The modern, industrialized world of the twenty-first century produces more waste than any century before, making devastating contributions to global climate change. In order to find and implement solutions to the climate crisis, industries must recognize their waste footprint. The fashion industry’s waste footprint has been notoriously grotesque since the dawn of mass production in the Industrial Revolution. Fashion is one of the greatest polluting industries in the world. Although much of fashion’s production has been outsourced, hundreds of brands are headquartered in the United States. Much of the damage is not in our backyard, but American companies’ activity abroad must still be considered in current affairs issues of the United States.
The creation of beautiful garments, truly an art form, has contributed to one of the world’s ugliest issues. The Environmental Protection Agency revealed that, in 2013 alone, 15 million tons of textile waste came out of the United States’ fashion industry. Much of that textile waste comes from overproduction. When a brand overshoots their sales projections for a product, the question of what to do with the excess often has a troubling answer. Until very recently, major fashion houses, such as Burberry, let all of their unsold items go up in smoke. This is meant in the literal sense; the incineration of unsold items was viewed as a way to maintain brand exclusivity. The fewer products that exist, the more posh their customers feel and the more exclusive image the brand possesses. The burning of “deadstock” has been a tragically common practice in the fashion industry for quite some time across many beloved brands. The guilt is shared by luxury and street-wear brands alike. The greatest problem the fashion industry faces entering the 2020s is waste. There are mixed reports of where the fashion industry ranks in comparison to the greatest polluting industries, but clearly it sits in the top ten with hundreds of billions of tons of waste produced globally.
The light at the end of this waste-ridden tunnel is that a majority of this “deadstock” is not necessarily dead. A product’s life-cycle is studied by economists the same way an organism’s life-cycle is studied by biologists. One solution to fashion’s waste crisis is creating a circular life-cycle for products so that there is no such thing as “deadstock.” As the world has become more aware of how industrial practices harm the environment, the rise of the socially and environmentally conscious consumer has forced brands to come forward and begin holding themselves accountable in the pursuit of sustainability. Burbery’s incineration practices came to an end after they realized they were burning more than just products by offending their consumer base. Since coming clean, they have commited to upcycle leather scraps into more products. Burberry’s efforts, though valiant and effective, are only a drop in the ocean that is the fashion industry’s ecological footprint, however.
Instead of a product’s lifecycle ending up in flames, technology offers the opportunity to sustainably extend the lifetime of garments. The circular economy concept presents a viable solution to clothing’s colossal waste production. There are teams of technology-focused environmentalists and fashion technologists that are developing ways to close the loop. For example, a New York City based company, Eon, creates digital identities for products to track the entire product lifecycle. These IDs give every clothing item a birth certificate: noting its brand, color, dimensions, launch date, product group, and article type as well as assigning it a style number, basically a social security number for clothing. Beyond the birth certificate, the ID informs consumers of their options when they no longer want the item, providing instructions for both recycling and selling that particular item. The ID also includes data on how the item has performed in the international marketplace. Consumers can know exactly where their clothing has been because each ID includes a passport, with timestamps, locations, and details all noted. With this level of insight and supply chain transparency, garments’ life cycles can much more easily become cradle-to-cradle rather than cradle-to-grave. Eon has already partnered with H&M, a brand once infamously known for burning their deadstock. Acceptance of this technology could be essential in creating a zero-waste circular economy. With this kind of ID, there will be greater opportunities to reuse and recycle from the very beginning of a product’s lifecycle. This kind of innovation offers the industry an opportunity to create a sustainable, technologically advanced future.
The 2020’s will be a defining decade for the fashion industry, and it is up to us to be part of the change. As young women, we are the target market for a majority of fast fashion companies. Now is the time for us to think before we buy, and become conscious consumers. Start reading up on your favorite brands’ sustainability policies. If you find that your go-to online shop does not have any type of policy, it may be time to find a new favorite spot or voice your concerns to brand representatives. As members of the target market, we have the power to influence brand decision making. Together we can prove that our generation of consumers cares about where our clothing comes from, as well as where it goes. Again, H&M has come a long way from where it once was. That evolution is evidence of the impact consumers’ voices can have on a brand’s decision making. Let our shopping habits be catalysts for long-term change in the fashion industry.