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Cost per wear: the environmental impact of our wardrobes

The fashion industry is notorious for its massive waste problem. According to The New York Times, nearly three-fifths of clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced.

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Apart from this, the US Environmental Protection Agency found that there were 15.1 million tons of textile waste, of which 12.8 million were discarded completely, while the average American throws away 32 kilograms of clothing and other textiles each year. And yet three-quarters of consumers view sustainability as important.

As our collective awareness of the negative impact of the fashion industry grows, it is urging more brands to find new solutions. Cue upcycling – the concept of using pre-existing clothing, accessories or other items to make new garments. In this way, deadstock (ie unsold goods) or partly used fabrics can get another life rather than go to waste, thus creating a virtuous circle. Making a single cotton T-shirt requires over 700 gallons of water, whereas using a pre-existing T-shirt to make something new requires nearly no water. In addition, upcycling can divert some of the 85% of textile waste that ends up in landfills.

A cheaper, unique wardrobe
Upcycling appears inexpensive since used or pre-existing materials typically cost a fraction of newly made materials and textiles. Yet the missing piece in the process is creativity. It requires imagination to see the potential in existing materials and make something new and beautiful that customers will want. Fancy a handbag made from a decommissioned fire hose, a boat sail or an old coffee sack? UK-based Elvis & Kresse is the place to go, with much of their profits going to charity. Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based Reformation focuses on rescued ‘deadstock fabric’ to make sophisticated fabrics and even wedding dresses.

We immediately announced the end of our use of fur, in favour of alternatives and just last month we became entirely carbon neutral in view of the climate crisis the world is facing.

Marco Bizzarri, Gucci CEO

By addressing the environmental and societal fallout of its current practices, the fashion industry could save the global economy USD 160 billion each year — that is more than the gross domestic product of the vast majority of the world’s countries.

However, the move towards conscious fashion is still in its infancy. According to a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) survey, sustainability considerations are not yet powerful enough to be the most important purchasing criterion. For 7% of consumers, sustainability is the key purchasing criterion, but 23% prioritise high quality; 17% favour looking successful and 16% receiving good value for money. Consumers nevertheless expect brands to be concerned about environmental, social and ethical issues, and to act accordingly. Sustainability considerations are seen as a prerequisite rather than a driver of purchasing decisions.

The proportion of fashion companies for whom sustainability targets are a “guiding principle” in most decisions has gone up from 34% in 2017 to 52% in 2018. Despite improvements, the fashion industry is still far from sustainable. Indeed, BCG’s study into the fashion industry suggests that fashion companies are not implementing sustainable solutions fast enough to counterbalance negative environmental and social impacts of the rapidly growing fashion industry.

From the top
However, some luxury brands are embedding ethical practice into their ethos. ”What truly differentiates Gucci is its values of creativity, innovation, inclusivity and responsibility, which are brought to life through our distinctive corporate culture that inspires our 19,000 employees around the world,” says the firm’s CEO Marco Bizzarri.

In October 2017, the EUR 10 billion luxury brand launched a ten-year ‘Culture of Purpose’ sustainability plan which is designed to make it responsible towards the environment and to its communities. “We immediately announced the end of our use of fur, in favour of alternatives and just last month we became entirely carbon neutral in view of the climate crisis the world is facing,” says Mr Bizzarri.

Gender equality has always been at the top of the firm’s agenda as seen through its long-running Chime for Change campaign for girls’ and women’s empowerment. In addition, it has a long-term plan to further embed diversity within its organisation and processes including a range of initiatives that its newly appointed Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Renée E. Tirado is overseeing. In addition, its ‘Gucci Artlab’ product innovation centre is investigating more ways it can produce products more sustainably in order to cater to the conscious luxury consumer.

“We are committed to the objective of moving towards a circular economy, managing our production, distribution and inventory management accordingly, while designing products that are not considered to be seasonal,” Mr Bizzarri adds.

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The Julius Baer Global Wealth and Lifestyle Report examines consumer behaviour and global price trends of premium goods and services in order to gain a better understanding of the world of luxury.

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