Gen Z won’t lead the fight to clean up the Fashion Industry

Fashion is a dirty industry: It accounts for 20 percent of global wastewater pollution and 5 percent of global greenhouse emissions.

The good news first: consumers are increasingly aware of fashion’s nasty footprint, and many companies are working hard to make it cleaner. For example, Patagonia’s “Worn Wear” program allows customers to repair or resell worn items, Everlane promotes “radical transparency” about the cost of their products and ethics of their factories, and ForDays exchanges used items for credit toward their own clothes made out of recycled fabric.

While these sustainable practices might not make a company sustainable overall, they are encouraging steps towards environmentally-friendly apparel. The commercial success and reputational strength of these companies also underlines the point that certain shoppers do value green business practices. Many consumers are indeed willing to pay more for sustainable products, and this sector continues to grow — the ethical fashion market is predicted to reach $10.28 billion by 2023.

The bad news is that most consumers are still buying clothes from the most polluting companies. Fast fashion continues to be the largest source of wastewater and carbon emissions in the industry, and consumer demand appears indifferent to its massive footprint. The fast fashion industry is expected to reach $133.43 billion by 2026 — 13 times the size of the ethical fashion market the same year.

To be sure, fast fashion companies are also implementing sustainable practices: hiring ESG officers, creating recycling centers, and investing in the circular economy.

But none of these initiatives can change the fundamentally unsustainable nature of fast fashion, which by definition makes non-durable clothes in massive quantities with whatever manufacturing processes that keep prices down. And ultimately it is those prices that motivate consumers to continue buying fast fashion, rather than these companies’ “green” initiatives.

The sustainable practices of a few companies, and moves towards sustainability by larger ones, are far too meager to make a significant social and environmental impact. A recent report by The Business of Fashion found that 30 of the largest fashion companies made either incremental or zero progress in sustainability last year: the industry is not on track to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, the report concludes. The fashion industry needed to fundamentally transform yesterday, and it’s time to radically reverse course.

It’s also time to realize that Gen Z will not be leading the fight against dirty fashion. We have been naive to think that this generation, growing up in a world inundated by threats of climate change, would naturally adopt sustainable consumer practices. Yes, this generation may be more environmentally conscious. And yes, many of them will shop at sustainable brands as a result. But this generation has economic restraints like any other generation, and most of them cannot afford to buy exclusively from Patagonia. Given the popularity of fast fashion among Gen Z consumers, we should not expect their eco-consciousness to slow down the industry any time soon.

The fashion industry needs to clean itself up. Textile manufacturers need to adopt sustainable technology like waterless dying and lower chemical finishing technologies. Investors need to invest in responsible manufacturing infrastructure. Apparel companies need to transform their supply chains to reduce transportation emissions. Most importantly, lawmakers need to incentivize the adoption of sustainable technology while increasing regulations against carbon and wastewater emissions. If the continual rise of fast fashion teaches us one thing, it is that the market is not going green on its own. We — voters, lawmakers, investors — need to scrub it clean ourselves.  

By Oliver Niedermaier

Founder, Chairman and CEO