Fashion and climate: why the greenest garment is the one you already own

By Alison Hird - RFI
MAR 17, 2023 LISTEN

The fashion industry is being called on to reduce its hefty carbon footprint, but the only way to make the sector truly sustainable is for producers to scale back and consumers to buy less. This is what the Fashion Revolution movement is urging as it prepares to mark 10 years of campaigning for more responsible clothing.

The fashion industry contributes just over 2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year – that's the equivalent of 4 percent of all global emissions, according to a Fashion on Climate analysis.

The industry was once more in the spotlight during the latest Fashion Week – actually one month of catwalks in New York, Milan, London and Paris. Transporting that beau monde and their luggage from city to city comes with a big carbon price tag: 241,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, a study by Carbon Trust found.

“It's a waste of time and energy,” says Catherine Dauriac, president of Fashion Revolution France. “I think Fashion Week is an obsolete way to show clothes.”

Trailblazing Denmark

The more modest Copenhagen Fashion Week is a pioneer in terms of sustainability, having managed to reduce its climate impact, resource consumption and waste creation.

In 2020, its Danish organisers laid out 18 sustainability requirements, based on UN goals, that designers have to meet to be allowed to take part. That includes at least 50 percent of their collection being either "certified, made of preferred materials or new generation sustainable materials, upcycled, recycled or made of deadstock".

Dauriac says it's a great model, but it's easier for smaller brands to go green than the big fashion houses on Paris catwalks.

For the moment she hasn't seen many “clean” French luxury brands.

“There's so much polyester and artificial materials in their collections. That's made of petrol and we have to decarbonise!"

Listen to a conversation with Catherine Dauriac in the Spotlight on France podcast

Ultra-fast fashion

Fashion shows are the industry at its most visible, but the broadest environmental impact comes elsewhere – in the online fast and ultra-fast fashion sector that incites consumers to chase trends by buying lots of new clothes at low prices.

“Shein, Primark, Boohoo are cheap,” Dauriac says, but their social and environmental cost is considerable.

As well as the fossil fuel-based polyester many garments are made of, she highlights the 8,000 chemicals used in the dyeing process that damage human health, and the largely female workforce toiling in garment factories  with little or no social protection.

But at the other end of the supply chain, the small price tag consumers see makes us feel less guilty about throwing garments away, or at best donating them to charities to be recycled.

While recycling has its merits, it is not the solution.

“In France only about 1 percent [of donated garments] are resold in secondhand shops,” Dauriac says, while the majority are sent to developing countries, often on the African continent.

    Since most of these clothes are polyester-based, they're not adapted to the local climate and end up in landfill, dumped in the desert or on the beach.

    “That's a huge problem because a polyester dress takes 200 years to degrade," Dauriac says.


    The sheer volume of garments produced is mind-boggling –  150 billion items every year, according to research Dauriac carried out for her book "Fashion, Fake or Not".

    "Half of the 8 billion humans in the world don't buy clothes,” she says, adding that most of the other half buy secondhand.

    So the market for those 150 billion items is little more than 1 billion consumers.  

    While fashion retailers have made efforts to satisfy the demand for cleaner clothes, Dauriac insists it's tantamout to greenwashing:  “They make tiny collections with better materials, better procedures, but the rest of the collection is bad."

    Meanwhile, the secondhand market is flooded with poor-quality, ultra-fast fashion clothes.

    Buy less, but better

    The greener path, she says, will be paved with fewer clothes.  Not least because “we wear only 30 percent” of our wardrobe, according to Dauriac.

    “We have to buy less, but better,” she says, quoting the late British designer and sustainability advocate Vivienne Westwood.

    “Make it last,” Dauriac urges. “We need to learn to repair clothes, repairing is better than everything else.”

    As Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, puts it: " The most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe."

    Rather than buying something new, Dauriac recommends "shopping your closet" – digging out unworn items and finding different ways to style them – and swapping clothes with colleagues and friends when you fancy a change or garments no longer fit. 

    Role of regulators

    Fashion Revolution France runs mending workshops and goes into business and fashion schools to raise awareness of ways to mitigate the fashion industry's environmental and social impact.

    Dauriac notes progress on a consumer level, but compares the battle with big industrial players to David fighting Goliath.

    But governments can provide reinforcements, as France has demonstrated.

    In 2017, it introduced a pioneering duty of vigilance law, which make French companies responsible for sub-contracted workers anywhere in the supply chain.

    Discussions are underway at the EU level, Dauriac says, to apply the provision across the bloc.

    France is also poised to make climate impact labels obligatory on all new garments, though later than initially planned.

    The global Fashion Revolution movement was founded a decade ago in the wake of the Rana Plaza garment factory tragedy in Bangladesh.

    As part of its campaign for a cleaner, safer and fairer fashion industry, it has launched the  “Good Clothes, Fair Pay” campaign to push for legislation requiring companies to check that those working in their global supply chains are being paid a living wage.

    To get the ball rolling, they need one million EU citizens to sign their petition by July 2023.

    Fashion Revolution Week 2023 kicks off on 22 April, to mark the 10th anniversary of Rana Plaza.