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New report links global fashion consumption to inequality

A new fashion report by Berlin’s Hot or Cool Institute presents data on how fashion consumption exposes global inequalities, reveals how many outfits we really need in our closets, and makes suggestions for improving sustainability within consumer behaviour.

Whether you already live by the advice of sustainable fashion advocates or not, there’s no denying that making simple changes to our shopping habits will play a significant role in fighting the climate crisis.

Issues with how we currently consume fashion have come to light thanks to growing studies on the industry’s negative environmental impacts. Looking further, sustainability research organisations are illustrating how shopping rates across the globe can both illuminate and perpetuate environmental and social inequalities.

Hot or Cool Institute, based in Berlin, has released a comprehensive report outlining how fashion’s carbon footprint is not equally shared by nations. It also provides advice on how to consume sustainably, who exactly needs to address their bad habits, and how to get the most out of the clothes we already have.

Let’s take a look at some of the key points.

According to the report’s data, every person on Earth must only purchase five new fashion items per year to uphold the 1.5C goal set in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Some countries, such as India, Brazil, China, Indonesia, and Turkey are already doing this well. These G20 countries have the smallest fashion carbon footprint per capita of all nations included in the report.

G7 nations, including Australia, Japan, America, and the UK have the highest fashion carbon footprint per capita. The authors point out that clothing consumption is so high in these places, that most will need to reduce their shopping habits by 80 percent to be labelled sustainable.

‘Fashion shows how unequal society is. Not just unequal in economic terms, but also in terms of contributions to greenhouse gas emissions per capita,’ says Lewis Akenji, the managing director of Hot and Cool Institute and leading author of the report.

It’s obvious that the overconsumption of cheaply made and sold clothing is leading us down a path of failure. Making matters worse, it’s often countries that consume the least fast fashion that end up dealing with pollution and natural disasters.

Clothing pollution in Ghana

When compiling our wardrobes, Hot or Cool’s writers say we should aim for quality over quantity. They suggest we strive to own 74 garments and 20 outfits in total, which is a ‘generous allocation’ compared to closet ranges throughout most of history.

This would allow everyone to have six outfits for work, three outfits for sport activity, and three for chilling at home. It also saves space on our clothing racks for two formal garments, four jackets, trousers, and skirts.

Before anyone calls this unreasonable, it’s not so far off from how we lived even a decade ago. In fact, studies suggest 74 garments filled the average person’s closet in 2010. Better yet, this number also meets the carbon emission budget for 1.5C.

So these changes to our habits aren’t as extreme as we’d like to believe.

In fact, simply washing clothes just 1 out of 3 times we normally would, keeping every item for longer, and donating or reselling clothes to increase their life spans are behavioural changes that lower the overall carbon footprint of an item.

All of our decisions – from purchasing to clothing care, and what we do when we’re finished with a garment – matter. Understanding the impacts of these behaviours through reports’ like the one published by Hot or Cool gets us one step closer to making positive changes.

With the guidance laid out, why not start small? Applying just one of these changes on a regular basis is a great step in the right direction.