By Sophie Harbert, Ambassador.
Picture credit: WKRN

‘If the global population reaches 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets will be required to sustain current lifestyles’according to the United Nations, meaning irreversible damage will occur to the ecosystem if current unsustainable levels of consumerism continue, alongside pressing issues of development and population growth.

The case for a circular economy

The 12th UN sustainable Development Goal for Responsible Production and Consumption is strongly linked to the necessity for a circular economy, alongside providing an increasing quality of life for people around the world. It pledges to reduce unnecessary global consumption of resources and pollution, using innovation to re-design products in a more environmentally friendly way. In other words, ‘doing more and better with less’, reducing disposable item culture.

There is no doubt that the current global linear model with items going from production to purchase then landfill within short time periods is not only doing the planet harm but is inefficient for businesses who could far enhance profits from reducing resource use. One of the main targets of the SDGs by 2030 is ‘to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse, whilst encouraging especially large transnational companies to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.’

Picture credit: Inspiring Capital

In addition, growing pressure from consumers to make supply chains more transparent is forcing firms to change if they wish to survive and compete. If governments will not implement legislation, it will be down to the corporations themselves, and we are beginning to see movement in the right direction; take Evian water for example, plastic bottle manufacturers and previously the enemy to environmentalists, who have recently pledged to be a 100 per cent circular brand by 2025, using only recycled plastic in production. There are many other brands working alongside the Ellen MacArthur Foundation towards zero waste, as well as constant innovation into futuristic concepts, such as self-healing mobile phones, proving the future really could be circular.

The environmental cost of fast fashion

By now we all know about the environmental impacts of plastic bottles and think twice before using a single-use coffee cup. How could we not after watching countless news reports about pollution in the oceans and overflowing landfill? Yet there are so many hidden impacts of our day-to-day actions as consumers that we are oblivious to.

Take clothing, for example. Due to the rise of ‘fast fashion’ at ridiculously cheap prices, people are purchasing more clothing that ever before, wearing items a few times, then discarding them. In addition to the hidden ethical implications of a £3 t-shirt, potentially involving child labour or the exploitation of factory workers in the developing world, there are countless environmental impacts within the fashion industry.

Picture credit: Barbara Kruger

Half of all textiles are made from cotton, an extremely water intensive crop which reduces accessible freshwater reserves, whilst high pesticide levels have been found to have catastrophic impacts on both human health and biodiversity. The pressure global fashion chains put on their manufacturers for the cheapest items possible frequently leads to unmonitored factories, where toxic dyes and fumes pour out into air and water reserves.

On top of production is the pollution created in transporting garments between factories, around the world and eventually to your door, whilst microfibres are released every single time the clothes get washed. It has been reported that ‘more than $500 billion in value is lost from the system every year due to under-utilised clothes and the lack of recycling’ (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2017), regarding the disposal of clothing. Textiles are not currently disposed of in a sustainable way, emphasizing that a change in the way we produce and consume fashion could not come soon enough.

In terms of a solution, obviously it begins with reducing our consumption. Do you really need that new dress? However, we also need to change the way we shop. A circular economy means using items to their full lifespan. We need to recreate the system so that charity shops, vintage shopping, clothes re-selling apps and swapping events are the norm, providing us with the styles we want and ensuring perfectly good clothing is not put into landfill — there have even been ideas to create a clothing rental system, something that has already been seen to be successful for high-end designer items.

Innovation for sustainable fashion

Thankfully, eco-innovation amongst fashion designers is also becoming popular, for example Emma Watson’s 2016 Met Gala dress from Calvin Klein and the new collection of high street fashion from US brand Everlane being made entirely from plastic bottles. Patagonia also became one of the first outdoor clothing companies to use recycled materials, decreasing the need for oil to create polyester fibres — yes, many of our clothes are essentially made of plastic too!

Emma Watson’s dress was made from plastic bottles for the Green Carpet Challenge. Picture credit: Harpers Bazaar

But there are also many usable waste items, for example a new trend in swimwear design working with recycled fishing nets — truly circular as the swimwear is then worn in the water from which the nets were retrieved. In addition, the reality of baby clothes that grow with the child is here, whilst better fibres are being developed which increase durability and longevity of items. If demand comes from consumers, alongside tighter environmental regulation, companies will have no choice but to change and innovate.

It is clear this cannot happen overnight, as we need to see a significant change in the habitual way we produce and consume by 2030 if the UN aims are to be met. The main target has to be a large-scale reduction in consumption. As beneficial as the circular economy may be for the environment, it still facilitates a type of consumerism and allows large corporations to continue producing — yet in this finite world, endless growth is truly not possible.

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