The clothing and textile sector in the UK alone, produces around 3.1m tonnes of carbon dioxide, 2m tonnes of waste and 70m tonnes of waste water a year (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). Approximately 1.5 million tonnes of clothing end up in landfill every year. If the recession curbs our endless appetite for fashion, this might have positive impacts for the environment.

However, the recession is likely to have mixed effects on the fashion industry. Anecdotal trends demonstrate a move away from quick ‘fast-fix’ shopping habits, like buying a cutting-edge ‘this season-only’ dress from Topshop only for it to collect dust and provide food for moths in the back of wardrobe once the season has drawn to a close. It is predicted that overall clothing sales will fall and this is reflected in the windows of every high-street retailer as they battle for customers with pre-christmas sales, mid-season sales and other price cuts and offers. Industry experts have also predicted a preference for ‘classic’, ‘timeless’ pieces that are well-made, offer longevity and can be used every season. They have also predicted a fall in conspicuous consumption as those who have cash to splash spend their money more discreetly. Obvious labelling of clothing and the impression of excessive luxury is not seen as appropriate within the context of rising unemployment and rising food prices.


Other trends show that accessories are faring well in the credit crunch as a means of satisfying the shopping itch, whilst also having the versatility of being able to wear with every outfit. Thus, for every pound spent an accessory can provide far more ‘bang for its buck’ in terms of frequency of use. Other trends reveal a move towards thrift – sewing and home-made clothing has soared in popularity as demonstrated by John Lewis’ 14% increase in haberdashery sales, as early on as late 2008.

However, other trends show rising popularity of stores like Primark, that epitomise the cheap, quick-fix side of the fashion industry. Primark sales have increased by 5% in the 6 months running up to February 2009. Most worrying, in 2005, Primark was named as the least ethical clothes shop in Britain. However, it has made some progress it recent years, working to ensure that none of its suppliers involve child labour and the launch of its Better Lives Foundation to provide financial assistance to organisations devoted to improving the lives of young people.

Not only is the environment directly affected by the fashion industry, but millions, if not billions of people rely on cotton, textiles and clothing manufacturing, particularly in the developing world, for their livelihoods. How will changing consumer patterns impact these people? As Primark sales soar, how are costs squeezed for producers and manufacturers further down the global value chain and what are the environmental externalities to produce clothes at such ‘bottom end’ prices?

The credit crunch may provide an opportunity for shoppers to reflect on what they really need in terms of clothing and despite Primark’s success, shoppers may be re-considering just what ‘value for money’ really means. The recession is also an apt time for retailers to take stock and plan a business strategy that differentiates them from the competition – using sustainability and ethics as a unique selling point – and allowing them to emerge stronger after the downturn.

A new action plan to make fashion more sustainable and less environmentally damaging was launched at the start of London Fashion Week in February of this year, by Defra Minister Lord Hunt. This may provide an apt means for businesses to achieve the competitive advantage mentioned above.

The Sustainable Clothing Roadmap has brought together over 300 organisations, from high street retailers, to designers and textile manufacturers to battle the environmental impacts of ‘throw away fashion’: ‘Companies and some of the biggest names in fashion have signed up to take actions to make a significant difference to the environmental footprint and social inequalities which blight some of the production and retail processes of consumer fashion.’ For example:

  • Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury – all of these have signed up to a range of actions on increasing their ranges of Fair Trade and Organic, increasing take back and recovery of unwanted clothing and supporting fibres/fabrics that enable clothing recycling.
  • In addition M&S and Tesco are supporting green clothing factories, improving animal welfare across their supply chain and increasing consumer awareness on washing at 30 degrees centigrade.
  • Tesco – are extending their traceability programme across cotton supply chains to ban cotton from countries known to use child labour as well as carbon labelling of Tesco laundry detergents.

As this big businesses move towards sustainable practices and labels, sustainability becomes ‘mainstreamed’ and places significant pressure on the Primarks of the world to recognise their contribution to the environmental and social impacts of throw away fashion. This can only be a good thing.