Wednesday, February 28, 2024

How fast, cheap fashion is polluting the planet

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What’s sustainable fashion?

It is a movement aimed at making the fashion industry more environmentally responsible by changing the way clothes are designed, made, transported, used and discarded.

Proponents say if apparel makers were forced to bear the cost of cleaning up after themselves, they would adopt cleaner practices.

Among the practices promoted by advocates: tighter integration between the design and manufacturing phases, which often happen on different continents. That could make fabric cutting more accurate and reduce textile waste.

Clothing brands are feeling the pressure and have begun citing the budding popularity of sustainable fashion as a risk to their business. They are also making changes.

Adidas reported that roughly 96 per cent of the polyester it used in 2022 came from recycled material. Hugo Boss said 93 per cent of its cotton was purchased from “more sustainable” sources in 2022; for Gap, that number was 81 per cent.

Burberry Group, H&M and Levi Strauss & Co are moving towards plant-based alternatives to chemical dyes.

Many small apparel makers hawking sustainable fashion have entered the market in recent years, exploring the potential of “leather” made from mushrooms and even algae to reduce the impact of clothes that are thrown away.

Is recycling or reuse a solution?

Yes and no. Most clothing can be at least partly recycled, but the process has its own environmental costs.

For example, fibre blends need to be separated using an energy-intensive process. Even after separation, only about 20 per cent of the material can be blended with polyester or so-called virgin cotton to make a new garment.

In the United States, only about 15 per cent of textiles, including clothing, are recycled or reused.

Western nations have long exported their textile waste to developing countries for reuse, mainly in Africa, but those countries are accepting less of it now.

Regulators in parts of the US and Europe are considering making fashion companies pay fees based on how much clothing they produce, as makers of batteries and mattresses sometimes do, with the proceeds going to recycling programmes.

Is any of this making a difference?

Not yet. Better practices still do not offset the negative effects of the industry’s rapid growth, projected to reach more than 100 million tons of apparel and footwear purchased each year by 2030.

Retailers including Shein Group, H&M, Zara and Boohoo Group have been chided by consumers, activists and public officials for their mounting climate, water and plastic pollution footprints and for “greenwashing”, or misleading consumers about their environmental impact.

In November, Singapore-based Shein filed confidentially with US regulators for an initial public offering that could take place in 2024, despite claims by critics of poor labour conditions and overproduction.

Some industry solutions raise new problems: organic cotton farming reduces exposure to toxins, but it uses much more water. And even the most adamant proponents of a shift to “slow fashion” acknowledge that little change is possible without a radical change in consumer habits. BLOOMBERG

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