Fast fashion – recycling needs to be a catalyst for true transformation

Fast fashion’s dirty secrets are beginning to be more widely and publicly unmasked, but a government tax on garments to support recycling is just part of the solution argues Becky Willan, Managing Director of Given London.

The 1p tax on all garments sold, proposed by the Environmental Audit Committee in its Fast Fashion report, has grabbed headlines and helped publicise the sustainability issues around throwaway fashion. But while the tax could raise an extra £35million to go towards better textile collection and sorting, it is just one of the report’s recommendations.

Recycling is an important part of tackling a disposable attitude to fashion consumption. However, it can only ever be part of the solution for addressing the scale of the environmental and social challenges facing the fashion industry. The true potential of this government initiative will be in its function as a catalyst for change to a multi-faceted problem.

Fast fashion problems uncovered by the EAC report included: synthetic fibre pollution, excessive water consumption, landfilling and incineration of unsold stock, over consumption of fashion and the degradation of workers’ rights. Sustainability challenges facing fashion are broad and complex and because of this, brands need to think more holistically about the entire value chain. Consideration needs to be given to where the opportunities are for reducing negative social and environmental impact as well as the potential to deliver long-term, positive change.

In the UK, we buy more garments per person than any other European country and the average life of a garment today is just 2.2 years. There’s more than one option for consumers to consider for garments that they no longer want. However, not all of these sustainable alternatives are well communicated to consumers, and in many cases, recycling is the least favourable solution.

Solutions that encourage consumers to keep their garments in a cycle of use such as repairing services, rental business models, sharing among peers or even simply re-styling and wearing again, are much more sustainable and transformative approaches to addressing throwaway attitudes and diverting waste from landfill. Fashion brands should consider how they might make it easier for consumers to repair damaged garments, and how they can become part of the resale economy. Currently, it costs more to repair a garment than to simply purchase an entirely new garment. In isolation, recycling also presents its own set of challenges. Recycled garments are more commonly downcycled into a lower grade product, for example industrial rags or low-grade blankets, rather than reverted back to a high-quality product, which would be a more sustainable use of resources.

There are several well-established brands leading the sustainability agenda, including H&M Group and Stella McCartney, and other, often smaller disruptive brands like Nudie Jeans challenging many of the conventions of traditional fashion business models. But there remains a lack of sufficient availability of sustainable fashion choices for consumers. Sustainable fashion represents just 1% of the entire fashion industry. Yet research shows that consumers want to support sustainable fashion. The McKinsey, State of Fashion Report, found 66% of consumers were willing in theory to spend more on sustainable brands.

Government intervention through taxation can be powerful, as illustrated by the recent reduction in single-use plastic bags. Yet the job remains to consider how governments and brands can address the true length and breadth of the fast fashion problem and provide viable, simple and common-sense solutions for consumers which will drive behaviour change.

Becky Willan is Managing Director of Given, a brand purpose agency that helps businesses grow by doing good:


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