Sustainable fashion analysis / 16. May 2022
A downward spiral, not a circle
Sustainable, fair fashion has been the subject of intense discussion for decades. Everyone is talking about the circular economy and many fashion companies have announced sustainability projects. The reality, though, is more than disappointing. The European Commission now wants to drive fashion towards sustainability with a comprehensive textile strategy.
An analysis by Joachim Schirrmacher
85% of all companies see sustainability as a corporate strategy. For all the personal commitment from women such as Antje von Dewitz and men such as Michael Otto, this is also because almost all of the larger fashion companies are now owned by investors and companies quoted on the stock exchange. A lot of this is therefore publicity-seeking, aimed at the public and designed to appeal to shareholders. Showcase projects generally involve very small quantities: meanwhile, the core business barely changes.
Circular economy instead of recycling?
Advertising a circular economy with slogans such as ‘Recycle your fashion’ is particularly popular. From the old comes the new, a perfect example of perpetual motion: the rain falls, flows through the meadows into a river and out into the sea, where it evaporates into clouds and falls as rain again. We are only too happy to believe this.
To force the fashion industry to do more than talk about it, the European Commission now wants to drive fashion towards sustainability. This is a declaration of war on fast fashion, overproduction and greenwashing. At the end of March, the Commission presented a comprehensive and ambitious ‘EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles’ (the EU Textile Strategy).
It says that by 2030, textiles placed on the EU market should be designed to be durable and recyclable, and produced with respect for social rights and the environment. They should consist primarily of recycled fibres and be free from environmentally hazardous substances and microplastics. Moreover, the circular economy in fashion should be flourishing, with sufficient capacity for fibre-to-fibre recycling. Producers will have to take responsibility for their products from design to disposal.
From zero to a hundred
The targets are highly ambitious because so far, the ‘circular economy’ in fashion is simply a vision. A truly circular process, whereby used clothing becomes new textiles, does not yet exist. Other than second-hand fashion, recycling used clothing that can no longer be worn is currently the only solution. But such recycling is a downward spiral, not a circuit. At best, jeans can be turned into viscose yarns; most textiles, though, become cleaning cloths for industry, fleece and insulation material, or cardboard. Nonetheless, this is an improvement on the linear model, in which used textiles go straight to incineration or landfill.
Many alternative solutions are illusory. Recycled polyester in clothing, for example, comes from PET bottles, not from polyester fabrics out of the recycling bin. Bottle production, therefore, requires the use of new polyester. The EU Commission regards this as misleading to the consumer and a violation of the closed loop for PET food and drink containers.
And while upcycling – stitching together new garments from old fabrics – may make sense at a private level, for small-scale production and above all as a way of raising consciousness, it has no industrial perspective.
Bio-based yarns from algae, pineapple peel or banana skins, blossom, CO2 or milk, fabric dyes from food waste, and the biodegradable stretch fabric Coreva are all still in their infancy.
The EU Commission is therefore calling on companies to focus their efforts on fibre-to-fibre recycling. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, this has a share of less than 1%. There are just eight years left, therefore, in which to close a ‘gap’ of 99%. So far, there have been few research or pilot projects; those that do exist are right at the start and the production volumes announced are minimal. The most important projects include:
– reliable processes for identifying materials (various approaches, e.g. Chips circularity.ID)
– optimised mechanical recycling to produce longer fibres
– chemical separation of polyester and cotton (Re:wind, Resyntex with I Collect and Soex, Vienna University, Worn Again Technologies)
– chemical conversion of cotton to viscose (Evrnu, re:newcell, Saxion, SaXcell, Södra, Lenzing)
– separation of cotton and lycra/elastane (Re:Mix)
There’s no question: these are important advances and there are high hopes that fibre-to-fibre recycling will grow into an enormous business. But the challenges are still huge: cleaning and decolorising, for example, are highly energy-hungry. The mix of different types of polyester is a problem. Elastane and chemicals in used textiles are detrimental to the process. They block up the nozzles of the spinning machines for example. Recycled fibres, moreover, are more expensive than primary raw materials.
What is the problem?
For the foreseeable future, therefore, due to technological limitations such as fibre length, the recycling of fibres into new clothes in industrial quantities is not practicable. A review from 2021 on the State of Recycling Technology by RWTH Aachen even came to the dispiriting conclusion that “recycling will not solve the sustainability challenges in the textile industry”.
The promise of the bio-economy or Green Deal, that thanks to technological advances we can carry on living as before with a clear conscience, seems to be an illusion, therefore.
The quantities involved are beyond belief. Since 2000, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, clothes consumption has doubled, on top of which wearing times have halved. Given that prices for fashion in the EU fell by over 30% in real terms between 1996 and 2018 according to the EU Textile Strategy, volumes are better than turnover figures at expressing the dimensions of the problem.
Whereas an estimated 50 billion items of clothing a year worldwide were previously manufactured, the figure is now 120 billion. Greenpeace is even talking of about 200 billion. Of these, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 40% are unsold.
From use to wasteful consumption
According to Statista, in Germany in 2018 some 4.7 billion items of clothing were sold. That’s an average of 56 items for every person, from babies to the very old. And production volumes for clothing continue to rise by 2.7% a year.
Women buy significantly more fashion than men: a 2021 study by Macromedia University states that women own on average 175 items of clothing, men 105.4. About a third of these were bought in the last twelve months.
According to the German government’s ‘Green Button’ initiative, a piece of clothing is worn on average four times, and much of it not at all. For every three wardrobe favourites, therefore, there are three ‘cupboard corpses’. Clothing use rapidly becomes wasteful consumption, and not only in Germany, Europe and the USA: global population will rise to over 8.5 billion by 2030, with increasing household incomes in China, India and Brazil.
Fast fashion: From surplus to excess
Fast fashion – that is, cheap and often poor quality clothing – is the main cause of the oversupply of fashion. Zara was one of the first companies to bring new products to the market every two weeks rather than once or twice a season. Those who wanted to avoid losing market share had to follow suit. Fast fashion was born and was celebrated as a ‘democratisation of fashion’. The ‘Karl Lagerfeld by H&M’ collection of 2004 was a call to arms. Some companies are producing up to 52 collections a year, and often in fabrics that are too poor to be recycled even as cleaning cloths. Suppliers such as Shein from China offer new introductions every day; overwhelmingly, these are bought by teens across the world, by the ‘Fridays for Future’ generation. Fast Fashion has very little to do with changing styles. It is all about stimulating consumption. At the end of the day, shops and the media always want something new.
Intoxication by anaesthesia
It is unquestionably of great benefit that industrial progress made ‘Fashion for millions’ possible. Between 1987 and 1995, Karl Lagerfeld was also creating fashion for Klaus Steilmann, who set up the foundation responsible for the European Fashion Award FASH.
But the democratisation of fashion has turned out to mean over-consumption for all. Journalist Gert Scobel analyses the situation thus: “In reality it is not a genuine luxury but a simulation [… that] is running dry and needs to be pushed ever faster by additional consumption.”
In the end, over-consumption of fashion and Instagram acts as a narcotic. It numbs the sense of boredom, the lack of self-confidence, and often even an unconscious religious yearning and search for direction.
With a bit of distance it quickly becomes apparent that today’s levels of consumption in the West, which many consider normal, are an exception in historical terms. There is no human right to unlimited consumption, and still less when it comes at the cost of the environment, the workers and future generations.
How did it come to this?
An important trigger for the enormous growth in fast fashion was the expiry of any kind of trade restrictions when the WTO’s Agreement on Textiles and Clothing finished at the end of 2004. Import quotas were introduced in 1974 to protect jobs in the west from cheap imports. Their abolition and the opening up of the markets was the wish of politicians during the period of neoliberalism. As a result, global sourcing was recalibrated. Prices fell heavily. Costs fell by 5–10% due to the dropping of quotas alone. Entire countries, many of them in Africa, lost their textile industries. As early as 2005 exports rose so strongly that China voluntarily limited its exports under pressure from the EU. Since trade was no longer restricted by quotas, the fast fashion providers and textile discounters unleashed tremendous growth.
Fuel to the fire
The arrival of online shopping, from Amazon to Zalando, and especially the free returns that are now almost standard practice, led to return levels for fashion of up to 60%. Zalando’s rhyming slogan “Schrei vor Glück – oder schick’s zurück”, which translates from the German as “Cry out for joy – or send it back”, also boosted consumption of fashion.
At the same time, Instagram quickly grew to be the dominant fashion medium and acts as further fuel to the fire. According to one study by the network LTK, 42% of ‘Gen Z’ make the majority of their purchases via social media such as Instagram and TikTok. The result of cheap prices and constant new stimuli is that millions buy too many clothes, too often and usually with too little thought.
The power of the irrational
Why do we buy so much? We don’t even know the answer ourselves. And we don’t want to think about it. This is how market researcher Ralph Ohnemus explains the lack of consistency, with a reference to Nobel Prizewinner Daniel Kahnemann: “We are lazy and don’t want to think too much.” Instead of consuming consciously, we simply follow our emotions. Because it takes a lot of energy for our brains to think logically.
The luxuriation of nature itself – in the peacock, for example – shows that striving to be different is part of evolution, and that the drive to be extravagant is deep-rooted. Consumption for the purpose of showing off, therefore, has always been a demonstration of power. On Instagram in particular, showing off attracts attention and increases the ‘symbolic capital’.
The arguments of prudent reason count for little against the power of this irrationalism. Ever since ancient times, calls to asceticism have been largely unsuccessful.
Instead of satisfying a genuine need, our prosperity combines with cheap fast fashion to enable us in many cases to buy simply “to improve our mood”, as Carl Tillessen puts it in his book ‘Konsum’ (‘Consumption’), a German bestseller. Whether out of boredom, as a reward or for comfort.
What is the solution?
The most effective way is very simple to express: wear clothes for much longer. Second-hand clothes are another approach to dressing in a way that conserves resources while continuing to have fun with fashion. The second-hand fashion business is booming. But the second-hand vs sustainability equation only works if the total amount of clothing consumed does not increase. Because the low prices and good conscience quickly tempt people to consume even more due to the rebound or boomerang effect.
It is unclear how many items of used clothing there are in Germany, as no precise data are collected. The Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Disposal (BVSE) calculates that some 85% of Germans take their unwanted clothes to the recycling bin – a record in Europe. Here in Germany, therefore, almost 1.3 million tonnes of clothing for recycling is collected in some 120,000 bins. In other words, nearly three-quarters of all unwanted items of clothing end up with textile recyclers.
Market leader Soex in Bitterfeld-Wolfen alone can sort up to 100,000 tonnes a year, of which 10% is ‘good as new’ and is sold in German second-hand shops. Another 45% is exported as second-hand clothing to over 45 countries. 15% is turned into cleaning cloths for industry, while 20% goes to shredding plants to be processed into precisely defined qualities of raw material for vehicle head-liners, insulation and filling, paint substrate or coat hangers. The last 10% is treated as waste; 3% is sold to the pulp industry and the remaining 7% has to be professionally incinerated, for a fee. These proportions are changing, however: each year, more and more textiles end up in shredding or at the incinerator.
We have no solutions
For decades, the trade in used clothing was as profitable as it was simple. Recyclers such as Soex bought up the clothing from local authorities and charities, sorted it and exported the bulk as second-hand goods to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Demand was far greater than supply.
Since 2015, however, this market has undergone radical change. More fast fashion items in the collecting bins means much poorer quality according to the 2015 BVSE study. Since the sorters used to finance the recycling of unwearable clothing from the profits of the high quality second-hand goods, a dilemma has arisen. What is good for the environment exacerbates the crisis for the textile sorters.
Today, the top quality goods that used to appear in the collecting bins are mostly sold person-to-person through internet platforms or through online vintage fashion shops. According to Global Data, such business is growing 21 times as fast as the fashion industry in total, and is forecast to be worth €54 billion in 2024. Consumer prices are rising sharply and there is talk of the ‘gentrification of second-hand fashion’. At the same time, many African countries are increasingly taking steps to protect themselves from the importation of second-hand goods. In addition, clothing from China is often sold more cheaply there than second-hand European goods, not least due to widely varying customs duties.
It is not only consumers’ wardrobes that are overflowing. Industrial warehouses and retailer’s storage facilities are also full of surplus new goods and returns. The markets, on the other hand, are over-saturated. According to the Euratex umbrella organisation there is no plan as to what we should do with over 5 million tonnes of used clothing in the future. This quantity could rise by a further estimated 2 million tonnes a year when EU legislation on waste requires separate collection of textiles from 1 January 2025. At present, adequate sorting and recycling capacity for this is simply unavailable in Europe, especially in view of the fact that from 2023 the EU will prohibit the export of textile waste to non-OECD countries.
This is a vicious circle from which there seems to be no way out. It is so devastating for fashion from an ecological and social point of view that some experts are already talking of clothing quotas for each individual. The situation resembles that of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Goethe. What started as a blessing became the spawn of hell: “The spirits that I summoned / I now cannot rid myself of again.”
Due to the pandemic, Instagram, discussion of diversity and gender, new art forms and US pop culture, not to mention digitalisation and sustainability, society’s values and hence fashion find themselves going through more change than at any time since the 1960s. This provides an opportunity for an entirely new aesthetic in fashion. And with it, for new value chains.
Do we have a choice?
Ultimately, over-consumption is a threat not only to the environment but to many business models. “The global fashion industry stands at a turning point at which sustainable management of resources will determine whether it is fit for the future,” says Ingeborg Neumann, President of the German ‚umbrella’ organisation Textil + Mode. And the consequences of a shift in focus towards sustainability are more serious than those of digitalisation, says the German Center for Research in Retailing (IFH). “A reduction in consumption removes the whole basis of the business model. Sustainability is not a strategy option – it has to be seen as a fundamental.”
Since the commercial basis is in danger, investors and supervisory boards must push for the transformation of the core business and no longer be misled by showcase projects. They urgently need expertise all the way along the textile chain, in order even to know the right questions to ask. And they must make the necessary investments available.
The challenges are so great that we need to think much harder about alternatives. It would be fatal to rest too soon on early positive results. The media in particular have a responsibility here, not to publicise initial research results as the new reality.
Human beings surpass themselves again and again. Getting to the moon showed the unimagined forces that an ambitious target can release. During the pandemic, the fashion industry again showed, in the way it adapted to the production of masks, how much it can achieve in a short space of time.
After training as a retail merchant and studying Design Management with a focus on matters such as ecology and gender, he has worked for over 20 years as an author (chief editor of Style in Progress, Tagesspiegel, NZZ), public speaker (Copenhagen Business School, Goethe-Institut, HDS/L) and communications expert for businesses such as Carroux Caffee, Freitag Lab AG, Messe München and Retail Brand Services, and for institutions such as the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Since 2004 he has been responsible pro bono for the European Fashion Award FASH. www.schirrmacher.org