Fast fashion is a major polluter, and consumers are increasingly aware. The Numbers Labs’ Majbritt Rijs looks at what consumers really think.

Despite turbulent socio-economic times and waning consumer confidence, the global fashion industry continues to grow. As the first quarter wraps up, forecasts are ever-so-slightly lower — for some firms. Sure, analysts are predicting growth, but that growth is found primarily among the players that have a finger on the pulse of social trends.

By its very definition, one might think fashion adept at being on top of trends. But something new is afoot. Young people today want something quite different – they want the industry to clean up its act. In fact, a third of Brits say fashion brands need to do much more to establish their environmental credentials and clean up their act, while two in five – some 40 per cent – believe that the industry just cares about making money.

These people have a point, it has to be said. As the number of garments being produced exceeds 100 billion per year, groups are now warning of "potentially catastrophic" environmental damage if the trajectory continues.


For more, look out for Admap’s April edition, which focuses this month on sustainability.

Fast fashion especially is responsible for some of the worst excesses of pollution on the planet. For instance, at 1.2bn tonnes annually, the total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production outweigh that of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers annually exacerbate ocean pollution – 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics. Likewise, an unnerving 20 per cent of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles.

The success of many a fashion house has been at the expense of the longevity of our planet, but the tide is changing. Consumers and regulators alike are pushing back against the worst excesses of fast fashion — just Monday the United Nations launched an alliance aimed at uniting businesses to combat the fashion sector's biggest environmental and social challenges, including waste, carbon emissions and modern slavery.

Consumption of new clothing is higher here in the UK than anywhere else in Europe. So much so, that last month a group of MPs suggested both that retailers should pay a penny per garment to fund better recycling of the £140m of clothing sent to landfill every year, and that a tax on virgin plastics, starting in 2022, should be extended to include synthetic textile products.

Governments and governing bodies can force change by diktat and self-regulation, but they pale in comparison to consumers’ power to demand change

Brands must fix things, though it’s no simple task. Responsible fashion encompasses a plethora of things: sustainability and emissions, raw material sourcing, worker conditions and fair pay, ethical standards and animal cruelty — to name but a handful. In fact, in our recent survey of British consumers, these issues were cited as deterministic by a fifth of 18-to-29 year olds when deciding which fashion brands to buy in the last year. That’s 20 per cent of young people’s fashion decisions being driven by perceptions of responsible behaviour.

Arguably cleaning up the supply chain to the extent needed is no small task: a lot of investment of both financial and mental capital will be needed, and in many cases it’ll require wholescale re-evaluations of business models. But the sentiment out there is unavoidable. If people had to choose between sustainable materials and looking stylish, 45 per cent of Brits would choose the environmentally friendly option. It’s true, most of these people are those for whom fashion and trendiness isn’t as important as functionality, fit, quality and comfort – but that’s still a big market of people, and it tells us that at least high street brands need to be paying attention.

In a few years, though, more people will demand this of everyone. In our survey last week, 20 per cent of Brits said that they intend to buy things because they are sustainable and that they will boycott brands whose behaviours they deem irresponsible (one in 10 have done so already). This goes up to almost 60 per cent among 18-to-29 year olds.

So will it be worth it? As a rule of thumb it’s always worth listening to customers – though in this case the scale of the task may dissuade brands. Or at least make them think. But if there’s one thing about the younger generations that is notable, that is their willingness to pay for what they consider to be valuable and important. And this stuff matters to them.

So much so that three in five say they would pay up to 20 per cent more for clothes that were made by people who were treated well and paid fairly. And half of them would pay up to 20 per cent more for completely recycled clothes and clothes whose impact on the environment was negative. That’s a lot of potential waiting to be recognised by the right brands, particularly against the backdrop of the strength of word-of-mouth in the world today.

Young people are consummate sharers, making them both brand advocates and detractors: more than 60 per cent will — and do — share positive and negative stories about brands and their behaviour online and in-person. Get it right, and the world is your runway.