A candid future for fashion

Yolanda Mitchell, Senior Strategist at Wolff Olins, explores how brands can impact consumer behaviours to curb climate change and waste.

“You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today.” - Greta Thunberg, 2021

Last year, Greta called out what had niggled on the minds of many fashion lovers since the word “sustainable” was attached to H&M’s Conscious collection all those years ago (and has since been proven misleading). But exposing companies for greenwashing with words like “ethical” and “climate neutral” has not seemed to tackle the fashion industry’s addiction to them. All in the pursuit of selling more by ticking often meaningless boxes.

The inconvenient truth of fashion consumption is nothing new to us. But we’re still hoovering up endless fast items, tossing them aside when we see something else shinier in the distance. People do not wear at least 50 percent of their wardrobes, and studies have found people use each item a mere 5-7 times.

As the world slowly but surely wakes up to this broken system, how can fashion brands remodel themselves for a future predicted to fade them into history?

There was a time we thought renting was the answer - feel the need to wear a golden ball gown? Just borrow it. But then the Finnish scientific journal Environmental Research Letters told us that renting clothes has the highest environmental impact of all. How can that be? Blame the delivery and packaging costs. Heavy use of dry cleaners every day isn’t great either.

Then there’s the new generation of ‘sustainable’ brands. Since its inception in 2009, clothing brand Reformation perfectly tapped into the environmental and ethical worries of consumers wanting pretty party dresses and flirty tops they could feel great in, and about buying. Many of their most popular items are things you dust off occasionally - for a holiday photo opp or to a fancy dinner party. But their catchy tagline “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2,” hooked a generation of women looking to rid themselves of guilt whilst still fuelling their fashion habit. Reformation is transparent about its impact on the planet and community (notwithstanding a recent racism scandal), uses lots of deadstock fabric and goes above and beyond to offset their impact. But if a brand still promotes the culture of ‘you need this party outfit, buy it now’ in perpetuity, can we really hold them up as a beacon for the future of our planet? 

We’ve all read about the new technologies that overhaul the environmental impact of products - Mylo turning mushrooms into bags that pass for designer leather, or Sweden’s Renewcell inventing a process to dissolve used denim into a new fabric - now being used by Levi’s for their iconic 501s. The Conscious Brands Index is a consumer-driven analysis of how responsible and responsive the world's leading brands really are, launched by Wolff Olins last year. Adidas features in the UK top 10 for its efforts to reduce waste throughout the business. This includes developing Primegreen, an innovative material containing no virgin polyester, which they plan to eradicate completely from their products by 2024. 

All these brands and more deserve the accolades they receive. But an awkward truth still lingers - the fashion industry is filled with brands that rely on us consuming far more than we need - regardless of environmental credentials. At the recent exhibition ‘Waste Age’ at The Design Museum in London, visitors were given a heavy dose of reality about the global waste crisis and the leading design solutions to it, before being filtered through a gift shop brimming with promotional hoodies. The problem runs deep.

There’s a second, perhaps even more awkward truth, too. Many of these new technologies are still pricey, and marketed to more affluent consumers who would like a sustainable addition to their collection of less-so items.

At the tail end of consumption we have brands like Thrift+ leading the way. You send them your clothes, they post them to their site and Ebay. Some of that money goes to them, then the rest to you or a charity. It works - and has grown exponentially since founder Joe Metcalfe hacked together processes on his laptop to make it happen. They’ve also partnered with FarFetch to incentivise good habits with luxury fashion consumers. Second hand shopping has been given renewed ‘cool’ status in recent years by brands like Depop, and influencers like Alex Kortland are upping its status even further as the consumption option of choice for the conscious consumer.

But how can the many brands that make new things for us to wear talk candidly about their impact and our consumption, without promptly going bust? Not endorsing Black Friday is a first step many have taken along that journey. Getting transparent about the impact of clothing as Reformation has spearheaded is a valuable tool for education. But as is often the case, Patagonia planted a far more radical seed way back in 2011, announcing “Do Not Buy This Jacket” on billboards - encouraging people to only buy what they unequivocally ‘need’. It’s a position that has served them in extraordinary ways and created a religious following of daily puffer jacket wearers, proudly displaying the logo on their chests. Sending them back to repair, often for free.

If a top was constructed with recycled bottles in a factory using fossil fuels, and is worn seven times before sitting for eternity in landfill, this cannot be referred to as “sustainable” by any standard. Instead of fashion brands acting as guilt-ridders and sustainability box-tickers, they must move to a future where they make buying clothing a conscious, informed choice grounded in facts. That means being specific about what’s good, what’s not, and the responsibility tied to buying (and using) each item.

By getting candid about the cultural and environmental context their products exist in, fashion brands can start to build a future that genuinely does more good than harm. The stakes are high, and the opportunity huge.