Little has changed since the 1940s in the way we make our clothes. We still heavily rely on people to power sewing machines, large swaths of agricultural land to grow cotton, and millions of gallons of petroleum to produce synthetic fabrics. Historically, the fashion industry has not leaned on research and development to stay competitive, instead figuring out ways to reduce production costs and get new products to consumers as quickly as possible.
However, as in many industries, technology has created innovation that has begun to reshape the apparel industry. Several of these innovations came to market in 2017, like Under Armour’s Athlete Recovery sleepwear, which uses bio-ceramic fabric and body heat to reduce inflammation and increase blood circulation. Last April, Amazon won a patent for its made-to-order manufacturing system.
Because producing clothing is an extremely resource-intensive process, concerns for declining natural resources have also fueled textile and manufacturing innovations. A single t-shirt uses a little over 700 gallons of water to produce—enough water for one person to drink for two and a half years. Every year, we cut down more than 70 million trees to make clothes out of fabrics like rayon and tencel. The apparel industry has become focused on how it can turn textile waste into fabrics it can create new clothes with—reducing the industry’s environmental impact and curbing the need for virgin materials.
This area of research is appealing because the pool of textile waste to tap into is massive. The U.S. alone sends 11 million tons of textile waste per year to landfill. Until 2017, there wasn’t a viable solution to transform old clothes into new garments, but last January, Levi’s and the startup Evrnu announced that they had created the world’s first jean made from regenerated post-consumer cotton waste. A few months later, H&M announced that it had patented a hydrothermal process that recycled blended textiles—fabrics made out of more than one kind of fiber—into new fabrics and yarns with no loss in quality.
This represents the future of fashion: creating new fabrics that either are made out of waste or can be recycled several times. Plastic is a particularly hot commodity right now. Adidas partnered with the environmental nonprofit Parley to produce a shoe of recycled ocean plastic. Girlfriend Collective makes all of its athletic wear with 79 percent polyester made out of recycled water bottles (RPET). The North-Carolina-based textile maker Unifi produces 300 million pounds of polyester and nylon yarn annually, made out of plastic bottles, fiber waste and fabric scraps, and sells it to companies like the North Face, Patagonia and Ford.
As more brands adopt these new ways of making clothing, more environmentally friendly products will enter the market, which is promising because the apparel industry is the second-largest polluting industry in the world. Still, despite these perceived environmental wins, there seems to be something missing in the dialogue. Very few retailers are acknowledging the elephant in the room: Do we really think that we can just shop ourselves into a healthier planet?
At a time when the average American woman 1) adds 64 pieces of new clothing each year to her closet, 2) throws away an average of 80 pounds of clothes per year and 3) doesn’t use an average of 22 items of clothing in that closet, I would argue no.
We can’t sustain this level of careless consumption, and a few vocal leaders in the apparel industry agree. Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario said that the most sustainable thing retailers can do is to encourage their customers to keep and use their clothing as long as possible. In my previous post, I wrote about the reasons why consumers aren’t buying more ethical and sustainably made clothing despite expressing an interest in doing so. Achieving material sustainability isn’t enough. More needs to be done to educate consumers about the environmental and social costs of buying clothing.
The Cradle to Cradle Institute’s director of textiles and apparel, Annie Gullingsru, says that “the aim should not be to shame people for buying things. That ends up creating the opposite result of what’s intended.” Instead, brands should focus on reeducating their consumers to see and value their clothes differently—not as throw-away commodities but as quality investments. “As more clothes are created with the intention to be circulated, we need to educate consumers on how to circulate their clothing.” Gullingsru also argues that brands need to make it easy for consumers to return their clothes to be recycled or upcycled.
A few companies are focused on the consumption and education piece of the puzzle. For the last seven years, Patagonia has told its consumers not to buy its products. The start-up Cladwell has developed an app that helps users create and manage a minimal, interchangeable wardrobe, with 100 percent of its contents loved and worn. These “capsule wardrobes” are inherently more sustainable because they encourage people to wear what they have instead of buying new clothes. Changing consumer behavior is never easy, but the food industry has demonstrated that, with the right messaging and market options, it is possible to change consumer attitudes toward everyday purchases.
Technology is not going to save the apparel industry from itself, and we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we can purchase our way out of the environmental mess that we’ve created by putting “greener” products out in the market. Brands, serious about their commitment to sustainability, need to take responsibility to educate their consumers in ways that reshape their mentality about buying. Companies need to get creative about making profits off of such business models and to help curb unnecessary consumption.