Overcoming plastic waste in the fashion industry

plastic waste

The fashion industry produces double the amount of clothing that it did 20 years ago and has seen a comparable increase in plastic waste.

Is the fashion industry making inroads necessary to cut its use of plastic and ultimately limit its impact on the environment?

A report by WIRED earlier this year highlighted the fact that, annually, ‘the fashion industry uses 342 million barrels of petroleum to produce plastic-based fibres such as polyester, nylon or acrylic…equating to 1.35 per cent of global oil consumption.’

While major steps have been, and continue to be taken to reduce the industry’s dependency on plastic, the sheer quantity of items being produced makes this task ever more complex. Currently the fashion industry is producing more than double the amount of clothing that it was back at the turn of the millennium.

There are a range of issues beyond the actual production of clothes that are significantly contributing to the plastic waste associated with the fashion industry.

Research by sustainable material manufacturers Arch & Hook detail that more than 128 billion plastic hangers are used globally every year which equates to approximately 18 hangers per person. The vast majority of these hangers end up in landfill.

Packaging is also an issue – back in 2018 fashion associated packaging waste generated 174.1kg per person in the EU. The pandemic worsened the issue with the mass uplift in online shopping.

The growing popularity of the fast fashion industry and consumers’ one wear and throw habits are additional ingredients of booming plastic waste – the global market of fast fashion is expected to grow to $133.43 billion in 2026, up from $91.23 billion in 2021.

Most of the pledges made by global fashion leaders back in November 2021 focused around the acceleration of material innovation and increased exploration and implementation of circularity – a framework that effectively manages waste.

But a Vogue Business report earlier in the year noted: “despite the interest in and emphasis placed on sustainable fashion, the industry as a whole has made little tangible progress this year. Emissions continue to increase, circularity remains elusive, next-gen textiles have yet to scale.”

However, fashion businesses are making a conscious effort to commit to sustainability, going far beyond simply offering customers a reusable carrier bag as part of their shopping experience. Beauty brand Glossier is one such example of a business who has taken the concept of reusable packaging in their stride, providing customers with the ‘pink pouch’ for future usage in whatever way they please.

At this year’s Met Gala, celebrities like Camilla Cabello and Billie Eilish sported sustainable looks, with the latter choosing to don a pair of Nike Air Force 1 made from recycled nubuck. The celebrities’ choice to dress eco-first is something which is being actively supported by luxury fashion brands – LVMH has joined the ‘circular fashion wave’ with Nona Source while style magazine reports: “Burberry and Stella McCartney have partnered with authenticated luxury consignment marketplace, The RealReal, encouraging their customers to extend the life of their products through resale.”

There is a lot going on within the industry but it doesn’t seem quite enough and there’s an onus on the customer, rather than just the brand, to take the next step towards sustainability. According to research from ING: “at least six in ten (61 per cent) of global consumers say they would be less willing to buy a company’s product if they found it performed poorly on environmental practices, a new survey has revealed.”

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