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Clothing production has been increasing steadily at a yearly rate of 4.5 percent, and the demand for fashion isn’t letting up. In the past four decades, the global consumption of clothing has doubled. In some countries, the amount of clothing purchased per year is double what is discarded. This increased consumption comes at a cost to the environment, filling landfills and heightening greenhouse gas emissions.

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As the trend increases, though, scholars have also noted that individuals view clothing as part of their identity. To better understand how clothing consumption affects the environment and consumers, scholar Kate Fletcher examined environmental and anthropological data from nine countries and several case studies, to determine how sustainable fashion could change the consumer-clothes relationship.

Demand for clothing is often not one of necessity but is instead more of a social phenomenon, which Fletcher refers to as “instant gratification through consumption.” For fashion to become more sustainable, designers will have to consider the consumer’s relationship to clothes.

Fletcher’s definition of sustainable fashion is twofold: it involves using more sustainable materials as well as designing clothes that are meant to last and to be enjoyed for a long time. Sustainable materials may be fabrics that give off low emissions, or use less water or energy to produce, and are durable enough to be worn again and again.

Durability extends beyond holding up to wear and tear—clothing can also be designed for the wearer to form new relationships with their clothes over time. As Fletcher writes, “Simply put, expending resources and effort to extend the lives of products pays few dividends unless the users of those pieces take advantage of the benefits provided by their longer life and this, in turn, acts to slow consumption.”

Fletcher used a case study to see how durable designs work in action. A woman gifted a well-made dress to her neighbor, who proceeded to share the dress with her three daughters. They also shared the dress with their mother’s sister and grandmother. Ultimately, six people got use of this dress over forty years.

Through this study, Fletcher highlights the social nature of fashion as a leading way to influence people to wear and purchase more sustainable items: “What one person chooses to wear, and to wear for a long time, is also affected by the decisions and actions of others.”

Having enough sustainable options isn’t the issue. According to Fletcher, “Long-life garments exist, but…their extended lives are determined more by an ideology of use than by a garment’s physical robustness.”

While there have been some gains in the world of sustainable fashion, the demand for clothes surpasses current efforts. The fashion industry is still a leading cause of global emissions and continues to cause negative effects on land, water, and climate.

Fletcher concludes by highlighting the importance of consumer action in the realm of sustainable fashion: “Durability involves people.”

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Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, Vol. 375, No. 2095, Theme issue: Material demand reduction (13 June 2017), pp. 1-13
Royal Society