Richest Consumers Should Stop Buying So Many Clothes, Says Report

LONDON — The richest consumers in countries such as the U.K., U.S. and Japan should only buy an average of five new fashion garments per year by 2030 to keep the 1.5°C climate target alive, says a new report set to be published Thursday.

The report, “Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable: Resizing Fashion for a Fair Consumption Space,” has been prepared by two Europe-based organizations, The Hot or Cool Institute and the Rapid Transition Alliance, ahead of the Black Friday sales.

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The Hot or Cool Institute is based in Germany and describes itself as a think tank exploring “the intersection between society and sustainability, and seeking solutions to global problems.” The Rapid Transition Alliance is a network of international organizations that says it’s engaged in “practical work, research and campaigning to tackle the climate emergency.”

The 1.5 °C target is the goal of the Paris Agreement, which calls for countries to take concerted climate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming by 2030. According to scientific experts, allowing the planet to heat beyond that temperature could be perilous for nature and humanity.

The new report sets out a number of suggestions about how the global fashion industry can be brought in line with the Paris Agreement target.

Without urgent action from government, industry and consumers, it says that fashion could account for “up to a quarter” of the global carbon budget by 2050.

Fashion’s climate impact, it argues, is “far higher” in wealthier countries, such as the U.K. The richest 20 percent in those countries need to reduce their carbon footprint from fashion consumption by 83 percent by 2030 to be aligned with the 1.5°C goal.

On average, fashion consumption of the richest 20 percent of shoppers emits 20 times the emissions of the poorest 20 percent, although this varies substantially across countries, the report says.

“The fashion industry — from producers and manufacturers to retailers and consumers — needs wide-ranging changes to make it more sustainable, fairer and less polluting,” the authors say.

“Without such changes, the fashion industry’s share of global emissions will increase. By 2030, emissions from fashion are expected to rise by almost 50 percent. In 2030, the global fashion industry will be emitting emissions equivalent to those released by India in 2021, a nation of around 1.4 billion people and the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the U.S.,” the authors add.

They believe the carbon footprint of fashion consumption among wealthy G20 nations must fall by 60 percent on average by 2030. For upper-middle income nations, like Brazil and South Africa, the fashion footprint needs to fall by 40 percent by 2030. In nations such as India and Indonesia the average carbon footprint of fashion consumption is currently below the 1.5°C limit.

The report’s recommendations for curtailing fashion’s growing environmental footprint include reducing the purchase of new clothing, which is four times more effective at cutting emissions than the next best solution, which is increasing the longevity of clothes.

To keep the 1.5°C target alive, the authors of the report say overall, per capita fashion consumption needs to return to 2010 levels in most high-income countries. In addition, the companies making the clothes should reform their business models and cut emissions in the production, retail, and disposal of garments.

The report also points out that fashion’s impact on the environment extends beyond carbon emissions, and to resources such as water. In addition, the growing use of synthetic fibres such as polyester, is driving up demand for polluting oil and gas, some of which is still coming from Russia.

Andrew Simms, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, said, “System and behavior change, especially by wealthy consumers with bulging wardrobes, need to come together so that people dress themselves within planetary and climate boundaries. Rapid transition to keep a habitable climate now includes rethinking the shirt on your back.”

Dilys Williams, professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability at London College of Fashion, said the report is “a wake-up call to those in the fashion and sustainability space. It uncovers data that shines a light on the intersectional issues of fashion and points of intervention in the fashion system that are critical for achieving climate justice.”

While the report highlights fashion’s drag on the environment, there are many companies — from fast fashion to luxury to manufacturing, research and development — that are making sustainability strides.

These companies are attempting to reduce their carbon footprint; create closed loop economies; recycle and upcycle fabrics and materials and develop innovative fabrics that are meant to last, and that do not damage the environment.

Earlier this week, HeiQ announced the launch of a biobased, proprietary textile technology called HeiQ Mint. It is plant-based and designed to make textiles smell fresh even if they are used repeatedly, “avoiding the need for frequent washes, thus enabling to save water and energy,” according to the company.

HeiQ is a Swiss textile and materials developer that works with brands ranging from Hugo Boss and Burberry to Uniqlo and Zara.

Its many inventions include a carbon-zapping, recyclable yarn that generates near-zero waste and emissions. The yarn has been designed to substitute existing oil-based filament yarns, such as polyester and nylon, which constitute more than 60 percent of global annual textile output.

In the retail realm, Selfridges has set a series of punchy sustainability goals, becoming a leader among its peers.

In 2020, Selfridges launched its Project Earth program to track its environmental targets and its commitment to a net zero future.

As reported, by 2030 the company wants nearly half of its sales to be circular, meaning they should involve resale, repairs, rentals or refills. Selfridges has also accelerated its net zero goal by changing its deadline to 2040 from 2050.

“We don’t have all the answers, but we are committed to finding solutions through a continued imaginative approach to retail innovation,” said Andrew Keith, managing director of Selfridges, earlier this year.

Earlier this month, as part of its 360-degree circularity and sustainability strategy, Zara launched a three-pronged “Pre-Owned” pilot project in the U.K. It aims to help customers repair, resell or recycle their clothing.

Repair is offered on any used Zara garments no matter the age. Users will pay a fee for service — from replacing buttons and zippers to repairing seams, for example — and shipping fees if facilitated online, with the garment back in hand within 10 days.

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