• Extinction Rebellion protesters disrupted the opening of London Fashion Week.
  • The fashion industry’s environmental impact has gained increased attention – in part as a result of the rise of fast fashion.
  • The industry has responded by launching a Fashion Pact.

The group called on the industry to change its approach to protecting the planet: “We are asking not for sustainability but a complete reinvention of this industry in a way that regenerates the environment,” Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Sara Arnold said.

She added that the industry can’t do it alone and urged it to “call on the government to act”.

Extinction Rebellion activists block a road, holding signs and flags, during protest outside a venue for London Fashion Week, Britain February 15, 2020.
Extinction Rebellion activists block a road, holding signs and flags, during protest.
Image: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

The impact of fast fashion

The rise of “fast fashion” – clothes made quickly, cheaply and sold at low cost – has seen our buying habits change.

In the EU, the amount of clothes bought per person has increased by 40% in just a few decades. But 30% of clothes in Europeans’ drawers and wardrobes haven’t been worn in at least a year.

How much clothing do we waste?
How much clothing do we waste?
Image: World Resources Institute

So cheaper for us – but at what cost to the planet?

The carbon emissions of the fashion industry are hard to calculate, with long supply chains and the different materials that go into the production of all the clothes, bags and shoes we wear.

But take polyester – a common material in modern clothes. A polyester shirt’s carbon footprint is around 5.5kg of greenhouse gases, and polyester production for use in textiles released around 700 billion kg of greenhouse gases in 2015. That’s the same as 185 coal-fired power stations.

Polyester production is carbon intensive
Polyester pollution?
Image: World Resources Institute

What about cotton? It has a – marginally – lower carbon footprint at 4.4kg per shirt. But it takes 2,700 litres of water to make just one cotton shirt – what an average person drinks in two-and-a-half years.

Production can also pollute water, while fabric dyeing uses 5 trillion litres of water every year.

Taking action

Helen Crowley, Fellow and Senior Advisor for Resilient Supply Chains at Conservation International, explained at the Forum’s Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils in Dubai last year that tackling these issues requires taking a broad view:

“It takes a whole supply chain approach. It doesn’t just look at your shop, it doesn’t just look at manufacturing," she said. "It looks at where you’re sourcing your raw materials, how you’re extracting your raw materials. If it’s wool, if it’s cashmere, it’s cotton, if it’s leather – how you’re extracting them, and understanding, how you can make a difference there.”

Crowley said she also believes we have a responsibility as individuals:

“So, what can I do? … It’s about taking a broader approach and thinking, OK, I’m going to create a sustainable wardrobe and buy things that last longer. I’m going to buy less because I really probably don’t need as much as I think.”

A fashion pact

Last year, companies from across the fashion and textile industry signed The Fashion Pact, which focuses on three key environmental goals: stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans.

The pact, launched by luxury brand group Kering as a mission from French President Emmanuel Macron, is a milestone.

“We’re at this really pivotal moment where a whole sector is rallying behind some really tangible action, because they recognize it is something that needs to get done for their business, their value proposition, but also because it’s something that has to get done for society and the planet," Crowley said.

Helen Crowley is on a year-long sabbatical from Kering, where she’s Head of Sustainable Sourcing Innovation.