness around the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, clothes and our consumption habits have been thrust into the spotlight.
The current problem with clothes
It’s no secret that the fashion industry is responsible for up to ten per cent of global carbon emissions, and the sector is currently on track to double its output by 2050. Polyester and cotton – the two most popular clothing fibres – take large amounts of resources to produce. Demand for both is set to increase by 63 per cent in the next decade. Then there are microplastics, which are harming ocean biodiversity. Meanwhile, mountains of textiles, more than 50 million tonnes a year, are ending up in landfill sites and incinerators. In addition to the environment, there’s still a long way to go to improve working conditions and the livelihoods of the millions of people who make our clothes.
Thankfully, concern around these issues has been on a sharp increase. Customers are responding to the challenge of contributing to a zero-carbon future and so, too, is the industry. This is evidenced by more renewable and recycled materials being used, increased supply chain transparency, clothing being designed for recyclability and industry-wide targets such as the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
A good place to start when looking for a new sustainable garment is the materials used. Check the label for Preferred Cotton (Fairtrade, Better Cotton Initiative etc) or recycled polyester and nylon. Clothes made with cellulose fibres, such as Modal and Lyocell viscose, with FSC or PEFC certification are a great option. The Responsible Wool Standard ensures animal welfare and responsible land use or recycled wool where possible. Exciting new materials such as Piñatex®, made from pineapple leaves, Orange Fiber, made from citrus waste, or Mylo, a fake leather made from mycelium, are also growing in popularity.
Buying new clothes featuring sustainable materials is great, but reusing, repurposing or repairing existing garments where possible is higher up on the ‘sustainability index’.
Reuse, rental and repair
The joy of discovering one-off finds in large, nondescript and fluorescent-lit thrift stores, such as Volunteers of America in the US, or in the cosier UK charity shops such as TRAID and Oxfam, can’t be beaten.
A slew of new reuse, rental and repair business models as well as apps are making it easier to keep clothes in circulation. Companies such as Depop, a UK fashion marketplace app for under-25s, ThredUP, a US online store for second-hand clothes, My Wardrobe HQ, a UK fashion rental outlet and Patagonia’s Worn Wear repair trucks are prime examples. Jeans giant Levi’s has recently launched a buy-back and resale programme and Gucci has collaborated with The RealReal on an app to keep its products in circulation.
Buying better (and returning)
After years of militant thrifting, and as more sustainable clothing options became available, I started to use my purchasing power to support businesses in all shapes and sizes advocating a more responsible industry. Buying from these companies is an excellent way to encourage change. And it’s not just startup innovator brands making waves.
Global companies such as H&M, Levi’s and Patagonia have been pioneering the charge towards a more sustainable industry. Due to their scale, these companies help shift the needle towards more renewable practices across the sector, for instance in materials sourcing, utilising water-free dying processes and providing in-store textile collection programmes. When clothes shopping sustainably, choosing a large, responsible brand can have a direct effect on the industry. In the luxury market, Kering and Stella McCartney are spearheading materials innovation and biodiversity preservation.
A circular future
Currently, less than one per cent of clothing gets turned back into new garments due to the technical and economic limitations of today’s textile-to-textile recycling methods. Keeping textiles in circulation and out of landfill is a priority for the industry, as it is currently the only way to create a sustainable clothing economy.
However, innovative new recycling technologies are on the horizon, and these will enable old clothing to be turned back into high-quality raw materials that are equivalent to virgin fibres. These can be used for making new, sustainable textiles over and over again. Such innovations are at various stages of scaling and are set to transform fashion.
The future of textiles is about keeping resources in circulation. Businesses, government and people power, in the form of our purchasing decisions and recycling our unwanted textiles, are what will drive this culture shift. It’s about good business, saving the world and looking damn good while doing it.
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