How Sustainable Fashion Will Look In 2023

Published on:
by Zara Ali
Garment manufacturing in West Java, Indonesia
Germent factory in West Java, Indonesia

During the last twelve months, attention towards sustainable fashion skyrocketed with industry titans taking pledges to sustainability at COP27, hastening material invention and exploring circularity. With that being said, it became increasingly evident that environmental change is as much about equality than carbon footprints.

Despite its mounting interest and hopeful focus, the fashion industry has failed to make any significant progress this year. Sadly, carbon emissions continue to rise exponentially, circularity remains an unrealistic goal for many companies, newer textiles are yet to reach a wide audience and garment workers still suffer from unfair wages.

As the famous saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Critically acclaimed professionals in fashion are showing that this is true by having discourse about end-of-life impacts and introducing biodiversity strategies to their brand. This alteration of mindset reflects a larger shift toward achieving goals for 2021; one that promises to be exceptionally successful due to these ambitious conversations and initiatives occurring now.

“The last 12 months have shown me that mindsets and decision-making frameworks are changing,” Rebecca Burgess, the founder of Fibershed nonprofit expresses her concern as she notes that alarm bells are ringing and action needs to be taken.

In the ethical fashion sphere, textile dyeing has become a significant issue. Water contaminated by synthetic dyes and chemicals used in clothing manufacturing is impacting humanity and nature to alarming degrees; from increased cancer risk to skin problems and even animal extinction near these plants. In response, countries like Bangladesh and China are now taking action on this pressing environmental concern.

Companies are starting to place emphasis not only on the sustainability of their products but also on how their packaging is impacting our environment - especially with today's increased reliance upon e-commerce.

Despite attempts to introduce small changes in the fashion industry, advocates agree that genuine progress has been painfully slow. To achieve lasting impact and initiate systemic transformation of infrastructure and business models within the sector, experts believe it is essential to reduce reliance on fossil fuels during production processes as well as increase garment worker wages - both are paramount for sustainable fashion trends in 2023.

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Fossil Fuels And Low Wages: Fashion's Facilitators Of Exploitation

Decarbonising the fashion supply chain is undoubtedly a complex endeavour, yet it has the potential to be one of the most impactful solutions in terms of reducing its carbon footprint. Not only that, but when successful, this will also inadvertently address additional issues within fashion such as waste production and hazardous chemical usage.

Sustainability in the fashion industry is an uphill battle. In 2021, it was responsible for 8-10% of global carbon dioxide output and 20 percent of all plastic production due to the usage of petroleum-based polyester. Although some companies have promised to reduce or neutralise their environmental impact, there are currently no established frameworks or parameters that can be used to measure success or failure. This lack of transparency makes accountability difficult if not impossible - making sustainable fashion both a lofty aspiration as well as a moral imperative. The production of clothes made from fossil fuels is projected to rise exponentially in the next two decades. In order to significantly reduce carbon emissions within this sector, the entire supply chain would need a comprehensive overhaul.

Low labour costs are another enabler of the current challenges. Only two percent of garment workers worldwide make a liveable wage. “The price of clothing is artificially low, partially because of poor working conditions,” states Elizabeth Cline, director of advocacy and policy at the nonprofit Remake. “That’s what leads to the larger, systemic issues, including overproduction and consumer waste.”

“In terms of forcing a system change, increasing the power of labour through organising power or wages is absolutely one of the most effective ways to dramatically shift the business model,” she says.

Societal development is a complex tapestry of progress and regress

By examining their buying practices, companies can see firsthand the influence that written contracts between brands and suppliers have on environmental standards in manufacturing. Best practice dictates that brands should place demands on suppliers to reduce emissions and improve labour conditions whilst managing financial constraints, yet these parameters all too often render manufacturers powerless to make any real progress. Kim van der Weerd – a former garment factory manager who now hosts the podcast Manufactured – realises this fact better than most. This past year, the movement to strengthen partnerships between brands and suppliers has gained some attention. Nonetheless, according to van der Weerd, it's still insufficient compared with only a couple of years past.

Last year's renewal of the Bangladesh Accord, the groundbreaking industry agreement formed in response to the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, was a hard-fought victory for labour advocates. However, many saw the preceding uncertainty as indicative of an ongoing lack of progress regarding unsatisfactory workplace conditions and safety protocols.

Reflecting on the past year, Jill Tucker, who is responsible for the labour rights programme at Laudes Foundation, observed that despite all the changes we’ve experienced over this time there are many things which have not changed. This includes workers still having to bear with workloads of more than 60 hours a week and carrying out their duties in exchange for meagre wages. To make matters worse, industry stakeholders are continuing to depend upon voluntary measures and auditing regimes instead of enforcing real rules. As such, it's clear now that carrots alone just won't cut it – what's needed here is some tough legislation alongside these incentives if meaningful progress is going to be made.

California's recent Senate Bill 62 is proving to bring a sense of hope for many. Rather than offering garment workers wage based on their garments produced, the bill requires factories to pay them hourly instead and also holds brands and retailers liable in cases of wage theft in their supply chains. What makes this bill so revolutionary is that it shifts responsibility onto suppliers, small businesses, and industry-led initiatives along with consumers - all having equal rights towards enforcing these new regulations.

In 2021, a coalition in New York put forth the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act to ensure that all major fashion brands are responsible for their environmental and social impacts. The bill requires companies who generate more than $100 million in revenue from selling items in New York to track at least 50 percent of their supply chain's information, including greenhouse gas emissions, water footprint and chemical use. This plan will also demonstrate how much material is used by each fashion company collectively as well as individually - an effective way to make the industry accountable for its actions! For labour relations, brands should be required to reveal the median wages for their workers and the steps taken to incorporate responsible business practices into both policies and management systems.

Passing this bill may very well go down in history as revolutionising the fashion industry worldwide.

Environmental Impact

Despite the lack of accurate data, it is clear that the fashion industry has a major negative impact on our environment. The industrial settings are spread all over the planet while its multi-tiered supply chain remains hidden to many consumers. With so much competition in goods and services and globalisation continuing to expand, there are more brand assets being produced than ever before without any thorough understanding of their true origin or composition. Currently only very few brands possess an active relationship with these suppliers in order to reduce carbon emissions levels, making this issue even more pressing for sustainable growth within the fashion sector.

Growth and accelerating product drops, long lead times, and international supply chains have inevitably caused overproduction. Despite advancements in technology and communication systems, forecasting demand for thousands of styles released monthly is much more difficult than predicting demand from tens of seasonal styles. As a result, fashion inventories are building up quickly with 40% off these goods being sold at discounted prices.

We're all familiar with the hedonic treadmill; technology and revised business systems has enabled this process to accelerate exponentially. McKinsey reported that brands like Zara now offer 24 new clothing collections each year, while H&M can offer 12-16 collections updated weekly! This 'newness' entices consumers to return again and again to their websites or stores.

The rate of speed we experience today feels almost archaic compared to Shein (pronounced She-in) – the world's fastest growing e-commerce company. According to SimilarWeb, its website is currently number one in global web traffic for fashion and apparel. Offering tops at $7, dresses at a mere $12 and jeans only costing you $17, suddenly Zara and H&M seem like an expensive extravagance. Put your trust in Shein if you are looking for high quality clothing that doesn't cost the earth!

To keep up with quickly changing trends while still maintaining low price points, these “real time” brands are increasingly relying on synthetic materials produced from fossil fuels. Polyester is the most popular fibre and now accounts for over half of all global fibre production. Yet it has a steep environmental cost since its extraction and processing require a huge amount of energy, as well as generate considerable waste products that are derived from non-renewable resources.

Discarding Incomplete Solutions

Ecologists have doubts that solutions can be successful on a large scale. For instance, regenerative agriculture is rapidly gaining traction; however, the practices are often implemented piecemeal instead of bringing about widespread change. Furthermore, society fails to recognise that farms should not exist in isolation from nature but rather must function as part of it. This lack of integral understanding leads fashion and other industries down an unsustainable path.

Despite the existing industries' efforts, progress has been rather stagnant. Lower-impact materials such as better cotton and recycled polyester may have improved supply chains to some degree, but they still failed to bring about any transformation. Malas points out an Orwellian contradiction: many brands are using (and even boasting) about their use of recycled polyester despite it being made from plastic and dependent on fossil fuels for its production.

While materials such as mycelium and cactus leather are becoming more favoured options, particularly for shoes and handbags, most alternative solutions remain costly to produce and hard to scale.

At the UN Fashion Charter Summit, signatories vowed to halve their emissions by 2030 (a significant improvement from 30% in 2018) or set a science-backed target for reducing their carbon footprint. Additionally, within twelve months each company must outline how they will achieve these pledges. In addition, digital ID technology was introduced at the summit to incentivise and monitor brand transparency as companies fight for trade regulations that favour eco-friendly materials.

Despite some progress, many were still left feeling let down. Nations agreed to minimal emissions goals and all but diluted the final agreement while fashion neglected to sustainably fund what is needed in order for it to achieve its own climate objectives. Inadvertently, this oversight extended into other areas of conversation that are just as critical – such as volume and growth and incessant consumption – elements which weren't discussed at COP or by brands themselves, according to Tucker from Laudes Foundation.

However, this year there will be a dramatic shift in the fashion industry towards sustainability. While some organisations, such as Redress, seek to approach the problem by supporting circularity and full-lifecycle thinking in the initial design, it is equally essential to continue pushing for transparency and responsibility from brands and retailers, as well as to advocate for advancements with materials and packaging. But ultimately, the most effective way of achieving systemic change is by advancing labour rights for garment workers across all supply chains while reducing fossil fuel emissions along the way.

Activists assert that all of the tasks surrounding fashion's environmental influence are interconnected. And in 2022, it appears as if the industry is beginning to recognise this truth. "I can see a shift taking place," comments Fibershed’s Burgess. "The companies we collaborate with have been implementing innovative concepts and gradually forming an enlightened collective vision."

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does sustainability mean in fashion?

Sustainability in fashion is an increasingly important issue in the industry today. It means producing clothing and other fashion items responsibly, in ways that are both environmentally conscious, as well as socially equitable. This includes using materials that have been produced ethically and sustainably, such as organic cotton or recycled fabrics, as well as being mindful of the garment production process and labour conditions for the people who are making them. Consumers today are demanding more sustainable practices from fashion brands, as they become increasingly aware of the impact their buying habits can have on both people and the planet. By committing to sustainability in fashion, brands can demonstrate their commitment to environmental responsibility while also providing products that customers will feel good about.

What makes fashion sustainable?

Fashion has become a major industry in today's society, with the consumer demand for clothing, accessories, and other fashion items at an all-time high. Unfortunately, this growth has come with far-reaching impacts on the environment and sustainability. Many of the materials used in fashion production are non-renewable resources such as leather and synthetic fibres, which can have a devastating effect on the environment when not properly disposed of. Additionally, fashion manufacturing and production often use hazardous chemicals and materials that pose a risk to human health and safety. The waste created from fashion production is also often dumped into waterways or landfills, polluting the environment. 

How sustainable is the fashion industry?

In response to these negative impacts, many fashion brands and retailers have committed to sustainability initiatives and responsible sourcing practices, such as avoiding the use of toxic chemicals, utilising renewable resources in production, and aiming for zero-waste production. These efforts are crucial to ensuring a more sustainable future for fashion. Additionally, consumers can help reduce the environmental impact of fashion by purchasing from ethical brands that prioritise sustainability and by recycling or donating their unwanted clothing items. By working together, we can create a more sustainable fashion industry that benefits both people and the planet. 

Why is sustainability important in the fashion industry?

Sustainability is increasingly important in the fashion industry due to the current global climate crisis and its impact on our environment. Over the last few decades, fashion has become one of the world’s most polluting industries, with unsustainable production processes contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and over-consumption of resources.


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