The global fashion industry accounts for 8-10% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions and around 85% of garments produced will end up in landfills even though 95% of those materials are recyclable. When accounting for the full supply chain involved in the fashion industry (transportation and manufacturing materials), fashion comes in second only to energy as the world’s most polluting and dangerous industry to the environment. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes would force fashion companies to take fiscal responsibility for their product across its full lifespan which would directly reduce waste and primary material production. France and the E.U. already have plans to implement EPR for fashion in the near future. So why doesn’t the U.S. use EPR to regulate this $2.5 trillion, wasteful industry?
For starters, when the EPA was founded in 1970s with the responsibility to protect the environment from industry over-development, the concept of fast fashion did not yet exist in the fashion industry. Fast fashion is the mass production and sale of cheap clothes focused on mainstream trends with shorter lifespans for the garments. The trendy nature of the clothes and lack of product durability result in faster garment turnover which brings the consumer back into the store for more clothes more often. Localized, independent retailers produced pieces for the common person while key brand names and the age of celebrity designers only started coming into prominence in the 1980s. Globalization and fast fashion hit the industry in the early 2000s, around the same time when landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions from the fashion industry began to exponentially increase year to year. Within less than two decades, Inditex (parent company to Zara, Berksha, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear) grew to dominate the fast fashion space with a present market value of just under $80 billion. H&M takes the second spot in the fast fashion space with a market cap of about $26 billion.
Fast fashion producers weaponized their global supply chains to achieve two-month turnaround times for full fashion lines to make sure that every day you visit their website or brick-and-mortar stores that there will be new merchandise. But the quick processing times, unbelievably cheap prices come with a massive catch: fast fashion garments lack any durability. It is actually in the interest of fast fashion retailers for their garments to fall apart quickly to get the consumer back to buy another shirt or pair of pants. The $20 price tags add up overtime, but often the consumer is not quick to do that math when looking at $200, durable alternatives. As a result, the average consumer in the U.S. is purchasing about 68 garments per year, and then in return, they throw away an average of 80 lbs. of garments per year (about 20 pairs of jeans and 30 t-shirts). What does this model of production result in? Over 12 million tons of textiles end up in landfills every year and less than 1% of garments are recycled into new materials.
Consumers have started putting pressure on retailers to reduce their environmental impact. About 54% of millennials are demanding that companies expose what is going into their product and the production process before purchasing. This push for radical transparency has led to major companies more closely reporting environmental impacts in yearly reports. H&M, Burberry and Nike came under fire in 2018 after announcing that they burned millions in new and unsold merchandise every year (H&M burned 60 tons of goods in 2013). This has led to groups like H&M starting garment collection stations in their stores for recycling and countries like Sweden actually giving tax breaks to companies focused on the restoration of garments for prolonged use. Additionally, France has banned the burning of unsold garments under their Zero-Waste Law which will come into effect in 2023, a move that was widely praised by France’s infamous fashion houses like Kering and LVMH who have made their own sustainability pledges. Even more traditional brands like Adidas have broken ground into the world of recycled materials research as they have done with the development of their first 100% recyclable shoe, the Futurecraft.Loop (which is in testing phases at the moment). The industry has also seen a surge in sustainably focused brands like Reformation, Patagonia, All Birds, and many more who design their products for long term use and from low-impact materials. The past five years has indicated a distinctive push towards sustainability in retail, spurred on by changing consumer values.
Consumer pressures, however, cannot produce enough change at the speed required to truly keep textile waste out of landfills and in people’s closets. The U.S. needs to follow France’s lead and pursue legislation and programming to implement a policy concept called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This means that producers have responsibility for their products over their full life cycle, not just until they are purchased by a consumer. This model has been implemented in the packaging and plastic industries in several E.U. countries, but France implemented it for textiles beginning in 2023. EPR has the potential to force companies to pay for the waste management required to dispose of their surplus of waste created which could radically change the way the fast fashion industry operates and potentially render their environmentally harmful business model entirely unprofitable.
In the meantime, everyday consumers can use their purchasing power to create a less wasteful fashion space in these simple ways.
- Every season you may buy clothes, purchase at least one used or re-sale item in place of a new garment.
- When cleaning out clothes, try to find ways to repurpose garments bought in the past 2-3 years. Many donated items actually end up in landfills due to excessive donations in clothing.
- Limit purchases from fast fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, Walmart, Amazon, Gap, etc.
- Look for brands with durability guarantees for their products or programs to mend or recover older, damaged garments.
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 Elizabeth Segran, “It’s Time to Regulate Fashion the Way We Regulate the Oil Industry,” Fast Company (Fast Company, January 22, 2020), https://www.fastcompany.com/90453905/its-time-to-regulate-fashion-the-way-we-regulate-the-oil-industry.
 “Inditex,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, May 12, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/companies/inditex/.
 “H&M – Hennes & Mauritz,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, May 12, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/companies/hm-hennes-mauritz/.
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 Imran Amed et al., “What Radical Transparency Could Mean for the Fashion Industry,” McKinsey & Company, February 14, 2019, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/what-radical-transparency-could-mean-for-the-fashion-industry.
 Chavie Lieber, “Why Fashion Brands Destroy Billions’ Worth of Their Own Merchandise Every Year,” Vox (Vox, September 17, 2018), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/17/17852294/fashion-brands-burning-merchandise-burberry-nike-h-and-m?__c=1.
 Palko Karasz, “France to End Disposal of $900 Million in Unsold Goods Each Year,” The New York Times (The New York Times, June 5, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/world/europe/france-unsold-products.html.
 Michelle Hambiliki, “Adidas Launch First Ever 100% Recyclable Sneakers Made From Plastic Waste,” VT, April 23, 2019, https://vt.co/news/world/adidas-launch-first-ever-100-recyclable-sneakers-made-from-plastic-waste.
 “EPR and Textiles: The Role for EPR in the New Requirements on Separate Collection of Textiles,” 25 ARC+, October 4, 2018, https://www.acrplus.org/en/events/past-events/event/375-epr-and-textiles-the-role-for-epr-in-the-new-requirements-on-separate-collection-of-textiles.