Breaking Down Sustainability Trends in the Fashion Industry

While Big Oil is notably the largest polluting industry, another is close behind, routinely contributing to global warming by skyrocketing water consumption, carbon emissions, and plastic pollution while employing millions of child laborers each year.

The $2.4 trillion-dollar global fashion industry employs 300 million people—many of whom are women—and is one of the largest contributors to global warming behind fossil fuel companies, reads a United Nations (UN) analysis, along with airlines, data centers, and livestock.

Despite urgent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warnings against exceeding 1.5 °C global warming, fashion production processes and consumption patterns continue exacerbating the most severe climate change impacts already upon us, including higher global temperatures, rising sea levels, dangerous air pollution, and species extinction. 

To enact necessary changes within a limited timeframe, it is vital that retail companies, sustainability executives, policy personnel, and others in the fashion industry leverage real-time data insights and consumer trends to devise more informed strategies and sustainable business models. 

The Fashion Industry’s Detrimental Social & Climate Impacts

The fashion industry wreaks significant havoc on the already imperiled climate, increasing global carbon emission output, water consumption, and plastic pollution while further exacerbating systemic inequities by exploiting children, women, and migrants. 

Contributing 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of wastewater, the industry uses an astronomical 8,000 liters of water to produce one pair of jeans and 3,000 liters for a cotton t-shirt, according to the aforementioned UN analysis.

In replicating and mass-producing runway trends at a low cost, fast fashion particularly intensifies these harmful effects by utilizing environmentally harmful materials and often neglecting to recycle, it states.

Around 60% of clothing is comprised of plastic materials, including acrylic, nylon, and polyester textiles—all of which shed half a million tons of microplastics into the oceans when washed. This practice additionally disrupts marine life and results in stunted growth, upset endocrine systems, oxidative damage, and starvation, reads a report titled "A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future" from international charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

“One of the problems is plastic ingestion at all levels of the food chain, which may pass plastic to larger animals and humans. The question is ‘Is it acceptable to us to end up eating plastic?’” UN Environment’s marine environment expert Heidi Savelli asks in the aforementioned UN analysis. “I think it’s a human right to not have to ingest plastic.” 

Consuming more energy than aviation and shipping combined, the fashion industry, if left unchanged, is projected to produce 50% more greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. 

The fashion industry wreaks significant havoc on the already imperiled climate, increasing global carbon emission output, water consumption, and plastic pollution.

This spike in emissions would be detrimental to an already imperiled climate: According to a recent climate update from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), there is currently a 50:50 chance that the average global temperature will temporarily reach 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels in the next five years. 

This threshold is an “indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet,” states WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in the agency’s update. Exceeding it would render the Earth more prone to even higher global sea levels, extreme heat, more intense storms, air pollution, and exacerbated hunger, drought, and species extinction.

In addition to wreaking havoc on the environment, the industry also frequently takes advantage of children, women, and migrant laborers by demanding they complete often arduous tasks such as dyeing, cutting threads, and packing garments—harming their moral and social health and interfering with children’s rights to education, among other abuses. 

Despite these environmental and human rights atrocities, the fashion industry is perpetually fueled by ever-increasing online shopping, affordability, and rapidly evolving trends.

Consumer Demands for Sustainable Clothing

As the fast fashion industry thrives, the constant cycle of new, cheaply made, non-recycled clothing breeds ample waste: Every second, a garbage truck load of clothing is burned or landfilled. The aforementioned jeans, painstakingly manufactured using thousands of liters of water, are often thrown away after only 10 uses

Numerous organizations such as the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion and Ellen MacArthur Foundation are advocating for a more circular fashion industry, a model promoting long-term clothing durability and re-use through ethical sourcing, lessening carbon footprints, and appropriate working conditions.

The fact is, there is enormous demand for stylish, comfortable, and green clothing and footwear. 

Amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, two-thirds of respondents in a McKinsey & Company survey report it increasingly important to limit climate change’s effects, and 88% believe we should be limiting pollution. The global management consulting firm reports that 67% of respondents consider the use of sustainable materials an “important purchasing factor” when shopping for clothing, as well.

To meet these demands for ethically sourced clothing, a number of brands have begun creating more sustainable shoes and clothes, including Nike, Adidas AG, Pact, Tentree, H&M AB, Christian Dior SE, Everlane, and Eileen Fisher. This market is continuing to grow, from $5.84 billion in 2021 to a projected $8.3 billion by 2025, according to “Ethical Fashion Global Market Report 2021: COVID-19 Growth & Change to 2030” by market analysis provider Research & Markets. 

According to a study from global market research firm Allied Market Research, the sustainable footwear market generated $7.7 billion in 2020, and is projected to almost double to $13.3 billion by 2030.

Ethically run sewing facilities often source raw materials directly from farms and pay employees well to establish safe working conditions. However, these core pillars of ethical fashion also tend to drive up costs and, as a result, somewhat hamper the growth of the sustainable fashion revolution, states the Research & Markets report. 

Therefore, it is becoming increasingly necessary that these initiatives for ethical fashion are matched by corporations with the power to make lasting changes

Aligning Sustainability Strategies With Real-Time Insights

In the race to mitigate global warming, it is imperative retail companies, sustainability executives, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), policy personnel, and others in the fashion industry devise more ethical strategies aligned with the urgency of the climate crisis.

The WMO’s warning of potentially reaching or exceeding the1.5°C target of the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change within the next five years forebodes intense storms, hunger, drought, species extinction, and other global catastrophes.

Ethically run sewing facilities often source raw materials directly from farms and pay employees well to establish safe working conditions.

“For as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gasses, temperatures will continue to rise,” ​​says WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas in the aforementioned climate update. “And alongside that, our oceans will continue to become warmer and more acidic, sea ice and glaciers will continue to melt, sea level will continue to rise and our weather will become more extreme. Arctic warming is disproportionately high and what happens in the Arctic affects all of us.”

To have any hope of curbing these impacts, it is crucial that the fashion industry leverages the significant power it possesses to implement long-term changes and real-time, data-driven strategies aligned with sustainability trends.

Branding Big Data “the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability,” the UN recently highlighted the necessity of such data in mitigating sustainability crises in its analysis titled “Big Data for Sustainable Development.”

By leveraging real-time data such as Citibeats’ Sustainability Monitor, the fashion industry can be empowered to monitor global consumer attitudes, opinions, and behaviors on a streamlined dashboard, providing full visibility into customizable insights, trends, and so much more. 

Recently selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers, the platform utilizes natural language processing and machine learning to generate real-time insights on contextualized societal trends 90 days faster than traditional methods. 

This valuable information empowers such entities to leverage the significant power they possess in altering the course of climate change and making meaningful, sustainable changes in the fashion industry.

Citibeats utilizes ethical AI for social understanding. By interpreting unstructured social media commentary, blog posts, forum discussions, and more in real time, the platform generates actionable insights to contextualize societal changes. Our Sustainability and Social Risk Monitors shed light on millions of unfolding conversations, empowering the fashion industry to devise informed sustainability strategies in alignment with environmental protection.

Schedule a demo today to learn more.