Could you make do with 85 items of clothing? It certainly sounds doable.
A new report from the Hot or Cool Institute, a think tank that focuses on sustainability, suggests that 85 clothes should be enough for the average resident of a high-income country with four seasons. This limit of 85 garments is also in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Fashion is already one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. This is set to increase further as prices continue to fall, consumption increases and the wear time of each garment plummets.
A transformation of the fashion industry is needed to avoid the worst climate impacts. And this new research suggests that the transformation can be achieved equitably: by ensuring that everyone has enough clothes, and enough income from clothing production, for their needs.
The report ‘Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable: Resizing Fashion for a Fair Consumption Space’ focuses on G20 countries, finding that Australia has the highest fashion consumption footprint (503kg CO22 equivalent per year), with Australians throwing away almost as much clothing as they buy each year. In contrast, India has the lowest in the G20 (22 kg). In Indonesia, 74% do not have enough clothes.
While these are huge disparities, it is not just inequality between countries that matters. Inequality within countries is also important. According to “Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable”, the fashion habits of middle- and high-income consumers in Indonesia, although a minority, are out of sync with keeping temperatures at 1.5°C. More generally (and brace yourself for a number 20 attack here), the richest 20% of people in the G20 countries emit 20 times more fashion, on average, than the poorest 20%.
There is plenty of class shaming about the spending habits of the less affluent. News producers love to look at the hordes of people queuing outside market retailers during sales, for example. But it is clear that the richest are doing a lot of damage to the environment.
Among the relatively well-off, there is a fairly simple solution that sustainability advocates have been shouting from the rooftops for years: buy less and buy better. Buying less would reduce the climate impact of producing, washing and disposing of clothes. And the better market would help distribute profits into the hands of garment workers. There’s more than enough to go around if we smooth out the spread.
The single best way for people in rich countries to reduce the climate impact of fashion is to buy less new clothes, says Lewis Akenji, chief executive of the Hot or Cool Institute. The other measures – like buying second-hand, choosing more sustainable fabrics, renting clothes and doing less laundry – are important, but pale in comparison to the sheer brute force of overconsumption.
For example, thrift stores are not a panacea. “This does not replace the need to reduce consumption – and more importantly, reduce production,” says Akenji. First, there’s the classic rebound effect of people feeling justified in buying more stuff because they think they can just leave the surplus at a thrift store.
All that surplus helps support the work of charities that run thrift shops, it’s true. But it also contributes to huge piles of unwanted clothes ending up in landfills and waterways – and, if the clothes end up in lower-income countries, dependency on and underinvestment in local garment industries.
How many new clothes should people in rich countries give up? While some suggestions range as high as 75%, “Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable” recommends that a 30% reduction in clothing purchases on average would barely affect daily living standards (30% is the average proportion of unused clothing in German households ). while being compatible with the 1.5°C target. 30% may seem daunting, but it’s actually not that ambitious.
The report suggests a “closet of adequacy” (how many clothes the average person needs) of 74 clothes in a country with two seasons and 85 in a country with four seasons. This includes shoes, but not accessories or underwear.
All in all, statistics about fashion shows can seem abstract. This is in stark contrast to the experience of buying a new garment, which can be both physically and emotionally rewarding. Fashion media and advertisers feed this idea that innovation is necessary for satisfaction – for now. Understanding psychology is the key to breaking the cycle of overconsumption.
Up-and-coming fashionista Alec Leach understands this. The former streetwear editor quit that game and recently wrote the no-nonsense book The world is on fire, but we still buy shoes. Leach’s main takeaway on sustainable fashion? “Ask yourself what you really want from your clothes.”
This can be a sense of belonging, the thrill of the new, an expression of status, a showcase of creativity – a love of fashion doesn’t have to be pathological. And for some groups, including women and gender-nonconforming individuals, expectations about appearance can be powerfully linked to safety, well-being, and success.
But recognizing that the clothing market is trying to fill a void is a step toward potentially scratching that itch in long-lasting ways. According to Oxfam, the excitement of buying a new outfit lasts just four dresses on average in the UK. Two shoes may seem overwhelming, but making a shirt last longer through embroidery or mixing in different combinations could help broaden its interest.
Of course, while consumption is the engine that drives wasteful emissions out of fashion, politics is the main driver of change. To avoid shifting all the blame onto consumers, Leach notes that brands need to be responsible for the supply chain and disposal. The EU has incorporated this into its proposed strategy for sustainable and circular textiles.
France has been a leader on the legal front. There, it is illegal to destroy unsold textile products, as part of a legal scheme to increase manufacturers’ liability for the full life of their products, not just up to the point of purchase. This contributes to France’s relatively low fashion-related emissions compared to other wealthy countries. Other European countries have similar laws in progress. The next step would be to address overproduction and overconsumption, not just duration of use.
Without blanket regulations, some companies have taken steps to police it. A shopping website limits customer purchases to 12 per year, for example, while a design firm prevents excess inventory by limiting production runs. But these individual plans cannot make up for the lack of broader government oversight, including the greenwashing that dominates the fashion world.
Akenji believes that some kind of ration or fashion quota is inevitable. While that may sound like an alarming prospect, he says that “rationing really has a wide range of possibilities,” including responsibility on both the producer and consumer sides. For example, governments could dictate the amount of resources available to manufacturers or the amount of pollution they are allowed to create in the production cycle. They could limit the number of new products launched by design firms or impose taxes on frequent clothing purchases.
There is clearly plenty of room to rethink the role fashion plays in our lives. This is a worthy goal for the creativity and ingenuity that animate so many fashionistas.