Style is supposedly for ever. But the garments needed to conjure up eternal chic are spending less time on shop racks and in homes than ever before. Global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, as apparel firms’ operations became more efficient, their production cycles became quicker and fashionistas got more for their money.
Dressing to impress has an environmental cost as well as a financial one. From the pesticides poured on cotton fields to the washes in which denim is dunked, making 1kg of fabric generates 23kg of greenhouse gases on average. Because consumers keep almost every type of apparel only half as long as they did 15 years ago, these inputs quickly go to waste. The latest worry is shoppers in the developing world, who have yet to buy as many clothes as rich-world consumers but are fast catching up.
How to help that?
One obvious way in which firms can answer environmental concerns is to use renewable energy to power their facilities. Beyond that, they can cut back sharply on water and chemical use; and they can develop new materials and manufacturing processes that reduce inputs. But for many firms, research and development into new materials and methods is not a priority. Plenty do not measure their overall environmental impact. And introducing green collections can even carry a risk for brands.
A handful of brands encourage customers to recycle old clothes by returning them to stores. But almost all apparel today is made of a mix of materials—very often including polyester. Separating them out is difficult and mechanical methods of recycling degrade fibres. Chemical methods are too expensive to be viable. Shipping second-hand clothes off to countries in Africa and Asia is also a bust. Even if local markets are large enough to absorb them, the poorer quality of polyester-mixed garbs means they do not survive long.
We need to think it through
More durable apparel could help. For example, Patagonia, a maker of climbing and hiking gear, sends vans to campuses to help students patch up jackets and trousers. It helps others with greenery, too. After discovering a type of material for wetsuits that, unlike neoprene, requires no oil to make, Patagonia shared the find with surfing brands such as Quiksilver. Such innovation is badly needed. Style may be forever but today’s model of clothing production is not.