Fashion brands have been urged to take decisive action to reduce the impact of ‘fast fashion’ following a landmark climate change report.
In a year that extreme weather has devastated many parts of the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has laid bare the challenge ahead. The report said that while some changes are irreversible – such as continued sea level rise – reductions in carbon emissions would limit climate change.
Climate campaigner Greta Thunberg took to Twitter to call for fashion brands to take responsibilty for their contribution to the ‘climate-and ecological emergency’ instead of lying to the public with ‘greenwashing’ ad campaigns.
Here we explain how fashion brands and their customers can make more sustainable choices.
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Our insatiable appetite for fast fashion
The environmental cost of the fashion industry is difficult to calculate accurately – estimates range from around 2% to 10% of global carbon emissions – but even the most conservative figures put it on par with aviation.
Demand for cheap clothing shows no signs of slowing and worldwide consumption of clothing is projected to rise by 63% to 102 million tonnes by 2030.
‘The elephant in the room is that the volume of clothes available has grown exponentially and shows no signs of stopping,’ says Dr Patsy Perry, reader in fashion marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University. ‘You can buy an outfit for the price of a sandwich. Fashion has become like fast food because that is how it is being presented to us. I would like to see brands offering us fewer, better things.’
Assessing the damage
There’s no question that the way we produce, use and dispose of textiles is damaging the planet.
Cheap synthetic fibres such as polyester are typically derived from fossil fuels and release plastic microfibres when washed, which pollutes our rivers and oceans.
Natural fibres such as conventional cotton use a vast amount of water and chemicals. Biodiversity loss is another issue, as farmers use artificial fertilisers to replace depleted nutrients from growing the same species every year.
And that’s just the beginning. Once it’s left the farm, dyeing fabrics wastes huge amounts of water. Factories might rely on aggressive dyes and dangerous techniques to achieve the right shade or finish, such as powder indigo dyeing, which can be toxic for workers.
Recycling clothes is a complex issue as well. Textiles are usually recycled into lower-value items such as industrial rags, because they are full of different fibres (a wool jumper with polyester thread or Lycra in jeans, for example) that can’t be separated back out.
The negative impacts aren’t solely environmental, either. The textile industry is one of the world’s worst for both forced and child labour, as well as unsafe workplaces.
How to spot greenwashing
Making sustainable choices is complicated, not least because brands make woolly claims that are tricky to interrogate.
Changing Markets Foundation recently revealed that 59% of clothing brands selling products accompanied by a sustainability claim were flouting the Competition and Markets Authority’s new guidelines on green claims.
Most of us need help spotting greenwashing, says Rob Harrison of Ethical Consumer: ‘There’s a lot of demand for guidance around clothing. People are a bit lost about the choices they can trust. This leaves a lot of space for companies to make claims that are difficult to verify.’
Cross-industry coalitions such as Textile Exchange’s 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge, which encourages retailers to buy 100% of their cotton from sustainable sources, could create a tipping point to change the whole industry.
Buying from a B Corporation could also be a shortcut. Unlike most schemes, these companies face a rigorous independent assessment of their social and environmental standards. High scoring fashion B Corps include House of Baukjen, and MUD Jeans (the top scorer in Europe).
As customers, we can also demand much more from retailers, says Helga Johannsdottir, director of European operations for Vietnam-based sustainable denim factory Saitex: ‘If a brand is using vague terminology such as “ethically sourced” ask what it means and ask to see proof.’
Try to find out what brands do with their manufacturing waste – the garments that aren’t sold on the market because they have cosmetic issues or damage. If they offer customer take-back schemes to reduce the amount of clothing going to landfill, ask where it goes – are they recycling the materials or donating them to charity shops already heaving with cheap fashion?
Learn more about how to reduce your impact on the environment using our guides on how to shop sustainably
As well as being picky about where you spend your money, think carefully about the fabrics you wear. Some simple switches can make a difference:
- Switch from conventional cotton to organic, Fairtrade, recycled, or BCI Cotton.
- Choose recycled or organic fabrics where possible.
- Explore new innovations in biodegradable plant-based fibres such as Tencel (made from sustainably-sourced raw wood) and Piñatex (made from pineapple leaf waste).
- Buy ‘clean’ viscose, which will be labelled as lyocell, Monocel, or Tencel (as above).
Read more about choosing sustainable fabrics at Ethical Consumer.
Making brands responsible
Making brands financially responsible for the volume of clothing they’re putting out to market is one way to make them sit up and listen.
The government is currently considering an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for textiles, forcing the industry to contribute to the costs of recycling, supported by measures to encourage better design and labelling.
Meanwhile, a new voluntary agreement called Textiles 2030 lays out plans for carbon, water and circular textile targets for the next 10 years, with funding from the government and commitment from brands representing around 60% of UK clothing retail sales by volume.
Hear expert Which? researchers get to the heart of what it means to be a sustainable consumer: listen to the Which? Investigates podcast