The environmental impact of the fashion industry.

white sign with written "Who made my clothes?"

Fashion Revolution protest

Although for years there has been talk of the high impact that the fashion industry has on the environment, the sector is constantly growing, at least from the analyzes available before Covid-19. The environmental impact that the fashion industry has been causing in recent years has reached a critical stage. In fact, it has been estimated that this industry produces between 8–10% of global CO2 emissions, or between 4–5 billion tons per year (United Nations Climate Change, 2018). Furthermore, the Fashion Industry is the largest consumer of water with 79 trillion used per year, contributing to about 35% of ocean pollution caused by microplastics and producing an enormous amount of textile waste (more than 92 million tons per year. ) many of which are dumped or burned, even those not sold.

The growing environmental impact (and consequent awareness) can be attributed to the substantial increase in clothing consumption, and therefore to the increase in textile production. In fact, global per capita production increased from 5.9 kg to 13 kg per year in the period from 1975 to 2018 (Peters, et al., 2019). Similarly, the current consumption of clothing is estimated to be around 62 million tons per year and will reach 102 million tons by 2030. Thus, fashion brands today are producing almost twice as much clothing as they are today. that of the year 2000.

The cost of sustainable fashion.

The final cost of an item of clothing is obtained by calculating a series of factors: product research and development, raw materials, processing, finishes, packaging, personnel costs, transport costs, packaging and brand management through marketing. Now, when in stores you can find t-shirts for less than € 10.00 and jeans for less than € 20.00, the question that should arise is: how can they be so cheap? It should be remembered that within those € 10 and € 20 there is also the profit of the retailer who sells the garments and the costs incurred by the latter to maintain the physical store.

The fact is that the advent of Fast Fashion has made these prices usual and has accustomed consumers to being able to afford items of discreet quality, always fashionable at truly ridiculous prices. A question remains fundamental: how is it possible that prices are so low? To answer this question, an inverse approach is used, i.e. the reasons why the price of sustainable fashion is higher than that of conventional fashion garments are shown, and then left to judge whether the price of sustainable fashion is really high or if, at the on the contrary, the one proposed by fast fashion chains is too low.

Six main reasons have been identified that justify the higher price of sustainable fashion: the higher quality and durability of sustainable fashion garments implies higher production costs; the absence of economies of scale; a higher labor cost to ensure ethics; the greatest amount of time and skills spent in production; the higher cost of organic and certified fabrics; the higher cost of alternative and recycled materials

Sustainable fashion: the data from the questionnaire.

A total of 1511 individuals participated in the survey; the sample was, however, purified by eliminating the minor statistical units and all those who did not give answers that did not suit the questions posed. The sample under study is therefore composed of 1479 statistical units, of which 1252 women (84.7%) 223 men (15%) and 4 “other” (0.3%), where “other” means those who they do not identify with the binary definition of sexuality.

From the picture just presented it is clear that the sample is very distorted with respect to the “gender” variable since there is an absolute majority of women, a result in line with expectations given the issue addressed. Given this distortion towards the female gender, the variable of sex will never be considered for any type of descriptive analysis. As regards the age of the sample, the respondents were aged between 18 and 80, with an average age of 36 and a standard deviation of 15. The age groups were divided as follows to pursue the sociological distinction of generations in Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and Generation Z.

This subdivision in fact allows us to build a generic profile of individuals on the basis of their age, since being born in a certain historical period implies absorbing the events that characterized it, from culture to politics and, last but not least, technology. To the filter question “Do you buy fashion garments” 80% of the statistical units answered “Yes” while 20% answered “No”. To the filter question “Do you buy sustainable fashion garments?” 705 individuals replied “Yes”, ie 60% of those who declared they buy fashion garments, while 477 individuals said they still do not buy sustainable fashion garments (40%).

At present, the fashion industry causes 8 to 10% of CO2 emissions worldwide and is the sector that consumes most of the water resources, with 79 trillion liters of water consumed annually. The immoderate, impulsive “disposable” consumption is contributing to the destruction of our planet, just think that in the last twenty years the production of fashion garments has doubled and that from 1996 to 2012 the quantity of garments purchased only in Europe has increased 40%, thanks to the advent of the fast fashion business model. This system has certainly had the merit of making fashion available to everyone, but it has also completely deprived consumers of the responsibility for purchasing.

Furthermore, the relocation of the supply chain to those parts of the world where the legislation is less rigid has created a further imbalance: on the one hand, complicating the existence on the market for those companies that have chosen to maintain production in the more regulated countries, which they have become less competitive, and on the other hand by contributing to increasing pollution in developing countries, where, among other things, workers are not protected and earn negligible wages.

The reasons why fast fashion has taken over in Western countries have economic, sociological and psychological causes that must be taken into consideration: in fact, the consumer is both the executioner and the victim of the system. From an economic point of view, this seems to be one of the consequences of the excessive liberalization that began in the 1980s and which contributed to the impoverishment of the Western middle class. Increasing job insecurity and inadequate wages at the cost of living have inevitably led people to buy cheaper clothing, without taking too much into consideration the reasons why the price has so fallen. From a psychological and social point of view, the substantial annihilation of traditional values ​​and the lack of contact with one’s inner desire have led the individual to experience a sense of emptiness that he tries to fill with the compulsive consumption of objects.

Many would prefer sustainable fashion

From the data that emerged from the questionnaire, it is clear that most of the sample said they were in favor of sustainable fashion. The fact is that they are willing to pay only 10 to 25% more than the conventional one. Now, it all depends on the interpretation that was given by respondents to this “conventional” term. Because it is clear that if by conventional they have meant the proposals made by fast fashion chains, which today have monopolized mass consumption, a percentage from 10 to 25% more will never cover the costs that sustainable fashion companies have to bear to produce a garment. Therefore, what can be said from the data collected is that in general individuals are interested in the problem and are looking for a more sustainable fashion but are not yet ready to make the economic effort that it would require. Furthermore, the sample clearly showed a lack of contact with the solutions offered by the circular economy, such as the purchase of used clothes and the sharing of fashion garments, given that as many as 81% of the interviewees declared that they never or almost never go never in thrift stores. From here, a profound social stigma still emerges linked to the purchase of used clothing, a legacy of the culture of bourgeois ownership. The main results of the research revealed the extreme importance that individuals lend to the aesthetics of clothing and only marginal importance of the brand, which takes second place compared to the product offered.

Most of the subjects identify in the concept of sustainability of low-polluting production processes and greater ethics, linked to the non-exploitation of the workers who make the garments, however a substantial conceptual gap has emerged between sustainable fashion and circular economy. In fact, while consumers recognize the circular practices of sharing garments or buying used fashion as sustainable, they do not believe that they are so pertinent to the concept of sustainable fashion. This is certainly an interesting starting point that requires a new education in consumption, especially on the part of institutions that have the task of guaranteeing social well-being and encouraging change towards greater circularity of resources.

The analysis also revealed that those who prove to be cynical towards sustainable fashion are particularly so because they cannot understand what the high sell-out price of sustainable garments depends on and in this regard it would be appropriate to intervene by demonstrating greater transparency, making the sources of costs that a sustainable company must bear clear and accessible. In fact, sustainable fashion is not expensive, but it is the products of the fast fashion industry that have too low prices, which derive not from efficient management but from a business model focused on the aseptic exploitation of human and environmental resources, which reduce, perhaps, corporate costs by piling up a huge debt to our planet. Finally, from the Choice Experiment it emerged that the sample clearly preferred the alternatives that contained the levels “Place of production Italy” and “Complete information on the label 250”.

As regards the material used, the garments made of natural fibers were the most selected within the experiment of choice, followed by recycled materials and then by synthetic ones. Estimating the MWTP for these last levels, it was observed that the cluster composed of subjects under the age of 45, who still do not buy sustainable fashion garments, are willing to pay € 27.47 more for a fashion garment made with natural fibers than than with recycled materials. However, the MWTP for the “natural material used” level drops to € 14.26 for the over 45 cluster and further decreases to € 10.51 for the group of respondents who said they already buy sustainable fashion. These different estimates depend on the different approach with which the identified clusters address the issue of sustainability: in fact, those who already buy sustainable fashion are more aware of the fact that natural material is not as sustainable as recycled material and therefore attribute a lower value to yarns. natural.

On the other hand, those over 45 are, in general, less sensitive to the phenomenon of sustainability and therefore when they buy they pay attention to other aspects. In conclusion, in the coming years the demand for sustainable fashion is destined to increase as it is the youngest who are the biggest supporters. The fashion industry will therefore have to adopt reactive and proactive approaches, or reduce the amount of waste and waste by already exploiting what is present in the fashion system, improving the recycling techniques of fabrics and avoiding unnecessary overproduction. The fast fashion business model had as its main objective the reduction of costs, but did not take into account the increase of the most important: pollution. Pollution, according to economist Michael Porter, is in fact a form of economic waste given that emissions are a signal of inefficiency that require an organization to carry out activities that do not generate value such as storage, management and disposal. some waste. A more efficient use of resources could reduce these costs, safeguarding not only the income statement of companies but the future of our company.

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