Why conscious consumption is the way forward Why conscious consumption is the way forward
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Why conscious consumption is the way forward

Why conscious consumption is the way forward

As a society, we’ve reached staggering levels of consumption, which has had a major impact on the environment and biodiversity. Here’s why we need to stop and think before we shop

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Ironic t-shirts, hats, and trainers were always my thing. As a GenXer who grew up in Canada, it’s not surprising that when I want a little retail therapy these are things I look for. That being said, as an environmentalist who has spent most of my career in the waste industry, trying to manage what people and companies throw away, I struggle with my conscience whenever I buy new things.

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. That is an astonishing 1.7 billion tonnes of CO₂ per year and is expected to rise by 50 per cent by 2030. The same industry is also responsible for 20 per cent of all the wastewater produced in the world, primarily caused by fabric dying. To give you a sense of the scale of the water challenge; making a single pair of jeans uses 7,500 litres of water. That is equivalent to the amount of water the average person drinks over a period of seven years, according to a UN report (2019).

Once we discard clothing, the story continues to be dire. Every second of every day, all year round, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill, according to Ellen Macarthur Foundation. In fact, 13 per cent of clothing gets put into recycling programmes worldwide, however, from this only 1 per cent can be recycled as the remaining products that enter the recycling process are of poor quality and not recyclable as new clothing. As of 2020, the lost value of clothing waste accounts to more than $100bn globally. We are expected to dispose of 134 million tonnes of textiles per year by 2030.

The result of these environmental impacts is an acceleration of the climate crisis caused by global warming. This is no longer some future risk. The crisis has arrived, and we are already feeling the effects of it. We are witnessing extreme weather events, melting glaciers, wildfires, etc. The impact on humanity is still being measured, but includes greater food and water insecurity, loss of land to rising sea levels and an increase in new disease transmission from wildlife. Over the past 15 years, production of clothing has doubled, while the amount of time an item of clothing is worn (utilised) has dropped by 40 per cent, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

Luxury lifestyle brands and high-end fashion are very popular in this region. In fact, annual spending on fashion in the GCC amounts to over $50bn, with countries like the UAE having one of the highest per capita spending on fashion in the world at approximately $1,600 a year, according to McKinsey.

To a large extent the responsibility for addressing the impact rests with the brand owners and retailers who have predicated their business models in selling us more stuff. These companies have to make changes to their supply chains, design methodologies and business models to drive down the carbon intensity of their products. They must self-regulate, introduce alternative materials, invest in recycling, and reuse and redesign their business models to align with our climate demands.

There are a number of companies in the fashion and retail industry that sell “environmentally friendly” products. The challenge is that many of these products are not actually good for the environment. Rather they merely market a single aspect of their products that appears more responsible in order to assuage the guilt of shoppers like myself. This includes a number of the fast fashion brands that have been criticised for greenwashing by marketing products made from fossil fuel-based fibres as “conscious” products without the necessary environmental data to support this positioning.

Despite knowing the “disturbing” facts about fashion’s impact on the environment and my constant struggle with my own environmental conscience, every once in a while, I really want to treat myself with a new purchase. For this reason, I have spent a lot of time trying to answer a tough question: how can my fashion appetite better align with our environmental needs?

The quickest answer, but the hardest to adhere to, is to simply stop buying new clothes. So far, despite decades of environmental education, global society is clearly moving in the opposite direction. In fact, in the US, the number of garments purchased per capita has increased nearly five-fold in the last 40 years. In 1980, Americans bought 14 articles of clothing per year. In 2021, that number had risen to 68.

In fact, the reason my question is so difficult to answer is because there is an inherent conflict between consumption and environmental impacts. We need to establish a framework for shopping that allows for the reality of consumer behaviour and addresses the ever-growing environmental challenges.

For this reason, here are some practical guidelines to shop more responsibly:
1. Buy things that you love. Don’t buy things you are not sure about or things you “kind of like”. Make every purchase count.

2. Buy the highest quality version of each thing that you can afford. It’s more likely to last longer. On the other hand, it is likely to be more expensive than “lower quality”
versions, making you think twice about whether you really love it enough to buy it. According to the Love Your Clothes campaign, the average life of an item of clothing is three years. However, by extending the active use of clothes by nine months, you will see a reduction in their carbon, water, and waste footprints by 20 to 30 per cent.

3. Borrow whenever you can. If there is something you really want but can’t afford, rent it. There are lots of companies dedicated to making luxury products available for periodic use, such as Rent the Runway, The RealReal and Hurr, which reduces the number of goods that need to be manufactured. On average, rental clothing can reduce your water consumption by 24 per cent, 6 per cent reduction in energy usage and 3 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions per garment, compared to buying new goods.

4. Buy vintage. The lowest carbon footprint products are those that already exist. Give fashion brands less reason to produce more goods by purchasing great products that have already been made. On average, purchasing a pre-owned item saves 1 kilogramme of waste, 3,040 litres of water and 22 kilogrammes of CO₂ according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

5. Buy from “environmentally responsible” companies. Take the time to do a bit of research before spending your money so that you know you are giving that money to a company that has your interests and the interests of the world in mind, not just profits. There are lots of fashion brands that are making real changes in their supply chain to reduce the footprint of their products, make them recyclable and treat people and the planet better. Good on you does exactly that by providing consumers detailed and up-to-date assessments of brands’ environmental and social credentials.

6. Buy things that are recyclable. Before you recycle them, consider donating them as an option.

7. Mend and repair your clothing. Find a good seamstress, tailor and cobbler to make sure that your give your cherished goods a new lease of life. The best way to support the environment is to stop consumption. For those moments when only retail therapy will do, or when you see something you absolutely have to have, following these basic rules will help to dramatically reduce the impact of your next purchases.

Samer Kamal is the chief sustainability officer at Averda

Read: GB Talks: In conversation with Lisa Wee, global head of sustainability at Aveva

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