This episode of The Exchange examines the fashion industry and the growing problem of fast fashion. We talked about it with the managing director of the Lenzing Group, a company that has been producing sustainable fabrics for more than 50 years. The flagship of the Lenzing Group, the premium textile brand TENCEL, has customers from the mid-range and luxury segments, including H&M, Guess and Levi’s. Euronews reporter Laila Humairah presents the first fashion brand in Qatar to produce clothes from fabrics made entirely from plastic bottles. And Achim Berg, McKinsey senior partner in luxury fashion, explains what it means to have digital clothing in the Metaverse.
The fashion industry is a €2.8 trillion behemoth that includes everything from clothing to bags and shoes to sportswear. The big money maker, however, is fast fashion: the rapid production of clothes that sell at low prices.
Fast fashion has a high ecological price
The market is flooded with thousands of new designs every day, making it a lucrative segment. But all this comes at a high ecological price.
Popular fast fashion brands include Zara, H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Forever 21 and TopShop. According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based charity working to promote a circular economy, the equivalent of a garbage truck full of clothes is sent to landfill or burned every second in the US. According to the report, around €475 billion is lost each year through clothing that is barely worn or not recycled.
In total, the industry throws away 92 million tons of textile waste every year. And it uses 93 billion cubic meters of water. This is enough to cover the needs of five million people.
Environmentally friendly fabrics
One of the most effective ways to make ethical clothing is by sourcing environmentally friendly fabrics, and one company that has been in the fiber and textile business for over 50 years is the Lenzing Group. You may have noticed it when you bought a garment that has a TENCEL label. This is Lenzing’s premium textile brand, which is produced in a closed manufacturing process to minimize the impact on the environment.
According to Stephan Sielaff, CEO of Lenzing Group, the industry still has a long way to go to become sustainable.
“It’s always good to think in numbers and zero is certainly a goal when we talk about carbon neutrality”he says. “But look at where we are today. The industry currently has a recycling rate of 1 percent. We as an industry still have a long way to go and that starts with you and me as consumers. We have to make the right decisions: buy more little , good quality, wash less – I mean the clothes, not us – go in that direction. Then together we can take the industry to very little waste.”
So reducing waste in the fashion industry requires both brands and consumers to make conscious choices.
Transforming plastic bottles into clothing
In Qatar, sustainable fashion is gaining momentum in an industry that aims to establish Doha as the fashion capital of the region. There is a growing eco-fashion community that wants to responsibly step into the limelight with comfortable, functional, fashionable and sustainable clothing.
RSPR is the first clothing brand in Qatar whose collection is made entirely from recycled plastic bottles.
Founder Rina Saleh first used the antimicrobial to make masks at the start of the pandemic. Orders from the Qatari royal family suddenly made their brand famous.
“It is our responsibility to educate consumers about the benefits and that you can still be stylish or cool with ethical and environmentally friendly fashion choices.”says RSPR founder Rina Saleh.
Thousands of masks later, the entrepreneur has launched the RSPR activewear line, which can now be found on the shelves of Harvey Nichols and Galéries Lafayette in Doha.
Finding a cost-effective way to turn plastic bottles into clothing hasn’t been easy, but Rina Saleh is already planning a second RSPR collection, with proceeds going to charity around the world.
You can find more and more sustainable fashion in Qatar. High school students started the Upcycle project. Her initiative was recently recognized by THIMUN Qatar with the Global Act with Impact Awards (GAIA) for giving new life to old clothes. More must be done to end fast fashion. These students are showing that they are equipped for it.
Virtual clothing in the Metaverse
As in the world of art and investing, NFTs (non-fungible token) and the Metaverse are all the rage in the fashion world. Big brands and retailers have entered the trend and offer exclusive clothing in the virtual world. Digital platforms are important growth engines, but can they also help end fast fashion?
Achim Berg is a senior partner at McKinsey. He is also Associate Editor of McKinsey’s annual State of Fashion report. It answers the question of whether mastering clothes can outpace fast fashion in the metaverse?
“That’s a good question because the big elephant in the room is whether growth and sustainability are compatible. With Metaverse, that’s very clear. This can be very sustainable because it’s digital. There are clear growth opportunities on the digital side , but it has to be done in a sustainable way. And sustainability has to be done in a way that the customer appreciates while still being a viable business opportunity for brands.”
Consumer behavior is returning to pre-pandemic levels
After a few difficult years, the fashion industry is on track to see consumer behavior before the pandemic have a positive impact on overall sales.
But the rapid growth of ultra-fast fashion is not only causing alarming environmental damage, it’s also widening the wage gap and alarming shoppers. Fashion brands need to start taking ethical practices seriously if this sector is to grow sustainably.