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Fashion industry's carbon impact is bigger than the airline industry's

CBS News logo CBS News 4/19/2019 Megan Cerullo

Conspicuous consumption is out, and circular fashion is in. The term refers not to round patterns or silhouettes but to extending the lifecycle of well-made garments and recycling their materials into new items. 

This trend is gaining traction as both designers and consumers become increasingly aware of and startled by the outsized toll that linear clothing production takes on the environment. "Fashion's carbon impact is much larger than the industry's GDP. It's taking up more than its fair share of impact on the planet," said Elizabeth L. Cline, author of the forthcoming book "The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good."

One of the problems: Fast fashion

The meteoric rise of "fast fashion" -- the business of quickly turning around new collections, often at lower prices to encourage consumption -- in particular is proving to be toxic for the environment. Linear systems use large quantities of nonrenewable resources, and more than half of these styles get tossed within a year, according to McKinsey's 2016 report "Style that's sustainable: A new fast fashion formula."

The apparel and footwear industries together accounted for more than 8 percent of global climate impacts -- the equivalent of 3,990 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2016, according to a report from Quantis. Total greenhouse gas emissions related to textiles production are equal to 1.2 billion tons annually -- more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping trips combined, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 

These challenges aren't insurmountable. Indeed, the crisis at hand represents an opportunity for industry players do what they do best -- be creative.

Some of the solutions: Consignment and resale  

Enter businesses like The RealReal, a thriving online and physical luxury consignment store valued at $450 million, according to research database PitchBook. Founded in 2011, its goal is to "extend the life of luxury goods with the quality and craftmanship that make it possible for them to stay in circulation for longer," said Allison Sommer, the company's director of strategic initiatives.

Its clients recognize the value of investing in luxury and consigning their wardrobes as an alternative to constantly turning over their closets. A clientele survey shows that 57 percent of TRR consignors cited environmental impact and sustainability as key motivators to consign, and 32 percent of customers said they shop TRR as an alternative to "fast fashion," the company told CBS MoneyWatch. 

"We are raising awareness of resale among shoppers and consignors, and what we see is shoppers understanding that investing in luxury pays off down the line," Sommers said. "So that increases their motivation to spend in a smart way by perhaps spending more on an item originally but then understanding they can recoup that value when they choose to consign."

It's a winning formula for consumers -- and the environment. The company created a "sustainability calculator" to estimate that for every purchase of a consigned item, a third of that item is not newly produced. 

It also makes good business sense. "We have 25 million pounds of clothing thrown out in the U.S. per year, and most of it has not reached its usable life. So these companies are capitalizing on that," author Cline said. 

Supply chains and recyclability

Designer Stella McCartney, who has been dubbed "the queen of sustainability" for her eco-friendly fashion line, is widely considered to be a pioneer of the sustainable fashion movement. The clothing in her collections uses reengineered versus virgin cashmere, viscose fibers from forests, organic cotton and other responsibly sourced and recycled materials. She doesn't use any real fur or leather. 

She has also partnered with TRR by offering consigners $100 in credit to her store. "If every single second there's a truckload of fast fashion being incinerated or landfilled, then I'm a big, big believer in reusing that and [participating in] the circular economy," she told Vogue in February. "It's the biggest compliment for your product to have an afterlife -- to me, that's luxury."

Womenswear brand Dai, which makes versatile, comfortable workwear and launched its first collection in 2017, has been sustainable from its inception. Founder Joanna Dai designs timeless pieces intended to outlast trends, working with environmentally friendly fabrics and mills.

"Obviously I care about the environment. And I thought if I have a blank canvas to start a supply chain from scratch, I will -- in every way I can -- build it to help the environment or lessen our footprint," Dai told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Eileen Fisher, Theory and Patagonia are among the brands that accept "take backs" of their own clothing in exchange for store credit. "The single best thing we can do for the planet is keep our gear in use longer and cut down on consumption," Patagonia says on its website. 

The world is the largest shared closet

A crop of rental services -- including Rent the Runway -- are capitalizing on the gradual shift toward subscription rather than ownership models of consumption. Offered at a monthly fee, the services provides members with unlimited access to "the world's largest shared closet."

"Viewing fashion as a service -- as something we access instead of own -- is going to be a really important part of solving the environmental crisis that is fashion," author Cline said. "Think about a generation of people expecting to be able to turn their closets over and follow fashion trends. Renting lets people kind of have it both ways."

Fortunately, habits seem to be shifting. The resale market is expected to outpace fast fashion within 10 years, according to the Business of Fashion's 2019 report on The State of Fashion. 

Prizing variety, affordability and sustainability, consumers increasingly choose to rent rather than own goods outright, according to the same report. This is true across a variety of categories, including music, TV and vehicles -- think Spotify, Netflix and ZipCar. "This trend is partly driven by the young generation's hunger for newness, while embracing sustainability," the report said. 

Cline underscored that no single solution is the answer and that efforts to preserve the environment complement one another. "We really have to come at it from every direction. Fashion brands have to be looking at their supply chain and how they make clothes and use less water, less energy," she said. "Consumers have to look at the way they're shopping and say, 'how can I shop more sustainably in a way that fulfills my need to look good and feel good about myself?'"

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