New trends in the fashion industry – from fast and cheap to sustainable?

Consumers are demanding cheaper clothing while more are becoming aware and reassessing their consumption: second hand rather than “fast fashion”. The sustainability challenges of clothing companies often have to do with long supply chains – and the consumers’ demands. But together, consumers, businesses and politicians can change the fashion industry, according to Johan Jansson, researcher in business administration.

The average Swede purchases more than 10 kilos of new clothing each year – about fifty garments. Clothing accounts for one of the greatest environmental impacts we make in our everyday lives. The clothes we buy are imported from more than one hundred different countries. The production chains are complex. The raw material for the textile fibres may be grown in one country, refined into fibres and fabric in another, and the garments sewn in a third to eventually be sold worldwide.

How can companies ensure that the manufacturing of clothing does not destroy the environment and that the working conditions are acceptable? And what can we as consumers do? These are questions that researchers Jens Hultman and Johan Jansson at the School of Economics and Management are exploring in their research.

“Major clothing companies often have a couple of hundred suppliers, which in turn have a large number of sub-suppliers. The further down the chain, the less insight and control does the company have”, says Jens Hultman, who is currently looking at how companies can create sustainable supply chains.

The tips he gives to companies are openness and cooperation with their suppliers. When the media turn the spotlight on unfair conditions in the textile industry, it often has to do with sub-suppliers not following the agreements established higher up in the supply chain. Having a local presence is thus crucial in order to review the activities first hand.

“Companies that do not work preventively with these types of issues easily end up in a situation of always needing to ‘put out fires’, which in the long term is usually much more expensive than doing it right from the start. The companies that are most successful in their CSR management* have worked in developing countries for an extended period of time, have implemented requirements and control in multiple stages, and cooperate with non-profit organisations working on environmental, animal health and human rights issues”, says Jens Hultman.

JJohan Jansson’s research includes green business models in the textile industry.  Photo: Kennet Ruona

Johan Jansson’s research includes green business models in the textile industry. He points out that there is a major gap between attitude and behaviour, among both consumers and companies.

“Why, for instance, do many people think it’s fine to sleep on ‘borrowed’ bedsheets at a hotel, or to rent a party outfit, but not to rent or buy second-hand everyday clothing? Today, a lot of the clothes we buy are discarded – eight kilos per person and year in Sweden – often simply because they are no longer in style”, says Johan Jansson.

One of the greatest challenges facing the textile industry is to create more resource-efficient flows, not least with regard to the raw materials for textile fibres. It is about developing new business models for reuse, but also new technologies for recycling textiles, which is difficult today because they often consist of a blend of many different materials, including synthetic fibres, mostly of fossil origin, mixed together with cotton or, in some cases, other natural fibres.

The “fast fashion” trend and the consumers’ demand for cheaper clothing and online shopping puts a lot of financial pressure on manufacturers; meanwhile, more and more people are demanding that the products be environmentally sustainable.

“With today’s time pressure, the speed of delivery usually becomes the suppliers’ top priority. Sustainability often comes in second”, says Johan Jansson, explaining:

“What we interpret as the supplier’s fault or problem may in fact be due to the way we consume.”

But what can companies and consumers do?

“You can’t place the entire responsibility on the consumers, businesses or politicians alone. We need to cooperate and listen to those who pursue these issues, and reward the companies that actually contribute to change. Being open about the problems that exist will make it easier to find solutions, and this in turn may lead to the entire industry changing in the long run”, says Johan Jansson.

*CSR = Corporate Social Responsibility.

Text: Nina Nordh

Illustration: Catrin Jakobsson

Sustainable fashion – 7 tips for things you can do:

  1. Buy fewer new clothes and use the clothes you already have in your wardrobe.
  2. Buy second hand, swap, rent, etc. rather than buying new clothes.
  3. Do not throw away clothes that can be used – sell or donate them instead.
  4. Worn out and damaged clothes are great for cleaning, or why not use them as rags for wiping of sweat at the gym instead of using tissue paper?
  5. Wash only when absolutely necessary. Wash at low temperatures and reduce the amount of detergent; it will still be clean and your clothes will last longer.
  6. If you want to buy something new: Ask the store which items are most environmentally friendly, where they were manufactured and how best to care for your clothes. Choose clothes that are durable and eco-labelled.
  7. Things to avoid: Clothes with glitter, silver ion-treated clothing and PFAS/high-fluorinated materials.

Source: Johan Jansson, School of Economics and Management in Lund.