New brands are beginning to address social and environmental harm. This will lead to a more sustainable future.

From Meghan and Harry’s wedding, to the Dolce&The Gabbana scandal in Shanghai were the biggest fashion disaster of 2018. It may be remembered for being the year that people started to notice the negative effects on the environment and social consequences of an industry that has been allowed too much. It’s difficult to remember what happened in June when Burberry was reportedly burning PS28m worth clothes, accessories, and beauty products in order to protect its brand.

Although H&M knew this, many insiders began to question the entire industry. Mary Creagh, chair of the Commons environmental audit panel, also announced that she would be looking into the sustainability of fashion.

She said alarm bells were ringing about the fast-growing online-only retail sector against a backdrop of the global ecological emergency. She said that low-quality PS5 dresses for young women are made by illegally low-wage workers and thrown away almost immediately, leading to mountains of non-recyclable waste. A report by the committee found that UK shoppers buy on average 26.7kg worth of clothes each year, more than any other European country.

Creagh questioned experts representing Marks & Spencer, along with a panel of MPs from across the political spectrum. Burberry, Primark and the online retailers Arcadia, Boohoo, Asos, and Missguided were also questioned by Creagh. The main issues were labor rights, the flouting the minimum wage in factories in the UK and abroad, issues around waste and recycling and overproduction. H&M in March had a stockpile PS3.4bn worth of unsold goods. It was clear that clothes must be made to last. Creagh accused the industry of “chasing the cheap needle all over the world”.

It’s been a year for reckoning in fashion, one that allowed us to look back at a wasteful, polluting and exploitative industry that has seen garment production double in the last 15 years to 80-100bn items per year.

woman in pink and yellow dress holding fish net

However, 2018 was a great year for brands who place social and environmental responsibility at the core of their business. Katharine Hamnett, the original organic cotton campaigner, relaunched her company in 2017. In May, she announced that she was raising funds for future expansion to establish a center for sustainable manufacturing in Italy. She told the Financial Times that the world has caught up to us in sustainability. “People have changed their tune, it’s only taken 30 years for this to happen.”

New business models have emerged elsewhere that place profit before ethics. Ninety Percent, a London-based label, launched in February promising to split 90% of its profits between charity causes and its garment-makers in Bangladesh, Turkey. In September, Net-a-Porter awarded Ninety Percent a prime slot.

Allbirds, a Californian shoe company, launched in the UK in October. It uses a variety of low-carbon options such as renewable sugarcane soles. The company saw a rise in interest and sales when Outland Denim, an Australian zero-exploitation jeans brand, was worn by the Duchess.

Social media has allowed businesses like Missguided and Boohoo (whose CEO Nitin Pasi refused to appear before Creagh), to be incorporated into the wardrobes and lives of young people. However, it has also enabled individuals to demand more from their brands. The fifth anniversary of Rana Plaza’s collapse, which saw more than 1,100 garment workers die, happend this April. Fashion Revolution’s campaign for a transparent industry, started in response to Rana Plaza, saw its hashtags (including #WhoMadeMyClothes) reach 720m impressions in April 2018, a 35% increase on the previous year. Brands are being asked to be more accountable by citizens.

Since the November 2017 report of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on fashion’s future, Closing the Loop has been a buzzword in sustainable fashion. H&M and Marks & Spencer have established take-back programs to encourage customers to recycle old clothes. Primark also announced its 2019 scheme. There is much work to be done to create clean systems that can turn unwanted clothes into fiber to make new clothes. Only 1% can be recycled to make new clothes.

Depop continues to be an alternative way to make a second-hand fashion industry. The UK’s main demographic for this social shopping site are 15-18-year-olds. This means that an entire generation is learning that they can take care of their clothes and sell them on to buy new fashion. Rental agencies continue to gain popularity. Companies like Girl Meets Dress offer a service for women who don’t want to appear in the same outfit twice on social media. The industry of wardrobe rentals is increasing by 10% each year and is expected reach nearly PS1.5bn in 2026.

women's white dress on hangers

The focus is shifting towards the creation of new textiles from agricultural waste. Crop-A-Porter was one of the March winners of the Global Change Awards. It takes leftovers from the harvests of oil-seed flax and hemp, sugarcane and bananas, and turns them into a bio-fibre. This could provide a viable alternative for cotton and additional income to farmers. Frumat leather, which is made from apple peel in Milan, was also awarded the Green Carpet Challenge Awards in September.

This brings us to the most significant shift in consumer behavior in 2018, the rise of veganism. Following Gucci’s announcement of the end to fur in October 2017, other labels followed suit, including Chanel, which also bans exotic skins. London Fashion Week went fur-free in September 2017. Despite the fact that anti-fur protesters did not seem to get the memo, Helsinki fashion week decided to ban animal-based leather starting in 2019.

Stella McCartney will no doubt be thrilled to hear the news. She launched the “vegan Stan Smith trainers” with Adidas in September. Stella has been leading animal-free fashion for over two decades. The designer was in Poland for COP24 to launch the United Nations fashion sector charter for climate action. It includes 16 commitments to support sustainable sourcing, design and manufacturing. She stated that everything is at stake during the Business of Fashion Voices conference.

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