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The fashion industry is in the middle of a watershed moment. Our planet is changing, and so is the way we’re thinking about it. Given its role as the world’s second largest polluter, the fashion sector is being forced into the spotlight for its negative impact on our climate.

At the same time, fast fashion – an increasingly dirty word – still taps into many of our basic human needs: the desire for instant gratification and self-expression. With the rise of individualism, we’ve been told to focus on how we’re looking, how we’re feeling, and how others perceive us.

So while we are more mindful of our impact as consumers, the lure of straight-off-the-catwalk replicas at outrageously low prices is often too appealing. Around £140 million worth of used clothing goes into UK landfill every year; the average UK household owns approximately £4,000 worth of clothes and an item is usually worn just seven times before being disregarded.

Typically, young consumers are identified as the change-makers pushing for reform. However, a recent study found that while 60% of millennials are interested in ethical clothing, only 37% say they have actually purchased them. This indicates conflicting principals between prioritising our individual needs whilst also looking after our planet.

Our ambiguous attitudes to this fashion dilemma are at the forefront lately with news that the UK Government rejected a set of proposals designed to reduce the impact of fast fashion on the planet. This came off the back of Missguided advertising a £1 bikini, which despite criticism is currently sold out nationwide.

Ultra fast fashion

Fast fashion as we know it started gaining momentum in the 1990s with retailers under pressure to cut prices for customers. Accessibility to a profusion of new affordable styles boosted our consumer need for newness and exclusively, leading us to regularly update our wardrobes at an expedient rate. This cycle of buying into new looks makes us feel good about ourselves, and ultimately, our emotions still take the lead in our instinctive decision-making, especially when shopping.

Social media has propelled this behaviour to a new level. Platforms like Instagram fuel our unsustainable consumption of disposable clothing putting us under scrutiny to constantly refresh our visual identity and in return be rewarded with a stream of likes and follows.

What we see today isn’t fast fashion, its ultra-fast fashion.

Online retailer Boohoo plays to this “wear it once” trend with ever-changing collections entering the market quicker than many of its high street competitors. The company is reaping the rewards, bucking the UK’s gloomy retail trend with a strong revenue increase of 39% to £254.3 million for the first three months to 31 May 2019.

Even luxury brands like Burberry with its “See Now, Buy Now” philosophy are delivering these high-fashion trends from the catwalk to our wardrobes in a matter of minutes (30 minutes to be exact). Yet, this emphasis on constant reinvention and staying ahead of the latest trends is coming at an enormous cost for both the planet and people behind the clothes.

Rise of conscious clothing 

Acting as a counter trend to speed and convenience, is the rise of conscious fashion. Growing anxieties about the environmental and social damage of disposable fashion are beginning to alter perceptions about the lifespan of these products. In response, forward-facing retailers and tech-driven start-ups are rapidly entering the market and re-thinking the traditional linear model of “take, make waste” to recognise new models of ownership and value.

Upcycling, buy back initiatives and the resale market are fast gaining pace in the push towards a circular economy. For some retailers this is proving profitable, Rent the Runway – an online subscription service known for lending designer items – was valued at $1 billion earlier this year. While peer-to-peer resale shopping apps have increased by 113% in the last five years with platforms like Depop taking the marketplace from local to global.

The Sportswear sector is realising this growing demand for brands with sustainable credentials. In the latest Fashion Transparency Index, Adidas and Reebok topped the ranking of global brands’ transparency practices. Earlier this year, Adidas unveiled its fully recyclable Futurecraft Loop trainers. The German brand is set to produce eleven million pairs using only 100 per cent recycled polyester and by 2024 only plans to use recycled polyester made from upcycled marine plastic waste in every pair of shoes made, where possible.


Weaving tech with ethical fashion 

Fashion brands are also implementing a wide range of technologies to offer consumers’ greater traceability and accountability throughout the entire production chain. This month, luxury French fashion-house Chanel invested a minority stake in green start-up Evolved by Nature, a company on a mission to create a natural silk-based alternative to some of the toxic chemicals used in textile manufacturing.

High fashion retailer Net-a-Porter joined the sustainable conversation with the launch of Net Sustain, a one-stop shop for customer wanting to buy ethical products. The platform celebrates brands that meet traits such as “Considered Materials”, “Craft and Community” and “Locally Made”.

These developments indicate weaving sustainable fashion with leading-edge technology is at an exciting, experimental phase; however, the high price point of these products does little to make it totally inclusive for the masses. One green start-up addressing the transparency and affordability gap is Know the Origin. The organic label is utilising the power of technology to distribute knowledge about the impact and origin of its clothing collection to all customers.


What next?

A seismic shift in mind-set has made the landscape a difficult one for retailers to navigate without polarising opinion. Looking forward, retail giants and ethical start-ups alike will need to leverage their creative resources and technologies to stay ahead.  Sustainable fashion remains niche, however, with environmental consciousness being one of the fastest growing consumer behaviours, future-focused brands will need to be attentive to these emerging consumer needs or risk losing relevance.