Clothing in Britain is increasingly characterised by a high volume/low value approach to business. Judging by past precedent, consumers will discard some 680m items of clothing when they spring clean their wardrobes this year. Replacements are cheap: dresses can be bought for as little as £5 from online retailers (indeed, a mere £3.75, reduced 25%, in Boohoo’s current sale).
Cheap prices are praised for providing wider access to consumers. Fashion retailers argue that they are a sign of efficiency. But there is a dark side.
A new report from the Environmental Audit Committee enquiry into sustainable fashion reveals how consumers are only benefiting from cheap clothes at considerable cost to the environment and through exploitation of poor and vulnerable garment workers.
The environmental impact of fashion is well known. Cotton production uses large amounts of pesticides and water, while synthetic fibres such as polyester are derived from finite oil supplies. Bamboo, increasingly used as a cotton replacement, sounds pleasingly natural but is a semi-synthetic fibre, the production process of which involves the use of chemicals such as caustic soda. And while British consumers with an environmental conscience may feel less guilty as they take their unwanted garments to a charity store or vintage shop, many of these end up in landfill or incinerated because they cannot attract buyers – domestically or overseas.
The social impact of fashion similarly raises concern. Evidence suggests that fashion companies do not yet monitor supply chains with such diligence that consumers can be sure that their purchases have not involved exploitation of the workforce. In Britain, many garment workers in Leicester are apparently being paid less than the minimum wage. Abroad, slave labour, child labour and poor working conditions persist, more than five years after the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh left more than 1,100 garment workers dead.
In recent years, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (known as WRAP), which is supported largely by public funds and works closely with the fashion industry, has done an excellent job in promoting clothing sustainability. Its report Valuing our Clothes provided a strong evidence base for action. It has warned government and industry of the environmental impact of a throwaway culture, producing guidelines for designers and a protocol for companies wanting to produce longer-lasting clothing.
But designing garments for longevity is pointless if they are discarded prematurely and merely add to the vast tonnage of clothing waste generated each year. Every garment that is produced contributes to the industry’s environmental impact. In a sustainable fashion culture, far fewer garments would be produced and, when no longer wearable, the materials would either be reused – for example, through upcycling, where unwanted clothes are redesigned into new items – or recycled.
It is a vision that still appears a long way off. The Environmental Audit Committee’s report, however, offers hope.
Vast amounts of clothing is discarded and, currently, barely 1% is recycled. A recent study highlighted the many obstacles to recycling that need to be overcome. The UK government’s Resources and Waste Strategy promised to review and consult on textile waste – but only by 2025, giving a strong indication that it does not regard the issue as a priority.
By contrast, the Environmental Audit Committee’s report proposes a “producer responsibility” scheme in which producers would pay a 1p charge per garment to improve clothing collection and recycling in order to address textile waste. Such a strategy is long overdue and, like all tax threats, inevitably attracted the most media headlines. But the report proposes several other initiatives that could prove even more significant.
For example, noting that Sweden has reduced VAT on clothing repair services, the committee recommends a more general reform of taxes, suggesting that “the chancellor should use the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible companies”.
And it concludes that the voluntary approach represented by WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, which requires supporting companies to reduce their water, waste and carbon footprints, has had its day. Instead, it argues, such targets should be mandatory for all retailers with a turnover exceeding £36m.
A revival in lessons on designing, creating and repairing clothes in the school curriculum is also proposed: a much-needed return to what was once taught as home economics. Whether the government will have the courage to accept this challenge at the expense of STEM subjects will be interesting to see.
Economic and educational measures are needed, because recycling does not address the fundamental problem of unsustainable levels of production and consumption in the clothing sector. WRAP’s evidence to the committee revealed that improved production efficiency has reduced environmental impacts – but that these gains were more than offset by increased consumption.
The situation is especially bad in Britain. The Textile Recycling Association reported in 2018 that British consumers purchase far more clothes than consumers in other European countries: more than 26kg each year, compared with 17.6kg in Germany, 14.5kg in Italy and 12.6kg in Sweden.
In short, companies produce too much and consumers buy too much. The sector is based on an outmoded and unsustainable business model and relies on insatiable consumer demand.
Thus the fashion industry produces more garments than retailers are able to sell, while the secondhand market is unbalanced – with supply far exceeding demand. Meanwhile, wardrobes in Britain hold a vast surplus stock of garments, much of it unworn because we lack repair and alteration skills.
The recent report contains many welcome proposals, but we need to go further. In Britain we consumed more than 1.13m tonnes of clothing in 2016, a significant increase compared with 2012. A target to halve this by 2030 would be an appropriate goal to focus people’s minds.
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Join us for the second of our Kinder Conversations - the Sky has a Limit.
Following our investigation into the Future of Meat in February, we've turned our attention to the sky. We'll be talking about whether air travel can be more sustainable, and how.
We're delighted to be hosting this event in collaboration with our friends at TQ, the Amsterdam tech hub where we're based.
📅 When Monday 17 June 18:30 - 20:30
📭 Where TQ, Singel 542, Amsterdam
🎯 Why should I fly Kinder? To hear about the latest research and technology making air travel more sustainable. To find out what you can do to reduce the impact your flights are having. To share a drink with like-minded travelers, and sample some of our vegan snacks (including beloved Professor Grunschnabel ice cream, as seen at the Future of Meat event)
Here at Kinder, we believe that greener travel is one of the key ways in which we can tackle the climate crisis. Travelling green can mean a lot of things, but right now we’re concerned about the aviation industry.
If aviation were a country, it’d be a top 10 polluter - and C02 emissions from air travel are growing many times faster than any other form. We’re already in a very dangerous position, and although there are many potential solutions, we sometimes feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what to do about it.
That’s where Kinder Conversations comes in.
Kinder Conversations is a series of events which delve into the biggest issues facing the world.
At the Sky has a Limit, we’ll be bringing together representatives from research and technology, the aviation industry and the not-for-profit sector to talk about sustainable air travel. We’ll hear more about the problem, and a lot more about the solutions.
Plus, there’ll be time to get a drink from TQ’s bar (buying a drink helps our friends from TQ support more events like this), try some vegan ice cream, and chat to fellow travellers about the steps you can take to travel greener.
✈️ Are you ready to #flykinder? Then secure your boarding pass here.
I don't have a driving license and when pressed about getting one by friends tired of chauffeuring me around I usually say I will only get one if I can drive something cool, like the Batmobile or a flying car. Unfortunately, I might have to honour that promise as it seems that flying cars are finally taking off (alas, no commercial Batmobiles in sight).
Indeed, several promising startups around the world are working to deliver the "car of the future" over the next few years. Like the Dutch company PAL-V that showed off a limited edition of its flying car at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland.
The PAL-V is a hybrid between a car and a helicopter (or more precisely, a gyrocopter), able to reach a top speed of 160 km/h on the tarmac but also get airborne in just 5 minutes, hitting airspeeds of 180 km/h over a range of up to 500 km. But since buying a PAL-V will set you back around € 350,000 I might have to pass on this one. Moreover, flying this beauty requires not just a driving license but also (understandably) a license to fly, and that's just too much for me.
Thankfully, other companies are developing vehicles that need no driver at all. Aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter, for example, is working on Nexus, an air taxi capable of taking off and landing in the middle of a city (whereas the PAL-V still needs a runway, albeit short, to get airborne).
Called VTOLs (short for Vertical Take Off and Landing), these aircraft aim to become sort of an Uber of urban air travel, bringing customers to the opposite part of the city or even to a nearby city in a matter of few minutes.
If you're at JFK airport in New York, for example, and have a meeting in Manhattan, instead of embarking on a 1-hour, Cosmopolis-style taxi ride, you could just hail a flying car and be downtown in 5 minutes.
Futuristic as it may sound, concrete plans to make it come true are underway. Earlier this month, German startup Lilium successfully completed the first test of its new five-seater Lilium Jet, an electric vehicle that, according to the company, will have a range of 300 km and a top speed of 300 km/h.
The reason electric flight is such an exciting area of research is not just because flying taxis will allow a handful of high rollers to drastically cut on their commuting time. Electric flying cars might be really good for the environment too.
A recent study published by Nature highlighted that, in some cases, flying cars could eventually be greener than even electric road cars, cutting emissions while reducing traffic on increasingly busy roads.
Moreover, developments in the field of flying cars could also boost the research on electric flight at large, including long haul electric flights, sort of the Holy Grail of aviation. And, as known, the civil aviation industry needs to find effective ways to lower its carbon emissions as soon as possible.
However, as explained by Hugh Hunt in an article on The Conversation that we republished here on Kinder World, "gaps in necessary technology and practical uncertainties beyond the cars’ promising physics mean that they may not arrive in time to be a large-scale solution to the energy crisis and congestion."
Let's get this one thing straight: most people prefer flying to other modes of transport, and we seem to do it more and more often. The airline industry is booming and 4.1 billion passengers have been transported last year. Almost every figure one looks at shows the impressive increase in flights over the last two decades.
Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Association for Flight Transport proclaims: “In 2000, the average citizen flew just once every 43 months. In 2017, the figure was once every 22 months. Flying has never been more accessible. And this is liberating people to explore more of our planet for work, leisure, and education. Aviation is the business of freedom."
However, this ‘business of freedom’ runs on fossil energy carriers as planes still almost exclusively fly on kerosene. Kerosene is a fuel produced by oil refining and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major product of burning kerosene. The 2-5% of all global CO2 emissions the aviation industry emits is caused by its fuel consumption (and choice). And unlike other fuels like diesel or gasoline, airlines don't pay taxes on kerosene in most countries — making cheap air travel possible.
In 2018 Europe’s biggest airline Ryanair became number 9 in the list of Europe’s biggest CO2 emitters and still claims to be the ‘greenest and cleanest airline’. Andrew Murphy – the aviation manager at the European Federation for Transport and Environment — argues that Ryanair the new coal when it comes to climate pollution. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, on the other hand, dismisses such claims by saying the claims are ‘’complete and utter rubbish’’.
Other airlines, like KLM who partly uses renewable jet-fuel, are acknowledging the problem but they aren't too far behind Ryanair on the list of emitters.
The growth of the industry is not expected to slow down. India and China are the biggest growth markets, the latter alone is building 200 new commercial airports in the next ten years. Moreover, industry forecasts suggest that emissions will rise by 700% until 2050 which amounts to more than 4% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.
If we want to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, every the average earthling has a quota of two tons of CO2 per annum but just a return trip between New York and Amsterdam generates three tons already.
Compared to other modes of transport planes are the biggest CO2 emitters per travelled kilometre followed by cars, buses and finally trains which are the least polluting. The CO2 emissions, however, are only one half of the medal. The impact of flying on global warming is different than most other transport as it happens in the air high above the ground where the processes that cause or reduce global warming happen. These include CO2 and nitrogen oxide emission but also cloud formation, ozone and soot as well as methane reduction.
The climate impact of the emitted greenhouse gases in the stratosphere are three times higher than on the ground. Flying also causes condensation trails and fog clouds in certain weather conditions. Such clouds can have a warming or a cooling effect on the climate. One way to improve the climate effect of flying would be planning better routes where warming clouds are avoided and the formation of cooling clouds is favoured — our current routes have an overall warming effect.
So, hypothetically, some flights with clever flight-route planning might even reduce global warming. However, as we don't have time to hypothesise, we need to find and urgently implement other ways to bring down the impact of flying, like using better fuels or even better planes.
This article was written by Eric Schuler for Kinder World. Schuler is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam and works on new industrial sustainable chemistries to turn captured CO2 into useful things such as plastics or fuel. He's also a photojournalist with an interest in climate and land-use change.