How we make and buy clothes is hurting the planet. Here’s a solution

Have you ever considered the environmental cost of your favourite pair of jeans? And what about the clothes hanging in your closet unused?

The impact of clothing manufacturing on the Earth’s climate is certainly on the minds of executives at sportswear company Lululemon, which is choosing earth day This year it will launch a resale program to take back used garments from customers and sell them at a discount. The goal: is to keep clothes in circulation longer, limiting Lululemon’s carbon emissions by reducing unnecessary production and consumption by consumers.

Lululemon isn’t the only major retailer diving into the resale or consignment market to be more eco-friendly.

Arc’teryx, Levi’s, REI, Madewell, Michael Stars, The North Face and Tommy Hilfiger are among hundreds of top brands working to extend the life cycles of their garments by using more sustainable materials, recycling and reuse of fabrics and the resale of used garments. wear.

Womenswear brand Eileen Fisher is a leader in sustainably. Since 2009, the company has recovered 1.8 million of its garments and recycled, reused or resold them.

“The point is to be fully responsible for our product throughout its life cycle,” said Lilah Horwitz, director of the Eileen Fisher take-back program.

2,400 gallons of water for a pair of jeans

As climate change intensifies, experts say rethinking how we produce clothing is critical to decarbonizing garment manufacturing. The clothing industry is one of the most polluting in the world. accounting for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than all international flights and shipping combined, according to a 2019 World Bank report.

By another measure, in 2018 the sector produced more than 2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, about 4% of the global total. investigate of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company shows.

Water consumption is another issue. Every year, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It can take nearly 2,400 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans.

Traditional processes often deplete the planet’s natural resources, consume too much energy and water, and use manufacturing chemicals that are harmful to the environment. But the damage doesn’t stop there. After products are used and discarded by consumers, they end up in landfills.

“Our closets are too full”

Manufacturers make more clothes than buyers can reasonably buy and wear. An estimated 9 billion pieces of clothing sit mostly unworn in U.S. consumer closets each year, according to ThredUp, the largest online thrift and consignment store.

That’s not a surprise given that most companies’ business models rely on boosting production and sales every year.

“We’re buying too many clothes, our closets are too full,” said Peggy Blum, author of Circular Fashion: A Supply Chain for Sustainability in the Textile and Apparel Industry. “It’s not about what brands do: there’s no way anyone can be 100% sustainable or not have an impact. The only way to not have an impact is to not produce or consume, but we don’t operate that way.”

Although many companies are taking steps to reduce their carbon emissions by-product, experts say that’s not good enough as their goal remains to keep increasing sales.

“The biggest hurdle to reducing carbon emissions or climate science-based goals is increasing sales every year,” said Lynda Grose, a pioneer of sustainable fashion design and a professor at the California College of the Arts. . “The reason for this is that the industry for the last 30 years or more has been focused on selling more and more products.”

“Because so many people’s jobs and fortunes are tied up in the fashion industry, I don’t see it slowing down. I don’t see it producing fewer products,” said Elizabeth Cline, author of The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking. Good While Doing Good, and director of advocacy and policy for the nonprofit group Remake.

Even outdoor clothing and gear maker Patagonia, which is known for repairing and recycling its customers’ used clothing and has long been committed to using sustainable materials, acknowledged in its 2019 Benefit Corporation Report that these efforts alone were insufficient.

“We are working to become a carbon-neutral company throughout our supply chain, but even though we have made significant progress, such as greater adoption of recycled materials, our footprint is increasing due to sales growth,” the company said.

Three years ago, Patagonia launched its “Worn Wear” program to take back used branded clothing in exchange for store credit. The company says it believes “the best way to reduce the carbon and environmental footprint of your clothes is to keep them in use longer.”

The second-hand market is expected to double

That philosophy is gaining strength. Several other prominent brands, from luxury fashion designer Stella McCartney to sportswear brand Adidas, have entered the resale space and now allow customers to return their used garments. New customers can buy these discounted used products either directly through the retailer, as well as through resale websites like ThreadUp or TheRealReal, an online luxury consignment store.

The value of the secondhand market, including resale and donation of traditional clothing, is projected to double in the next five years to $77 billion, according to ThredUp 2021 Reseller Report. Keeping garments in circulation longer also promises to open up new revenue streams for brands whose business models have long relied on producing and selling more garments each year to turn a profit.

“Brand scalping is a trend that is accelerating, and it remains to be seen how companies are involved and how they work out the math so they ultimately produce less,” ThredUp co-founder and CEO James Reinhart told CBS MoneyWatch.

To date, secondhand retail has displaced more than 500 million clothing items that would otherwise have been purchased new in 2020, according to ThredUp’s annual report. In other words, that’s how many items customers bought used instead of new.

“The natural takeaway from that is that the world produced 500 million items that we probably didn’t need in 2020. So it’s another data point about how overproduction is a real problem,” Reinhart said.

Beyond cutting carbon emissions, experts say thriving clothing reselling business could also help companies acquire new customers.

“Over the next five years, as young people get more purchasing power, I think brands must figure this out,” Reinhart said. “People who are now in their teens and 20s are natives of reselling; this is part of their experience. I think brands are smart to realize this now.”