Style at a snip: sustainability suffering… unless it’s second-hand

There’s no doubt the fashion industry has a huge carbon footprint, but Danish consumers are playing their part in making it more environment

Many pour scorn on Denmark’s green reputation in light of the emissions of huge shipping companies like Maersk. Others are openly critical of the ‘frequent traveller’ mindset of modern business, shunning airline travel all together in favour of 48-hour coach journeys in their effort to make a difference. But there’s a bigger enemy in our midst, or rather on our backs: clothes!

We are the goon squad
The bright colours and chic contours of Copenhagen Fashion Week will once again be permeating onto our streets at the end of January, but how often do we properly appraise the carbon footprint the industry is responsible for.

It might surprise many to learn that the textiles industry, from which 60 percent of the output goes towards the fashion industry, produces more greenhouse gas emissions – 1.2 billion tonnes a year – than the airline and shipping industries combined. In fact, only the oil industry produces more.

Clearly our consumer choices impact on the textiles industry’s carbon footprint, and it is only going to get worse, according to State of Fashion, a 2018 report compiled by McKinsey & Company. It blames the increasing popularity of fast fashion – the demand for trendy but affordable clothing, which consumers tend to quickly discard due to their poor quality, after wearing only once.

The average number of times a garment is worn has fallen by 36 percent in the last 15 years, and just 1 percent of all materials are recycled to make new clothing. But just doubling the average number of times a garment is worn would reduce emissions by 44 percent – proof consumers can make a difference.

Future looking bleak
The textile industry’s emissions will rise by 60 percent by 2030, according to UNFCCC, if nothing is done to address it, while the Ellen MacArthur Foundation warns that the fashion industry could account for 26 percent of emissions by 2050.

The number of garments is projected to rise from 60 to 100 million by 2030, and it doesn’t help that the number of fashion industry seasons – traditionally autumn/winter and spring/summer – has exploded with the addition of 50-100 micro-seasons.

With fossil fuelled-China and India increasingly taking a larger market share, whilst simultaneously demanding more clothes for their increasing middle class populations, the future understandably looks bleak.

High-street culprits
Anders Larsen, an expert in visual culture and sustainability, contends that Denmark is as much to blame for the explosion of fast fashion as other countries.

“Danes prefer to buy fast fashion from chains such as H&M and Zara. This indicates that the consumer values cheap disposable fashion over sustainable clothing,” he told CPH POST.

However, just as many are buying second-hand clothing, reports TV2. According to an Epinion poll for DBA, 56 percent of the population bought a used product last year (see factbox). And while some said it was a question of price, others said they were concerned about the environment and not using things enough.

No longer a taboo
“It is no longer a taboo to buy used clothes,” Claus H Andersen from Dansk Supermarked Group told Berlingske, and according to Rita Christina Biza, who runs the popular flea market Rita Blås Lopper in Copenhagen, this is reflected in the figures.

“The demand for this is really great,” she told Main magazine.

“We haven’t had a single flea market where we have not sold out, and there is always a queue to be allowed to sell clothes with us – because there are more than enough customers interested in it.”

Gitte Mikkelsen, a senior ethnologist at the consultancy Antropologerne, told Politiken that the increase in popularity is “fully in line” with the sharing and circular economies.

“There is a greater focus on sustainability, and at the same time more and more people are becoming confident about using used clothing, as they hear about others who have had a good experience with it,” she said.

“Previously, there was widespread scepticism about being cheated, or if the items were stolen, but recycling has become so widespread that it has become the norm.”

Greenwashing concerns
Every spring Copenhagen hosts the Copenhagen Fashion Sustainability Summit, but Larsen is not convinced Denmark is doing enough in this area. Several companies, he contends, are guilty of greenwashing – convincing consumers they are shopping sustainably when they are not.

“It is evident that sustainability has become a convenient marketing tool that allows them [the fashion industry] to sell more to the ethical consumer who is lulled into believing that it is possible to use more than you need and still be good to the environment,” he said.

“When we look at the results they produce they are however limited, which indicates that it is more important to look sustainable than it is to change the way you produce clothing.”

Is the industry learning?
Larsen is concerned about how little legislation governs the production of the raw materials in countries such as China and Bangladesh. Such problems were highlighted in 2013 when an eight-storey building in Bangladesh called the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,100 textile workers. Companies such as H&M, Zara, Texman and Mango were among those that had clothes produced in the building.

Larsen questions how much the industry has learnt from this, almost six years later. But while Denmark does have long strides to take towards a sustainable future, there are steps in place to get there.

The Nordic Fashion Association is committed to the NICE (Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical) project. While it has not yet come into effect, it revolves around four main goals: reducing the use of chemicals and water whilst producing less carbon and waste.

Meanwhile, the UN Alliance on Sustainable Fashion is being formally launched in March, aiming to reach out to the private sector, the governments of UN member states, NGOs and other relevant stakeholders with a unified voice.

Consumers to the cause!
Nevertheless, the biggest impact must come from the consumers, concludes Larsen.

“Reusing and mending are some of the best and most sustainable ways to wear clothing,” he said.

“By extending the life of a garment you reduce the environmental impact. So take good care of your clothing, turn it inside out before you wash it, wash it at the lowest possible temperature, never tumble-dry your clothes, and make sure you repair it if it tears or a button falls off – instead of throwing it away.”