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The environmental footprint of the fashion industry – and 5 solutions to reduce it

March 30, 2021

We avoid taking international flights, reduce our meat consumption and take shorter showers. Yet few people know that our wardrobes have a huge impact on the planet, too. The fashion industry is one of the most damaging polluters in the world, causing extensive microplastic pollution, and is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply. According to a report recently published in the journal "Nature Reviews Earth & Environment", the environmental cost of one cotton t-shirt alone amounts to 2.6 kg of CO2 emissions. With demand for apparel projected to continue growing worldwide, the environmental impact of the industry won't lose relevance. We at Presize agree: let's not point fingers at each other, let’s just solve the problem! In the following we will present 5 solutions to make fashion more sustainable.

Breakdown of the carbon footprint of a cotton t-shirt

1. Make the most out of pre-consumer textile waste

Pre-consumer waste is the first part of the textile waste problem. It relates to fabric that never makes it into a finished garment, as it is wasted during the design and production stage of the item’s manufacturing process. Some innovative fashion brands and designers focus on turning that waste into something new, preventing it from ending up in landfills. One option to put waste into good use is upcycling: in this method discarded garments and fabrics are reused to create new materials and products. Textile recycling, on the other hand, uses textile waste as raw material to produce new fibers. This process requires less energy, resources and time than the manufacturing of virgin textiles. If you're interested in zero waste fashion, check out sustainable fashion labels like "Zero Waste Daniel". The first of their kind, they produce 100% zero waste clothing by using pre-consumer waste sourced from New York City's garment industry to create fashionable upcycled clothing and accessories. Apart from fashion companies, several startups are working on solutions to tackle fashion’s pre-consumer waste problems as well. "Reverse Resources", for example, aims to enable industrial upcycling for global fashion brands by developing a tracking and trading platform for pre-consumer textile waste.

2. Made-to-order garments with the help of 3D body scanning

Custom-tailored clothing has for centuries been the norm. Although, it is perceived as luxurious today, this clothing might be the future of sustainable fashion. Made-to-order means that fashion companies only produce a product after a customer has placed an order – a concept that meets customers' demand of individualization and allows to drastically reduce the environmental footprint of a fashion piece, as it requires no stock and eliminates the problems of textile waste and overproduction. That said, to leverage the full potential of custom-tailored fashion towards mass customization, it must become affordable and more convenient (than going to a tailor or taking body measurements yourself with a tape measure). 3D body scanning technologies will play a crucial role in this development, as body scanning creates three-dimensional visualizations of customers’ bodies and provides exact body measurements. This permits fashion companies to produce made-to-order garments that perfectly fit their customers. Nonetheless, the success of 3D body scanning technologies will heavily rely on how consumers perceive these machines and how convenient they are. Startups, like Presize, develop technologies that allow fashion companies to rapidly identify their customer’s body measurements. Shoppers are only required to scan themselves with the help of their smartphone camera without needing to download an application. Such convenient technologies will facilitate the fashion industry on its journey to bringing made-to-order fashion to a large scale.

3. Extend the life of fashion pieces

Fashion trends have always changed rapidly, but the concept of "Fast Fashion" takes it to the next level: fast fashion brands replicate the latest trends and bring out 52 product cycles per year – or one collection a week. The rapid production cycles and competitive prices allow consumers to constantly buy new products and stay on top of the latest fashion trends. Despite having democratized trendy fashion styles, fast fashion has led to a culture of discarding clothing with regular frequency given the low price point and social stigma of wearing the same garment twice. A 2015 study of 2,000 women in the UK found that fashion items are worn just 7 times on average before getting tossed. Dresses, especially, run the risk of being bought for one-off events and being thrown out afterwards. A slew of young companies hopes to tackle this problem and offer an alternative by providing fashion rental services. Companies such as "Rent the Runway" and "Wardrobe" enable consumers to wear the latest trends at an affordable price, either through eCommerce subscription models or peer-to-peer rental platforms. The argument as to whether fashion rentals are a viable sustainable alternative remains controversial, as they impact the environment through regular dry cleaning, packaging and shipping. Regardless of personal opinions on these services and how green they currently are, trends have indicated that fashion rentals’ level of sustainability will increase with the rise of green energy, circular packaging solutions and alternatives to dry cleaning.  

4. The power of consumers  

To reinvent fashion and significantly reduce its environmental footprint, all parts of the value chain, from farms to brands to consumers, will have to adapt and scale up existing efforts. While the fashion industry is working hard to reduce its environmental footprint by joining certification programs for sustainable materials, introducing collections made of organic and recycled fibers and using more eco-friendly production methods, let us not forget the power and responsibility of consumers. By taking small steps, consumers can not only impact the environmental footprint of the fashion industry today, they can also shape the fashion sector of tomorrow. Harper's Bazaar gathered solutions on how to create a more sustainable wardrobe and we summed up a few of their tips:

   1. Only buy an item if you really know that you'll wear it

   2. Inform yourself on the material and production processes of brands

   3. Invest in trans-seasonal clothing

   4. Look after your clothing properly so that it lasts longer

   5. Donate unwanted clothing

5. Reduce the carbon footprint of fashion eCommerce

We could easily write an entire blog article about the environmental impact of fashion eCommerce alone, but let's keep that for another day! Fashion eCommerce has experienced rapid growth in recent years and has significantly increased with the global Covid-19 pandemic. While online shopping allows us to purchase fashion from the comfort of our homes, thereby saving a large amount of time, it also comes at a considerable cost to the environment. Theoretically, online shopping is more eco-friendly than brick-and-mortar shopping. Energy is not required to power retail stores and transport emissions are saved, as goods are delivered to several homes at once (instead of every single customer driving to the store). However, these benefits are offset by excessive packaging and consumer’s shopping behavior. Overnight deliveries, single item orders and returns make the potential carbon saving of eCommerce disappear. Especially returns have had disastrous consequences for the environment: They not only cause CO2 emissions through transportation, returned fashion items often cannot be resold and therefore end up in landfills. Luckily, several young companies decided to tackle this return problem. Keepist, for example, reduces the return rate of online shops by rewarding end customers for keeping their orders. Since a large part of returns in fashion eCommerce is caused by the wrong size or bad fit, digital sizing solutions are another promising approach to significantly reduce such online returns. We at Presize provide digital size recommendations for shoppers based on a smartphone video and/or body shape questions to successfully reduce our partner shops’ return rates and slash return-induced CO2 emissions.

Use our solution to reduce the returns and the CO2 emissions of your online shop
Katharina Menke
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