Fashion’s ‘dirty’ climate change hands 

The fashion industry has the dubious honour of contributing to the planet's climate crisis which included a sweltering summer in the North Hemisphere, so what's next, asks Gherzi Textil Organisation partner Robert P. Antoshak.

Can the fashion industry right its wrongs imminently when it comes to climate change? Credit: Shutterstock.

The debate over climate change may have taken a turn this year as the North Hemisphere suffered through a brutally hot summer. In fact, according to the United Nations, “The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived. Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning,” reported the Washington Post. 

We're left knowing that our industry has the dubious honour of contributing to the planet's climate crisis. Over the past 40 years, our industry built an intricate global system of suppliers, contractors, and shippers, supported by a complex infrastructure of storage and logistical services - all to maximise just-in-time retail replenishment and consumer purchasing, the essence of fast fashion. 

But over those same 40 years, climate change became harder and harder to ignore or explain away. Politically, governments and members of the polis have had an increasingly difficult time ignoring this changing world. Indeed, scientific evidence documents that warming waters, droughts, intense weather events, runaway wildfires, and melting ice caps are not a figment of the imagination of overzealous environmentalists - but are real. 

Environmental indifference

And our industry has contributed to our warming world. The rush to globalise resulted in more energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution of our water resources. Our industry's logistical efficiency in managing a global network of suppliers and logistical systems is something to behold. Please make no mistake: it's an outstanding achievement but costly considering our industry's impact on the planet's climate. In this sense, efficiency went hand in hand with environmental indifference. 

A small consolation is that our industry isn't solely to blame for climate change. But as a significant contributor, our hands are dirty. We have a responsibility. Yet, our industry has increasingly come to grips with its environmental responsibilities. There are genuine efforts to change business practices, find ways to repair the damage if possible, and work towards a more plant-friendly future. 

Even so, as an industry dominated by marketers, new environmentally friendly initiatives are often tainted with marketing spin (think sustainability, circularity, or even transparency). In some ways, it's unavoidable as change takes time; innovation is not a straight-line endeavour but rather a process typified by fits and starts, failures and successes. As it took years for globalised supply chains to emerge, it will take time for many aspirational environmental goals to be realised. 

The rub is if future goals of achieving sustainable objectives are put off until 2030, 2040, or beyond. It sounds great as a message for today - only who will be around to remember it in 15 years? A marketer's delight to sell for today with a story for tomorrow; whether it's true or not is irrelevant if the next quarter's sales goals are hit. 

What should our industry do about the changing global environment? There are many suggestions, for sure. But a rallying cry of some environmentalists is for consumers to buy less (and recycle more). The assumption is that by consuming less, there will be less post-industrial waste and less post-consumer waste in landfills or burned. If demand eases, the demand for environmentally harsh raw materials will also reduce, or so the thinking goes. 

Of course, this flies in the face of the realities of an industry built upon the foundation of cheap stuff made possible by vast scales of production. If consumers buy less stuff, then what? And if they buy less, do low prices lose their appeal? After all, if people don't want to buy, then isn't the allure of low prices somehow muted? 

Is this the end of cheap fashion?

That could be the case but for various reasons, including changes in sourcing, consumer attitudes, and demographics. Claims from the Wall Street Journal: "The twilight of ultracheap Asian factory labour is emerging as the latest test of the globalised manufacturing model, which over the past three decades has delivered a vast array of inexpensively produced goods to consumers around the world. Americans accustomed to bargain-rate fashion and flat-screen TVs might soon be reckoning with higher prices." 

Why? There are several reasons, but most pointedly, there is a shortage of young workers, particularly in China. Demographic changes have played a role as many families have fewer children than was the case with previous generations. Expectations also affect employment: many young people want to work in service or technology jobs rather than manufacturing. 

Further, China has graduated record numbers of young people from universities only to find relatively few jobs for well-educated individuals. Manufacturing jobs, in turn, don't even register for many of these recent graduates despite recent calls by Beijing for schools to lower the expectations of new entries into the workforce. How will our industry adapt without China in the mix to make lots of stuff with good quality and low prices? China's costs began to rise even before the pandemic. 

Globalised economics is predicated on continued growth. That's why so many international organisations fret over global growth forecasts. But what happens if people say they have enough stuff? Does price really matter, then? And could that be more than just a temporary occurrence? In the West, the population is getting older - so do they really need so much stuff? 

What's the bottom line for clothing companies? The age of inexpensive goods may be coming to an end. For consumers long accustomed to dirt-cheap clothing, a day of reckoning may be around the corner. For fast fashion companies, you may have to get faster - or learn how to sell less but accept a mark-up. 

Is less demand a good thing?

There is a curious thing to consider, though. If prices go up due to changes in Asian supply chains, consumption will presumably go down. In turn, will over-consumption by consumers moderate? It's not a great development for brands and retailers - but some environmentalists would welcome it! 

Our industry was built for a different time. High growth and over-consumption were the pillars of the industry. Today, it's a new ballgame. But, as we've seen with so many environmental programmes, the party got out of hand. We're in a hangover. Less consumption is the order of the day, either because of consumer conviction or economics. 

Nevertheless, there's also so much fashion supply out there - and this is where we see the intersection of free markets and climate change. Too much of a good thing has left us to pay the bill, with the planet stuck with the tab.