Earlier this year, the producers of the popular British dating show “Love Island” announced they had struck a deal for the show’s contestants – many of whom epitomise our insatiable appetite for fast fashion – to be outfitted in pre-loved clothing from eBay. Unlike previous seasons of the show, in which contestants wearing the latest fashion set trends and drove sales, the mantra this season will be ‘eat, sleep, re-wear, repeat.’
It’s an extraordinary step for such a popular media franchise that sends a clear message to clothing manufacturers and retailers that sustainability does matter. More importantly, it will help raise awareness of our overconsumption of fashion and its impact on the environment.
Only construction and agriculture have heavier carbon footprints than the fashion industry and, for the past two decades, it has performed like an industry on steroids. In 2014, the world produced twice as much clothing as it did in 2000. Naturally, consumers have responded to this overproduction by over-consuming. Today, we buy around 60 percent more clothing but keep those garments in the closet for only half as long.
Acquiring – and returning – apparel is incredibly simple today thanks to the growth of online shopping. While free and easy returns are convenient for customers, they’ve created a ‘returns culture’ that’s bad for the planet. Generous return policies make it possible for consumers to order garments or shoes in multiple sizes or colours, knowing they can return any or all of the items with little or no consequence. Other buyers ‘snap & return,’ ordering the latest fashions to photograph for social media posts only to send the items back immediately afterwards.
Unlike processing a return in a physical store, handling returns remotely is a time-consuming, multi-stage process that makes it difficult to get items re-sold. About half of all returned fashion purchases are never re-sold but instead sent to an incinerator or landfill. Just as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates discarded plastic, mountains of discarded textiles are growing in places like the Chilean desert and West Africa. The lack of a viable, industry-wide solution to textile recycling means about 50 percent of all clothing made around the world ends up in an incinerator or landfill within just a year of being produced.
While working in the fashion industry, I witnessed how much apparel ended up being discarded every year. It was anathema to me that we didn’t have a way to properly recondition the majority of these items and somehow get them back onto the shop floor.
The Future Is Bright(er)
But momentum is clearly building for a more considered approach to fashion consumption. Since w’air launched its handheld fabric care device into the market, we’ve seen a sea change in both industry practice and consumer behaviour.
A study on shopping trends reported that 80 percent of shoppers believe sustainability is important. Nearly 60 percent say they would change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. Brands are responding to consumer demand by curating collections based on social and environmental criteria.
As such, the number of sustainable clothing brands has grown exponentially and consumers now have a plethora of choice for rental and second-hand clothing. According to GlobalData, the resale industry is expected to grow 11 times faster than the broader retail clothing sector – and traditional retailers are understandably taking note. To compete with newly listed second-hand clothing firms like Poshmark and ThredUp, retail stalwarts Levi Strauss & Co and Urban Outfitters have launched their own thrifting businesses. Interestingly, second-hand clothing purchases are up significantly among 18-34 year olds – Love Island’s target audience ‘sweet spot’.
Equally, long-time retailers are communicating their commitment to sustainability in increasingly visible, tangible ways. Harrods and Arc’teryx have remodelled stores to give ‘repair and refurbishment’ stands prime retail space. Other companies including The Restory, SneakersER and The Cobblers have built successful businesses by repairing and restoring customers’ worn apparel, shoes and bags.
w’air has also been part of this growing recycling and reconditioning movement, providing both consumers and fashion brands alike with an easy-to-use tool for improving sustainability. Our handheld device combines detergent, micronised air and cold water to remove dirt, odours and bacteria from almost any fabric – from clothing and carpets to sneakers and soft furnishings.
We recently collaborated with a major global retailer to conduct a short trial using the w’air device to treat lightly stained garments and prevent the erosion of stock value. By equipping retail staff at the brand’s flagship store with multiple devices, they were put to daily use on shop-soiled garments and to refresh stockroom items. Its gentle but effective cleaning action reduced faulty stock by 22 percent in just two months with an estimated saving of over £2,000. As a result of the successful pilot, the retailer has now incorporated w’air devices in its 50+ stores in the UK and will be placing around 200 more in stores across Europe.
Whilst each of these is only a small step, the cumulative impact of these incremental changes – coupled with the bold moves of major brands and retailers as well as more thoughtful consumer behaviour – may just be the catalyst needed to finally help push us over the threshold into a more sustainable fashion industry.
Jonathan Hewlett, CEO
w'air sustainable fabric care