Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, designers and other industry leaders are finally reckoning with that.

Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, designers and other industry leaders are finally reckoning with that.

“This is funny to say that there’s a positive to come out of COVID-19,” Christopher Lacy, a fashion consultant who says he recently tested positive for the virus himself, told Business Insider. He was preparing, along with the likes of designer Diane von Furstenberg, conservationist Susan Rockefeller, Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp, and StockX founder Josh Luber, to speak at Fashinnovation’s biannual Worldwide Talks

Fashinnovation is a collective of international brands and retailers that come together twice yearly to discuss how to implement change in the industry. This season’s conference, which was in partnership with the United Nations, was held virtually and focused on the future of fashion and sustainability amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The good news, Lacy told Business Insider, is that the outbreak will help the fashion industry intersect more with technology, including more widespread use of QR codes and no-touch payment methods. It could help propel the industry into a more sustainable and technologically innovative future.

But most importantly, industry leaders now understand the need to become more sustainable and help curb fashion’s waste problem

As Business Insider previously reported, the fashion industry as a whole produces over 150 billion pieces of new clothing each year, and 2.5 billion pounds of used clothing ends up in landfills. In fact, as much as 87% of all textiles end up in landfills each year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found. 

The Foundation also found that fashion is one of the top producers of Co2 emissions, with the global textile industry emitting 1.2 billion metric tonnes (1.3 billion tons) of Co2 equivalent per year — close to the level of emissions from the automotive industry.

Business Insider’s Morgan McFall-Johnsen, citing data from the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), reported that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if the industry continues at the pace it is at now, its greenhouse emissions will surge 50%. 

The fashion industry is also the second-largest polluter of water, according to McFall-Johnsen, and 20% of the world’s wastewater comes from fabric dying. The industry also dumps a half a million tons of plastic microfibers into the ocean annually, which is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found.

Alice and Olivia

Alice and Olivia debuted its Fall 2020 collection in February, which included a partnership with ZeroWasteDaniel, a fashion line that hopes to produce clothing with no waste.

Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for alice + olivia


“There will be and will continue to be, a global consciousness around sustainability, which has been driven by the millennials, but is now across generations,” Susan Rockefeller, a conservationist and jewelry designer, told Business Insider. “I think there’s going to be a re-conceptualization of material innovation and protective fashion … People are waking up to what fashion is, looking at fashion at its core and what it can be. It can stand for more gender equality, and more ecological designs and innovation.”

Lacy agrees, saying that consumers will become more aware of the harmful impact that the industry has on the environment, and that brands will be forced to put products second and people first. 

“Looking at the graphs and the data that’s coming out about how well the Earth is starting to repair and recover itself [during coronavirus shutdowns], I think people are really going to see what we have been doing to the planet,” Lacy said. “There’s going to be additional levels of transparency when it comes to products and the environment.”

Both Lacy and Rockefeller have called for a change in the supply chain, with Rockefeller pointing to how fragile the pandemic has revealed these supply chains to be. Factories across Europe have all but shuttered. Some brands are converting their facilities to make medical equipment, and others have had to deal with canceled orders. But almost all are dealing with the fact that as many retailers are forced to close, there’s simply no demand for shipments of newly-produced clothing.

italy milan lockdown.JPG

Italy, home to a number of factories, has been on lockdown since early March.

Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters


Now, there are pounds of this season’s clothing just wasting away in factories because, well, nobody wants them. Come winter, nobody will be wearing shorts, and next spring, purple dresses might not be in style. Consequently, many industry insiders increasingly feel that this concept of “seasonality” in fashion encourages wastefulness, and it’s being reconsidered altogether amid the pandemic’s disruption of the traditional fashion calendar.

“I think seasonality, having different collections [for different seasons] — it’s all going to change dramatically,” Jordana Guimarães, founder of Fashinnovation, told Business Insider. 

Typically, top brands have a number of shows each year with at least three distinct collections: a cruise collection, a summer/spring collection, and a winter/fall collection. And unless pieces are part of the ready-to-wear-collection, most samples are never worn, and, after the runway shows, never seen again.

fashion sustainability

A model wearing a surgical mask carries a net shopping bag during a fashion show at a waste recycling plant near the Trostenetsky dumping ground as part of a campaign under the slogan “Goodbye plastic bag or Make avoska great again.”

Viktor DrachevTASS via Getty Images


“I don’t think we need runway shows necessarily anymore,” Guimarães continued. “I think with runway shows, you just end up having all these samples that are never worn again. There are other ways to do the collections where you’re not using all this fabric and creating waste.” 

Unfortunately, fashion taking action on its great sustainability awakening probably won’t happen anytime soon. First, the industry must survive a projected billion-dollar hit in sales and an anticipated recession. But this prolonged period of coronavirus-inspired “downtime” has given the industry the slow-down it so desperately needed, and the increased conversation around change is the first step towards actually enacting it.

“My hope is there’ll be more circularity, more interest in both the technological innovation that’s happening, but also in looking to return to some of the more natural fibers like hemp and cotton,” Rockefeller said. “This is a global wakeup call, beyond anything I’ve seen in my life, and I hope that more people understand that their choices matter. That each choice that they make has a direct relationship on the environment, human and planetary health.”

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