Also, each year, the industry is responsible for releasing half a million tons of synthetic microfibers into the ocean.
Consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental cost of producing huge amounts of cheap clothes, and some are forming more sustainable habits including buying used clothing.
Fashion giants are responding, too. By 2025, Zara pledges to only use organic, sustainable or recycled cotton, linen and polyester to make its clothing. H&M (HMRZF) promises to do similar by 2030.
The improvements are being driven by new technologies that could transform the way clothes are designed, produced and sold.
“Fashion is a high volume, low value, waste stream. There’s a lot of it and it’s worth nothing,” says Mart Drake-Knight, co-founder of Teemill, a UK startup that manufactures and recycles t-shirts using renewable energy and technology to minimize waste.
He claims that three out of every five t-shirts bought today will be trashed within a year. Many won’t even be worn before heading to the landfill.
The cost is not just environmental: the industry, valued at around $2.4 trillion, loses about $500 billion each year due to the lack of recycling and clothes that are thrown away before ever being sold, according to the UN.
To overcome this, Teemill items are produced in real time and on demand in their factory on the Isle of Wight, in southern England, with the help of dozens of robotic devices and artificial intelligence. Anyone with an internet connection can design and sell shirts through Teemill’s website — its clients include charities like Save the Children and Greenpeace and designers such as Katherine Hamnett and Bella Freud.
“We’ve designed out the concept of unsold stock,” says Drake-Knight.
Even so, these t-shirts will ultimately come to the end of their life and more often than not head towards the trash. To solve this, Teemill incentivizes customers to return these items, offering free postage and store credit.
Because Teemill’s products are made from natural materials, the fibers can be used again and again. This contributes to the company’s goal of creating a circular economy, and by doing this, they retain some of the original t-shirt’s value.
“If you throw a garment into the bin, all of that value is lost forever,” says Mark Sumner, a lecturer in sustainability, retail and fashion at the University of Leeds. “Even if you do the old-fashioned thing like donating it to charity, you’re retaining some of the value of that garment.”
Samantha Dover, a senior retail analyst at market research company Mintel, explains that consumers have not only become more conscious of where their clothes end up, but also factory working conditions and where the garment comes from. Some 53% of UK clothes shoppers think retailers should provide more information on where clothes are made, according to Mintel.
“There is an underlying demand for retailers to not only be more transparent but to also make the information they are providing as accessible as possible for the average consumer,” Dover tells CNN Business.
This has led to some brands using blockchain technology to track their supply chains. The online public ledger creates a permanent and unchangeable record of transactions: each one is time-stamped and linked to the last, so that it can’t later be altered.
“Blockchain-powered transparency in supply chains empowers the involved partners by giving them a voice as well as holding everyone accountable,” says London-based designer Martine Jarlgaard.
In partnership with technology company Provenance, Jarlgaard embedded blockchain technology into her garments, so that consumers can track the journey of the item, from the production of the raw material to the shop floor, simply by scanning the item’s QR code on an app.
“We urgently need to understand brands’ actual commitment to sustainability … and only factual transparency will enable consumers and collaborators to navigate and to make the right decisions,” says Jarlgaard.
In a global market like fashion, with multiple suppliers and traders around the world, it can be difficult for a brand to fully understand their own supply chain and measure their environmental impact.
That’s why, in May, Google Cloud partnered with designer Stella McCartney to build a tool that uses data analytics and machine learning to help brands estimate the environmental impact of their production process.
Looking primarily at cotton and viscose, the tool — expected to launch next year — will analyze data from a number of sources and measure key points such as soil quality, water run-off, wastage and greenhouse gas emissions.
“The data that’s out there is really fragmented,” Ian Pattinson, head of customer engineering, retail and manufacturing at Google Cloud UK and Ireland, tells CNN Business. “But we feel we can bring it together and present it to fashion brands and retailers and give them a picture of their sustainability footprint.”
Currently, retailers are working off old data, he says, whereas this would give them real-time insight.
But Sumner, from the University of Leeds, warns that there is a danger of too much data. His research has found that overloading the consumer with information on carbon footprint, working conditions or toxicological impacts does not always change their habits.
“We end up overloading the consumer so much … [that] they just turn off and go, ‘You know what, I’m going to buy some clothes that make me look good,’ ” he says.