Fashion is one of the less obvious contributors to climate change. It doesn’t always get mentioned alongside the cars, gas boilers or coal power stations that dominate discussion of how to reduce emissions. But when you stop and add it up, the impact of the fashion industry is significant and not particularly easy to tackle.
There’s the fact that many clothes are plastic and are therefore fossil fuels in disguise. There are global logistics chains, and the waste of discarded clothing. Then there are the vast acreages of land given over to growing cotton, and the energy and water needed to process it. Worst of all, there’s a fast fashion culture of novelty, where it has become completely normal to buy more than you need and replace things quickly. This relies on underpaid skilled labour in poorer countries as well as being unsustainable, so there is more than one reason to fix it. See Aja Barber’s book Consumed for more on this.
Solutions for sustainable fashion include wearing things for longer and repairing clothes, or buying fewer items and designing a more versatile and timeless wardrobe. (See Tara Button’s A Life Less Throwaway) We can also focus on organic cotton, natural fibres and more sustainable fabrics. A growing number of companies are taking back end-of-life clothing, some of them – such as Rapanui – offering new items made from returned clothing. For the novelty that fashion provides, we can turn to clothes swaps or leasing.
As a dad to two children, there are specific issues around kid’s clothing. Children grow. The rules around buying fewer high quality items are trickier when children don’t get more than a couple of years out of them. Our household budget doesn’t really stretch to the high quality sustainable brands that I know are out there.
Depending on where you live and who you know, you may be a part of a network of swapping and hand-me-downs. We’re pretty lucky on that front, and have had all sorts of good stuff from friends and family. But it doesn’t get us everything we need, and the boy has a habit of blowing through the knees of his trousers, as his forefathers did before him.
The Little Loop is a company that is bringing another solution into the mainstream: leasing children’s clothing. They take that shared approach to clothes and make a business out of it. Subscribers can choose a monthly or quarterly plan, and then select a series of items. Children wear them and then swap them when they are outgrown, out of season or just not as popular. The company chooses ethical brands, making their products available at cheaper prices than buying them outright.
It’s not free of course, but there are a couple of advantages of this over traditional hand-me-downs or buying secondhand. Perhaps the most useful is that you choose the items yourself. There’s a sense that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ when it comes to shared clothing. I know adults who buy everything new for their children today because they resent the secondhand clothes they were given when they were younger.
Passed on clothing might be a bit worn, an imperfect fit, or just a different style to what you would choose for yourself. For reasons I don’t fully understand, my eight-year-old daughter likes to dress in a shirt and tie, and longs to wear little vintage waistcoats and blazers. These are not the sorts of things that we get from her older cousins and friends, though we do have a good line on primary-coloured outdoor wear.
From an environmental perspective, sharing clothing across multiple children saves new items being made, with water and CO2 savings. But what I find most promising about companies like The Little Loop is that it changes the incentives.
If you think about what a cheap and cheerful fast fashion retailer needs to succeed, it’s deeply unsustainable. They’re going to make more money if they make clothes so flimsy that they might as well be single-use, and provide constant new lines and offers to keep people coming back. It’s a business model based on exploitation of workers at one end, and over-consumption and waste at the other.
For The Little Loop, it’s the opposite. It’s in their interests to get the most durable items of clothing they can, which in turn encourages companies to make clothes more durable or design for more than one user (like John Lewis children’s coats, that have more than one name tag inside them).
A clothing leasing company has every incentive to take good care of the clothes in its leasing pool, and repair and refurbish as necessary to keep them in circulation. As is often the case in circular economy businesses, this is a business model that rewards good stewardship of resources rather than throughput. And whether or not you can use the services of The Little Loop yourself, that’s the general direction that sustainable fashion needs to be moving in.