The Unsustainable State of Fashion—It's Time for a Change | Opinion

The beautiful façade of the estimated $3 trillion per year fashion industry masks an increasingly ugly truth that must be confronted. On the surface, fashion is glitz and glamor. But beneath that lies a litany of serious environmental offenses that get more shocking each year, despite all the industry's noise about sustainability.

Fashion is responsible for about 10 percent of the carbon emissions that are tipping our planet toward climate catastrophe. It produces 20 percent of all industrial water pollution. And it creates scarcely imaginable quantities of trash, with the equivalent of a garbage truck of clothes burnt or buried in a landfill every second.

It gets worse. Fashion sells dreams and celebrates the freedom to be fearlessly innovative. But behind that lies the nightmare reality that an estimated $127.7 billion of fashion products are made using modern slavery practices.

I am not an activist taking shots at fashion from the outside. I love this industry and have dedicated my career to it. However, I am convinced that change is required and cannot be achieved without ripping up the modern fashion industry's foundations.

Many in fashion would argue that the last decade has witnessed an unprecedented focus on sustainability across the industry. True, but the most impactful initiatives have been relatively small and swamped by a great tide of greenwashing. And no amount of talk about sustainability will make a real difference until we tackle the problem's true cause: Fashion can never be sustainable while remaining dependent upon overproduction and overconsumption.

Once, the industry was rooted in local communities and proud of fine craftsmanship. But in recent decades, it has grown away from those roots with unprecedented speed. That growth relies on a fundamentally unsustainable model of encouraging consumers to buy more and more clothes, shoes, and accessories, with little care given to the consequences.

To feed overconsumption, workers are exploited, and poverty is perpetuated. The fast-paced nature of modern production demands long hours for low pay in poor conditions, which can lead to health problems and injuries.

But what can be done? I am a great believer in the power of positive action, and my recent TEDx talks set out a plan for creating a genuinely sustainable fashion industry, which is summarized in the following three steps:

—Renew Fashion's Focus on Quality and Craftsmanship

The industry needs to move away from rewarding overconsumption and return to its roots by focusing on quality and craftsmanship. By doing so, we can create clothes and accessories that last longer, significantly reduce waste, and tackle the myth that never-ending increases in production are desirable on a planet with finite resources.

Crucially, evidence shows that consumers would receive that shift well. While 80 percent of consumers are concerned about sustainability, only 1-7 percent are willing to pay a premium price. But according to a study by global consulting firm Bain & Company, they would do so for quality and durability, which are directly linked to sustainability.

Alongside that shift, advertising should highlight how customers can repair their products or offer incentives for returning used products for recycling so that they are not destroyed.

A shopper carrying full shopping bags
A shopper carrying full shopping bags. DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

—Embrace Legislation

When government works well, it can drive real change. That's why the fashion industry must embrace legislation that holds producers accountable for their environmental and social impact. Brands should help governments craft effective legislation that includes transparency over the lobbying activities of companies that tout their sustainability credentials.

Already, new legislation in the fashion industry's home, France, is making companies responsible for their products' entire lifecycle—they must find ways to reuse or recycle them.

Legislation requiring fashion companies to report on their environmental and social impacts, such as New York's proposed Fashion Act, must also become more common. Such legislation can be given teeth by more lawsuits targeting greenwashing.

—Harness Social Media and New Technology

Thinking of fashion and social media probably conjures up images of influencers changing in and out of countless outfits to sell consumers the dream of overconsumption.

But social media can equally be used to make sustainability fashionable among a wider audience. The examples to follow here are the younger generation brands that are openly talking about conscious consumption, recycling, and making eco-friendly choices.

New technology can also be harnessed to achieve great things. The 2030 shopping experience should include 3D "fitting rooms" that allow you to virtually see clothes before they are bought; purchases made-to-order that reduce inventories and waste; and digital IDs that track each product's full lifecycle.

The industry can no longer focus on just the next season; it must turn its attention to the long-term. Following the three steps above can finally put the old unsustainable ways of doing business out of fashion—the future of our planet demands it.

Dr. Neri Karra Sillaman is a fashion business consultant, speaker, and author. As a professor of practice in strategy and an entrepreneurship expert at the University of Oxford, she consults for both emerging and established fashion and luxury/lifestyle brands. She has guest lectured for companies including Apple and Credit Suisse, as well as for prominent institutions such as the London School of Economics, the Royal College of Art, Imperial College London and was appointed as an adjunct professor at New York University (NYU). She has been quoted for her opinion on the industry in the Financial Times, The Business of Fashion and WWD. A fashion entrepreneur herself, Dr. Sillaman is also the founder of a global multimillion dollar luxury leather goods brand, which manufactures products for leading Italian luxury labels. She holds a PhD in management science from the University of Cambridge and her latest book is Fashion Entrepreneurship: The Creation of the Global Fashion Business (Routledge, 2021).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.