, Singapore

Time to embrace sustainability in the fashion industry

Greenhouse gas emissions from the apparel industry is expected to increase to 49% in the next decade.

The US$2.5t fashion and apparel industry is one of the largest industries in the world and shows no sign of slowing down. With populations in Southeast Asia getting more affluent, demand for fast fashion is expected to balloon. To keep up with demand, fashion brands are producing more and more, faster and faster.

Chemicals company, BASF, works with fashion brands and manufactures globally to advocate for the adoption of sustainable production methods and products. Here, Manfred Pawlowski, BASF’s Vice President of Consumer Industry and Performance Materials Asia Pacific shares with Singapore Business Review why is there a spotlight on the fashion industry and if it is possible to turn the industry around.

Q: Why do you think there is an increasing focus on sustainability in fashion now - given that the industry has long been known for environmentally-unfriendly practices?

Generally speaking, Asian consumers tend to have a negative perception of wearing recycled or pre-loved clothing items as compared to their Western counterparts. The amount of waste generated as a result of fast-fashion is phenomenal – studies indicate that annually, $500b is lost through clothing under-use and waste costs and almost 90% of all fashion made goes to landfill.

However, we’re noticing that a shift in this mindset as Asian consumers are becoming more and more aware of the impact of over-consumption on the environment. Coupled with the recent spotlight on plastic use and the sustainability movement around it, consumers are more conscious and expressed that businesses have to be more responsible to ensure that their supply chain doesn’t harm the environment. With mounting pressure from consumers, brands can no longer ignore their carbon footprint and the environmental footprint they leave and start to adopt long-term sustainability goals.

Q. The fashion industry is known for fads and fast fashion and is a huge contributor to waste - in Singapore, a recent report found that one-third of Singaporeans have thrown away an item of clothing after wearing it just once and. How can this waste problem be tackled?

The phenomenon of fast fashion has become deep-rooted in Asian countries in recent years. In a robust region like Asia-Pacific, the combination of an expanding middle-class population and rising incomes is also contributing to a corresponding increase in demand for clothes that reflect social statuses. Today, an average shopper is buying more clothing than they did a few decades ago but only keeping them for half as long.

To tackle the issue of waste, a multi-pronged approach needs to be taken.

Firstly, education is crucial – brands and environmental agencies have a responsibility to educate consumers of the footprint that fast fashion is leaving behind and how it impacts the environment.

Secondly, the onus is also on the brands to commit to and invest in developing materials and products that can last longer and can be safely disposed and recycled. For instance, at BASF, in partnership with Adidas, we have developed an innovative way of producing a sneaker that closes the loop – 100% of the material can be recycled back into a new product. The Futurecraft.Loop sneaker is the first of its kind for the fashion and footwear industries.

Lastly, consumers have to take on the responsibility of reducing their consumption and put the pressure on brands and manufacturers to be environmentally-conscious. The bottom line is at stake for companies and if they do not listen to their consumers, their profit margins can be severely hurt.

Q. Millennials make up one of the largest demographics in the world and they have a higher disposable income to spend more and as a result, waste more. The same report found that one in five millennials throw clothes away because they’re bored of wearing them. It is clear that a shift in mindset is needed - what role do brands play in changing mindsets, and what else needs to be done?

There is a common misperception that sustainable fashion is not fashion-forward and would cost more than a ‘normal’ piece of clothing. There are two key issues here to be addressed – cost and style.

Like with any industry, cost can only be brought down when we achieve a certain level of scale and when major industry players commit to making a change in the supply chain. With new methods of production and the ease of access to machinery and technology today, there is absolutely no reason why brands are not putting their foot down to impact real change. Whilst it is heartening to see some major fashion brands starting to gain traction in the sustainability agenda, they also need to make an effort in educating their consumers.

This leads to the next issue of style. It is becoming commonplace for fashion brands to collaborate with renown designers or artists to launch special collections. From luxury brands like Gucci to Alexander McQueen and fast fashion manufacturers Uniqlo and H&M, they have created frenzies with one-off collections. This provides brands (and who they collaborate with) with an opportune platform and reach to showcase and educate on the need for sustainable fashion and that it does not sacrifice on style and price. Only when consumers are aware of the footprint they are leaving behind and the impact it causes, only then will there be a noticeable shift in the needle.

Q. Major fashion/apparel companies like H&M and Adidas have started to take a stance against waste in fashion and increasingly the recyclability of clothing items. Do you think the industry is moving fast enough in the right direction and what more can be done?

Whilst it is encouraging to see that large companies in the industry are stepping up to the plate to push the sustainability agenda forward, there is a lot more than can be done, and at a much faster rate.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that more than 100 billion articles of clothing are put into the world each year and more than half ends up in landfills within 12 months. To put this in perspective, a 2018 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe report found that the apparel industry produces 20% of global water waste and 10% of global carbon emissions. Last year, the apparel and footwear industries accounted for 8% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions but is expected to increase to 49% in the next decade unless action is taken swiftly and immediately.

Even though we are in the golden age of technology, the fashion industry has been slow to adopt new practices and technology and is still holding on to traditional practices. For instance, the bioengineering of fabrics and synthetic leather can result in the creation of new materials and fabrics that consume less energy by drying faster, saving energy both in the production process and in everyday use. Additionally, there are sustainable dyeing processes that do not release toxic chemicals into our water systems and environment, drastically reducing environmental damage.

In the era of fast fashion, brands need to look at creating designs with the end-goal of durability in mind. Only when durability is not an after-thought, will we start seeing real change happening in the industry. Majority of products in the marketplace today are made poorly and hence, more easily ‘disposable’. To lead by example, BASF pioneered the world’s first Expanded Thermoplastic Polyurethane (E-TPU) – Infinergy, an elastic particle foam which not only provides long term durability for consumer products but also lightweight and versatile in application. We’ve successfully engineered this technology into many applications that include safety shoes, tennis racquets, treadmills and even bicycle saddles.

Another huge contributor to waste in fashion is packaging. Brands need to address this issue head-on by exploring either biodegradable packaging or even doing away with the need for individual packaging for every piece of item. This is where the fashion industry can take a leaf out of your book of the single-use plastic items/cutlery - there is a multitude of options in the marketplace today as a replacement of single-use plastics

Q. Going green (not just in fashion) is usually associated with higher costs. In the apparel and footwear industry, it seems like a lot more consideration goes into making an eco-friendly shoe, for example, resulting in higher costs for producers and the end consumer. Can sustainable fashion be affordable?

Definitely – sustainable fashion does not have to be expensive. It should be affordable. For fashion to be affordable, one of the first things the industry needs to make a concerted effort to produce sustainable fashion at scale. Like how fast fashion is typically associated with mass production and lower costs, the same can be achieved with eco-friendly apparel and footwear.

Additionally, with the advancement and ease of access to technology, there is no reason why brands cannot automate processes, especially manual ones, which will help bring costs down.

Q. What are the main trends that you expect to see in the sustainable fashion movement in the next decade?

Firstly, we’ll experience an upward tick in consumers embracing pre-loved or second-hand clothing. A recent report found that by 2022, the total global resale retail market will reach $51b. With the increased awareness and spotlight on fashion sustainability, shoppers are more conscious of the footprint that fashion choices and purchases leave behind and are turning to alternative sources.

Secondly, the introduction of sustainable technology into high-fashion and global platforms will push the agenda over into the mainstream. For instance, early this year, BASF collaborated with leading Taiwanese fashion designer, Enchi Shen, to use innovative materials from BASF within her Seven Crash collection, which she launched in the February edition of the New York Fashion Week 2019. The materials used in the Seven Crash collection were made by mechanical looms – using more efficient production processes and cutting down on manpower. Not just date, the fabrics are more durable and are purpose-made to last longer, resulting in less fast fashion.

Lastly, sustainability in fashion will start moving away from just being a fad and a marketing stunt to become a long-term style for brands. Traditionally, the fashion industry has been one of the slowest to keep up with enforcing sustainable and ethical practices and when it has, efforts have largely been piecemeal. However, the future is looking bright for the industry. Recently, 10 UN organisations, in partnership, have established the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion in a bid to put a stop to the industry’s environmentally and socially destructive practices.

Q. How can everyday consumers be more conscious in their everyday lives, when it comes to fashion?

First and foremost, consumers need to be aware of the source of their purchases - does it come from a sustainable source and it made via ethical means of productions? If the information does not exist, or if the brand doesn’t provide such information, the onus is on the consumer to either place pressure on the brand to make such information available or stop supporting the brand. The bottom line is what matters most to brands and if the customers stop spending, brands will have no choice but to adapt to changing demands.

Secondly, choosing to buy less or second-hand clothing. Fast fashion is a huge contributor of waste and by not indulging in this phenomenon, this is a great way to not just reduce waste, but also to save money. When demand for fast fashion falls, the supply will also correspondingly decrease and there will be less stress on the supply chain to produce more than the world is able to.

Lastly, think twice before you throw out any piece of clothing or footwear. Most clothing that are in the marketplace are made from synthetic materials that are non-biodegradable – once these are thrown out, they end up in a landfill. There are many different options that you could take with a piece of unwanted clothing. From simple acts like donating to a shelter to locating clothing recycling bins, to upcycling (reusing and repairing ‘unwanted’ clothing) – you can give new life into pieces of clothing easily.

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