At the recent Stella McCartney AW20 show in Paris guests were gifted a sampling. Wrapped in paper and tied with string, a note was attached which read: “We should all be carbon neutral now. We are absorbing the CO2 emitted by the show to make this a completely carbon neutral experience. Planting this tree is part of the solution.”
Left - The samplings given out at Stella McCartney's AW20 fashion show in Paris
How many of these young trees made it off the Eurostar and into the ground we’ll probably never know, but it is another example of fashion’s current obsession with tree planting to seemingly balance out the rest of its environmental impact.
New trees have become part of some quantum, climate change, environmental maths equation and, seemingly, the answer to many of our climate change woes. It’s an easy solution to carry-on-as-you-were by simply chucking money at the problem and hoping re-greening, by randomly planting new trees, is the band aid needed.
The Committee on Climate Change says the UK will have to plant 1.5 billion trees if it is to meet its pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050 – and this needs to “happen quickly”. UK woodland cover needs to increase from 13 per cent to 17 per cent. It recommended that 30,000 hectares be planted every year, but if other carbon-reducing targets are not met, it said this will have to go up to 50,000. In 2018, the UK planted 13,400 hectares of woodland.
In the recent Labour 2019 manifesto, it said, if elected, it would plant 2 billion trees in the next 20 years. That would have been the equivalent of 100 million trees a year; the equivalent of three trees planted every second, day and night. These numbers are staggering and make the whole thing look too simplistic and far fetched. Where would they all go? It's as though all these trees will just magically appear not to mention. Done. Fixed.
European footwear brands such as Womsh, Faguo, Yatay have all made planting trees part of their brand ethos and USP. Yatay promise for every pair of shoes sold a tree will be planted in a specific area in Bore, Kenya and since 2014, Womsh has created and preserved 46 tennis courts of equatorial forest and offset 74 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission, equal to the consumption of more than 10 milions sheets of paper.
Romain Teissedre, Faguo Communication Manager, says, “From the beginning, Nicolas and Frederic, (the founders) wanted to be positive for the planet. They choose trees because it's the best way to offset CO2. It encourages wood use too. We think that it's better to use wooden materials instead of plastics or glass, because it continues to offset CO2. We symbolise that with a coconut button on all of our products.” he says.
“For each collection, we know how many Faguo products we will produce, so we ask our plant nursery workers (Naudet Pépinières) to find projects in France who want to forest or re-forest their land.” he says. “If they engage to care about the plantation and put a wood Faguo panel in front of the forest, then Faguo pay for all the plants in the field. Naudet Pepinières wait for the right season to plant and decide if they plant conifer or broad-leaved trees.”
Right - Italian sneaker brand Yatay informing customers how many tons of CO2 has been absorbed by their tree planting
Faguo has planted 1.5 million trees in France since 2009 in 270 Faguo forests.
“It's great, but not enough." says Teissedre. "We need to install a more circular fashion to reduce our emissions. The beginning must be using recycled material!” Sixty-five per cent of Faguo products are made with recycled materials right now. It will be one hundred per cent by 2024 they say.
“Planting a tree is good, but the most important act is reducing our footprint.” he says.
A whole industry of socially responsible companies have sprung to facilitate this new mania in tree planting from the fashion industry. Offset Earth helps companies and individuals offset their carbon footprint by supporting carbon reducing projects around the world including tree planting. Olly Rzysko is an advisor and Co-founder for Offset Earth. Having worked in retail (specifically clothing/fashion) since he was 20 he knew the impact it was having on the environment and also the power it has to make a difference, quickly. He donates his time to Offset Earth having been really inspired by Elliot, Alex and Lucy, who founded it in 2019.
“The fashion industry, like most industries, is unable to completely remove its carbon footprint overnight, it may never be totally possible.” says Rzysko. “All the while our dwindling global carbon budget continues to drain faster than ever before. What we need to do until industries are fully decarbonised is pay to offset the footprint as it will increase the amount of time we have to live more sustainably.” he says. “You can do the offsetting by planting trees, protecting rainforests, and installing wind and solar farms.
“At Offset Earth we don’t count tree planting as carbon reduced, the tree has not yet grown yet so the carbon has not yet been reduced. The trees we plant will absorb a lot of carbon though, and this calculation is often averaged over a 25 year growing period. Many tree varieties will keep on growing after this, and the carbon they sequester continues to accelerate. For Offset Earth planting trees is a backbone of what we offer - it’s what really ignites the imaginations of our susbscribers, plant 12 trees a month for £4.50.” says Rzysko.
Is there anything consumers should look for or be suspicious of?
“You should look to find information on how the climate projects are being verified as to what they are doing. The projects we support are all verified by Gold Standard, an independent certification body, that raises the standard of the project to an exceptional quality. Other standards include Verra, Climate Action Reserve and Climate, Community & Biodiversity.” he says. “Often you wont be buying carbon offsets directly from them, so if you’re going through another company then ensure you’re happy with the level of transparency and thoroughness of the information, that has links to plenty of sources.”
How can consumers trust that these trees will be planted and cared for? “The actual project operator that is planting the trees needs to be well established and known for responsible reforestation. Our reforestation partners work with local governments and plant in newly nationalised parks, protecting them in perpetuity. There should be a monitoring period over 30 years in place, where an independent auditor ensures the stated number of trees are healthy.” he says.
Left - Map on Faguo's website showing where and how many trees have been planted in France
“If the entire (fashion) industry offset its carbon footprint it’d be a staggering boost to our global climate goals, but it is just one part of the solution.” says Rzysko. “The reason we need to use this tool is because it’s available today and is something most businesses can get behind without too much effort. The bigger picture is to remove the carbon footprint of the industry, and that will be slow to change. However it needs the spotlight at all times to ensure we’re all marching in the right direction.”
Fashion app, Mallzee recently launched a Swipe To Plant initiative, partnering with non-profit organisation One Tree Planted - a non-profit dedicated to global reforestation - to turn every swipe made on their free Mallzee apps into tree planting funding. The week long green initiative focused on highlighting the sustainable fashion ranges available on the shopping app whilst also helping fund reforestation globally. In addition to helping consumers find their favourite fashions, Mallzee strives to reduce wastage in the fashion industry by partnering with retailers to improve their product selections and stock ordering through pre-release product testing.
Tree planting is fantastic, and nobody is going to say the world has too many trees, but it feels too easy and simplistic an answer in combating the impact of the fashion industry. Just carrying on regardless and saying you’ve planted part of a forest feels like the environmental equivalent of sticking a plaster over a gaping wound. Many brands are doing great things and are transparent in their efforts, but consumers can feel blinded by the numbers and what it all means. It's also clearly cheaper to plant trees in some countries over others due to land prices and labour costs. This trend is a positive one, but it does feel like some brands are jumping on the brand wagon and how much of this is checked, monitored and also cared for, with so much passing onto third parties, is ripe for abuse. Forget the wood, consumers need to see the trees.
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If things weren’t getting hard enough for ‘fast-fashion’ retailers along comes ‘Extinction Rebellion’ (XR). Protests the world over are warning of impending doom and trying to ram home and ostracise those who continue to shop at brands and retailers vilified for producing clothing that is deemed to be disposable.
While the traditional high-street has struggled, both here and in the US, Forever 21 filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, for example, the winners of the fashion internet, such as ASOS and Zalando, appear to be slowing. Recent profit warnings and falling share prices have put a wobble in this bright spark of retail.
Left - An impromptu anti-fashion show in London's Oxford Circus
While ASOS is expected to show an uplift in revenues this week, could this be the peak for these types of retailers? Is the much publicised message of Extinction Rebellion cutting through to the buying public and will this prove to be a tipping point for ‘Fast-Fashion’?
Morgan Stanley recently said the volume of clothes shoppers buy has plateaued, "we suspect it's primarily because consumers are now buying clothing in such large quantities that they get very little marginal 'utility' from any additional items.” they said.
Retailers such as Primark, H&M and Boohoo rely on large volumes with small profit margins. Is this slowing more a result of saturation rather than the start of a boycott of ‘fast-fashion’ brands for environmental concerns?
“There is some very muddled thinking around the debate on how to make the 21st-century world more environmentally-friendly.” says Eric Musgrave, fashion industry commentator and former editor of Drapers. “I am sure the fashion industry is wasteful, but I’d like to know which large-scale industries are not. Who, for example, ever talks about mass-produced furniture, or pots and pans? I am not an apologist for the fashion business, but it is seen largely as a frivolous unnecessary luxury, not a necessity, hence it is an “easy” (or some would argue “legitimate”) target.” he says.
“I see no desire from the mass of the British public to change their buying habits. It would be wrong to confuse problems that may have risen at individual companies like Quiz and ASOS with overall trends.
“Too often overlooked in all this analysis is that the UK is a very troubled economy, with little sign of it improving any time soon. We have had 11 years of austerity and many people do not have much money. Asking them to forgo the pleasures they derive from cheap fast fashion is the epitome of wishful thinking.” he says. “Fast fashion is here to stay for decades to come – within the sector there will always be winners and losers.
And ask yourself, seriously, what lasting impact on fast fashion did the grim Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka in 2013 have?”
“The fast fashion firms will not adjust their model. If some disappear, others will appear to take their place.” he says. “Finally, I await the explanation from Extinction Rebellion and the like about what all the many millions of people who earn a living in the fashion supply chain will do if it were to shut down tomorrow.”
Fast-fashion retailer Quiz, a fast growing newcomer to the market, recently announced lower sales in the first half of the year in the face of a “very challenging” high street. The retailer said its stores and concessions had suffered weaker-than-expected sales over the six months to September after a slump in footfall. Quiz reported that total group revenues slipped 5% to £63.3 million during the period, as online growth (7%) failed to offset its high street decline.
The entire fashion industry seems quite content to push all the heat onto these ‘fast-fashion’ retailers. Now public enemy No.1, ‘fast-fashion’ has become a scapegoat for the fashion industry in general. Arguably, all fashion is fast and in its nature it is disposable. People are being forced to question their purchases and asking themselves if they really need it, but is it significantly changing behaviour?
As part of Extinction Rebellion’s #XR52 weeks of direct action, they are urging people to #BOYCOTTFASHION for a whole year, in order to disrupt business-as-usual and send a message to government, industry and public alike that enough is enough.
Olly Rzysko CMO + Retail Advisor, says, “It will take something big for there to be a significant shift, eg the ‘blue planet’ plastic straw moment.”
Kathryn Bishop, Deputy editor - LS:N Global, says, “On Question Time last week, an audience member said David Attenborough spoke to her more than XR activity did. Sadly…”
It appears people are still buying clothes in volume, but we reached a peak a few years back. Kantar data suggests consumers in the UK are buying 50 items of clothing a year, up from 20 items in the 1990s but down from 52 three years ago. In the US the figure is estimated to be as high as 65 items a year, compared with between 40 and 50 in the 1990s and almost 70 in 2005.
"Put simply, consumers would rather spend their marginal dollar on, say, going out for a meal, than on buying a 60th item of clothing in a year,” Morgan Stanley analysts Geoff Ruddell, Kimberly Greenberger and Maki Shinozaki said in their report.
"It is our contention, therefore, that the apparel markets in many developed countries may now be entering a lengthy period of structural decline.” they said. The main catalyst for increased consumption was falling prices. "If clothing volumes are plateauing in developed countries, the only way the apparel markets there can grow is if clothing prices go up," the report said. "But (potential US tariff impacts aside) we think it more likely that they will continue to fall ... as production continues to shift from China to lower-cost countries in the region (such as Vietnam and Bangladesh)," it said.
US clothing prices have fallen by 0.8 per cent a year since 2001, while UK prices fell for 13 consecutive years until 2010. Volumes in the UK have more than doubled since 1998 and US volumes have grown almost 50 per cent since 2001, driving 28 per cent market growth. "Expecting consumers to buy clothing in ever-larger volumes, in response to ever-lower prices, was never likely to be sustained in the very long term," the Morgan Stanley report said. The allure of buying has also gone with consumers already own so many clothes that each new item they purchase doesn't spark happiness the report also said.
Personal stylist Elsa Boutaric with a focus on sustainable fashion and helping people build a sustainable wardrobe, and spend less, says with regards to the #ExtinctionRebellion movement, “I think it is definitely raising awareness of the issues surrounding fast-fashion, and putting it into the minds of the consumer. Publishing reports, stats and figures of the actual effect that the message is having has the potential to be more valuable in driving change.” she says
Is this the tipping point for fast-fashion?
“Consumer behaviour patterns are changing and though we still live in a generation of convenience, consumers are looking for more sustainable and ethical options than a cheap pair of jeans and shoes.” says Boutaric. “People shop on ASOS because it is a viable option compared to other online shops, so when their customer base moves away to look for sustainable alternatives, they don’t have anything to fall back on.
“ASOS is middle market, combined with high street and doesn’t really have a place in the future of fashion unless it learns to adapt, and this is what it is going to have to prove it can to do both its customers and its investors in order to secure its future.” she says.
“The disadvantage they (fast-fashion retailers) have is that they deliver huge volumes on low margins, so would need to change their business model drastically. This isn’t easy to do when you have developed a position in a market place and it would mean working with new designers and increase their prices. This not only has the potential to reflect badly on their own brand, but also the designers that they work with." she says.
Right - Are you ready to boycott fashion for a year? #ExtinctionRebellion
“They would need to introduce charitable angles or work with ethical designers without damaging their reputation or losing their market. Also, they would need to manage their stock and not have so much go to waste sitting in warehouses waiting to be sold. This could mean a change in manufacturers and distributors which could prove costly and time consuming. There are several factors that businesses would need to consider, and not all of them will survive.” she says.
“There has certainly been a shift, and it is being driven by consumers and some brands are struggling to keep up, but others are adapting and thriving.” says Boutaric. “I don’t think it’s a case of reducing their consumption, it’s more consumers buying more ethical options. More people are only buying what they need, or shopping charity shops, or attending clothes swaps. Buying new seems to be a new slur, unless it’s from ethical brands and designers.” she says.
We are constantly told that young people are the most engaged in these types of environmental movements and it’s their future we are ruining, but they are also fast-fashion’s target demographic and consumers. There’s a big disconnect here.
There could be a perfect storm brewing for fast-fashion with XR. If it connects with young people’s behaviour it could be significant. A swing away from this type of consumption could be detrimental to these giants of fashion.
Fast-fashion retailers are starting to make green noises with second hand stores - Read more here - popping up and others like H&M and Next moving into selling other brands to off-set the malaise in their own - Read more here - but investors think long term and will need to feel confident that these retailers will continue to grow and be profitable. One thing is certain, brands and retailers will want to distance themselves from the term 'fast-fashion' and its negative connotations. There needs to be a groundswell from the people passionately protesting at Extinction Rebellion to the average British consumer.
'Fast-Fashion' is the OxyContin of the fashion industry. Going cold turkey could have some serious side effects.
Read more expert ChicGeek Comments here
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We’re halfway through #SecondHandSeptember and how are you doing? The idea, from Oxfam, was to pledge to not buy anything new for the 30 days of September. Oxfam says every week 11 million items of clothing end up in landfill and ‘throwaway fashion’ is putting increasing pressure on our planet and its people - it’s unsustainable and this is their way of making people think and act differently.
An already under pressure high-street isn’t taking this boycott lightly and many are starting to gravitate towards selling second hand clothing themselves. High street brands and retailers are piling into the second hand market trying to looking like caring, sharing and responsible custodians of the fashion industry. Offering to sell not only their’s, but other’s second hand clothes, often for charity, this is a new take on pop-ups and a perception of giving back and closing the loop on the fashion cycle.
Left - The George at Asda 'Re-Loved' pop-up in Milton Keynes
George at Asda has just unveiled their first in-store ‘Re-Loved’ charity clothing shop running for 4 weeks from 2nd September. Located in Asda’s Milton Keynes store it features donated second-hand clothes from a number of different brands, as the retailer looks at ways to encourage customers to reuse, repurpose or recycle their unwanted clothes. The move is part of a drive by George - the UK’s second largest fashion retailer by volume - to improve the environmental impact of its clothes and operations, following the launch of its new sustainability strategy and first range of recycled polyester clothing in the spring.
Melanie Wilson, Senior Director for Sustainable Sourcing at George, said, “By trialling our Re-Loved pop-up shop, we hope to help create another route for unwanted clothes to find a new home and encourage people to think again about throwing away that top or those jeans they no longer love.” All proceeds from the shop will go to Asda’s Tickled Pink campaign, which supports Breast Cancer Care and Breast Cancer Now.
As a whole in the UK, the average lifetime for a garment of clothing is estimated as 2.2 years. Extending the active life of clothing by nine months can significantly reduce its environmental impact. The value of unused clothing in wardrobes has been estimated at around £30 billion. It is also estimated £140 million worth of clothing goes into landfill each year.
Many brands and retailers are starting to looking into the second hand market as the world is challenged with ever growing mountains of discarded clothes and unsold inventory. It was reported last year that H&M had an incredible $4.3 Billion in unsold clothes. Places like Topshop and Urban Outfitters have had vintage sections for years, and Marks & Spencers has its pioneering ‘Shwop’ scheme, which motivated consumers with vouchers, but to be actually selling second hand clothes alongside new is something new and the next logical step. The stigma around second hand is changing. It’s cool to wear older clothes and a badge of honour not to buy something new. Yet, consumers still get want to get that retail fix.
So, how can brands and retailers make money from this?
Olly Rzysko, CMO & Retail Advisor, says, “Ultimately, every second hand unit sold in the market is another brand new item a retailer isn’t selling. In a declining market, executive teams won’t like that and are responsible for protecting those sales. Second hand clothing is having a surge and it proves to be a logical route on paper.”
“Retail is hard right now and a number of elements are playing a factor in the growth of second hand.” says Rzysko. “Depop and Ebay are doing very well. They are ultimately taking sales from the high street, specifically taking sales of new product away from the retail brands. These businesses are making nothing when people are reselling their product and that will be challenging to accept. Depop particularly has kept its head down and built a sizeable business with only ASOS responding in the form of their Marketplace platform.” he says.
“Most brands experience double digit returns and some of these cannot be sold (as new) on for various reasons. Repairing product or repurposing them enables the returns to be more valuable and not a complete loss.” says Rzysko.
“Many stores right now are larger than required (having been built for a Bricks and Mortar landscape) and filling that space with low cost stock is crucial to prevent cash being tied up with inventory. Vintage / Reclaimed / Second Hand is a great way to fill these spaces.” says Rzysko. “Critically, it ensures the customer returns to the store at a time where footfall is in the decline.”
Right - Oxfam's new 'Superstore' in Oxford
“I think for a lot of brands it can work for their customers. It can also bring in new consumers to a brand where pricing may have been prohibitive before and serving as a gateway into the brand just like Outlet shopping does.” says Rzysko.
Besma Whayeb, Ethical Fashion Blogger, Curiously Conscious, says “With more and more shoppers conscious of the impact that fashion has on people and the planet, second-hand fashion is becoming more sought-after, as well as fashion retailers who outwardly show their sustainable practices.”
“There’s many ways retailers can promote second-hand fashion or circularity: many high street retailers already provide take-back schemes, inviting shoppers to return items when they’re finished wearing them, which they then use the materials for in new pieces or sell on to third-parties.” says Whayeb. “But when it comes to preserving the items (rather than dismantling or disposing of them), they could look at selling them as pre-loved pieces. There are already many independent second-hand and vintage resellers, however I don’t see why many brands don’t provide a second-hand section in their own stores and resell pieces they’ve previously made. This needn’t be a full-scale or full-time operation either; pop-ups to show they’re being more circular could be a promising first step.” she says. “I believe it’s a combination of lip service, taking advantage of the growing demand for sustainable fashion, and when (hopefully) they see positive results, it will become a more permanent fixture.” says Whayeb.
George at Asda says its concept is just a trial to see how customers respond to the concept. They’ll take feedback and learn from the trial to see how customers have responded to it. But, won’t these new schemes take away from the charity sector?
“It is not our intention to take away support from other charities. This charity shop continues Asda’s long-term commitment to fundraising for vital breast cancer research and support,” says a spokesperson for George.
Charities like Oxfam are fighting back though. The charity has just opened their first ‘superstore’ on the outskirts of Oxford. About 12 times the size of the average Oxfam shop at 18,500 sq ft, and run by 150 volunteers, it also works as a community space and includes an on-site café housed in an Oxfam water tank. They hope initiatives like Second Hand September will convert more people to second hand clothing. An Oxfam spokesperson said, ”We are delighted by the overwhelming positive response to Second Hand September and the huge public support it has received.
"The campaign is raising awareness about the harm fast fashion has on planet and people. Clothes that too often end up in landfill are frequently made by garment workers paid poverty wages in harsh conditions. Second Hand September is encouraging people to think twice about their shopping habits. There seems to be a real appetite for change, which some brands are responding to – but more needs to be done.”
The more clothes we have, the less we’re wearing them. This makes the majority of second hand almost like new. Second hand shopping is becoming cool and for brands it could be a good way of dealing with returns and old season stock while trying to look responsible. Fashion is addicted to volume, whether it is fast or not, so while consumers might not be buying anything new, they’re at least in your store buying something.
Below - The cafe inside a water tank in Oxfam's new mega charity shop