The clothes we wear tell a story – Fast Fashion vs Climate Change


In the run up to COP26, climate change has been a hot topic of conversation. This is especially the case within the retail industry. Each year the retail industry contributes approximately 215 MtCO2e, placing itself as one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

Customers and retailers are increasingly aware of the expectations and actions that need to be taken to be more environmentally friendly.

Are Retail customers more conscious of their purchase decisions?

To reduce the amount of energy being used, and one's individual impact on climate change, customers are now engaging with slow fashion more and more. Slow fashion encompasses an awareness and approach to fashion that considers the processes and resources required to make the items you are purchasing. This can be done by not buying as many items, ensuring high quality garments are purchased, trading between family and friends, as well as, being aware of what the clothing is made of before purchasing.

It has also been found that 71% of consumers would alter their online shopping habits if they knew return items would be destroyed or sent to a landfill. It is now said that 64% look for ethical or sustainable features of a brand before making a purchase.

These changes in behaviour indicate that individual consumers appear to be playing their part in the fight against climate change.

But, what does this mean for the retailers themselves?

Due to the changes in attitude of customers, retailers  who are acting on climate change issues will benefit from a reputational point of view.. For a fashion brand, reputation is extremely important. This governs who will buy from them, whether other businesses will collaborate with them and whether people will want to work with them which, all in turn, impacts the profitability of the business.

Consumers can use contractual law to influence commercial environmental practice by challenging  businesses if they have made misleading environmental claims about their products. Consumer protection law therefore creates an equal opportunity and protects businesses from unfair competition. It encourages businesses to invest in environmentally friendly practices and communicate their efforts in a transparent way which leads to commercial benefits.

The transparency of retailers investing in making a change are evident in the big fashion retailers - H&M stated that they want to run solely on renewable energy by 2040 and Levi have set themselves a goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 90% and their supply chain by 40%. Another positive action that fashion brands are publicising, such as Missguided, is that they are becoming active members of the Ethical Trading Initiative.

Silvia Rindone, the UK & Ireland retail leader at EY, commented that COVID-19 has hit a reset button for company strategies. This means that retailers are beginning to look at initiatives such as in store recycling, alternative packaging and business models that may allow rental clothing. New legislation to introduce further taxes on plastic has been cited to come into force in 2022 and supports the steps taken by retailers. The new legislation may include taxing textiles that are made of less than 50% recycled PET which would encourage the growth of the recycled fibres market in the UK.

What else can Retailers do?

Experts advise that the fast fashion industry needs to cut down on 'deadstock' to truly make a positive impact on climate change. This refers to clothing that is unsold, returned and then disposed of. The Environmental Audit Committee suggested a ban on the incineration and landfilling of unsold clothes and provided a recommendation for a change in fibres, for example changing polyester to a recycled PET. This would prevent micro plastics shedding into the environment, which as seen above, will hopefully be supported by the law.

Retailers often source clothing and employees from around the world. Many have moved away from this model and are now sourcing M their products and staff as locally as possible. This not only reduces their carbon footprint, but also supports the local community around them.

Retailers are challenged to solve these issues, but these are often complex problems that require collaborative approaches with a range of actors. Campaigns, such as the Fashion Revolution, have called upon the Government to pass due diligence laws that would require the company to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their actual and potential adverse environmental impacts.

 Retailers and consumers are aware of what needs to be done to combat environmental issues in the sector, and many are publicising the initiatives they are employing in their businesses. However, to make a true change, a collaborative approach is needed. The question is: are others doing enough for these issues to be overcome quickly enough?  

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