How data is being used to tackle fast fashion's waste

Tackling climate change creates thousands of challenges and opportunities throughout our economy. One of the most striking questions for consumers is how to cut down on the waste created by so-called ‘fast fashion’, with November’s COP26 United Nations’ environmental summit in Glasgow helping to focus many people’s minds on the topic.

Picture: Cameron Prentice

Clothing was once made to last, but many garments are now produced quickly and cheaply, with some items being worn only once before being discarded. That waste of resources not only raises questions about human rights abuses of textile workers in fast-fashion factories, but also shines a spotlight on the environmental impact of the clothes.

Making fast fashion items requires large amounts of water in countries where the resource is scarce. After they have been worn – perhaps just once or twice – tonnes of garments are sent to landfill, where the polyester and other plastics used to make them break down into micro-plastics that pollute the oceans.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Jack Muir has launched Pivot Earth, a sustainable fashion social enterprise that is turning textile waste into recycled garments, with his initial range consisting of a shirt, trousers, and a bag. His operations are all taking place in the UK, from sourcing the materials and manufacturing the clothes through to selling the finished items.

“How to tackle over-consumption in fashion is a big question,” says Muir. “Pivot Earth’s role is part-brand and part-advocacy – there is a storytelling element to encourage a more sustainable way of consumption in general, and that brings in wider issues of inequality and globalisation.

“These are big issues and topics. As the business grows, these will become messages that extend beyond fashion.”

Muir set a challenge for Students as Change Agents (SACHA), a programme run by the Data-Driven Innovation initiative and the careers service at the University of Edinburgh. He asked students to come up with ways to tackle overconsumption in fashion.

Working in multidisciplinary groups, the students identified that fashion is the world’s second-most polluting industry, creating 10 per cent of global carbon emissions. Some 80 billion pieces of clothing are made each year – with only 1 per cent being recycled.

Al Lawley-Powell, Sacha’s project manager, says: “As a group of students, they were incredibly familiar with fast fashion. They saw the data, they saw how much wastage there was, and they asked how they could make their peers change their consumer habits.”

Practical solutions included using digital technology – such as quick response [QR] codes – to help educate shoppers. Giving more data and information to customers would also help to justify higher prices for garments, which would in turn translate into higher wages and better working conditions for clothing makers in developing countries.

“The students identified that, to explain the price of an article of clothing, they could utilise modern technology by putting a QR code on the label or on the shelf, so customers could scan it and find out all the information about the authenticity and provenance of the textiles and dyes, and maybe even the name and a photograph of the person who stitched it,” Lawley-Powell says.

“It’s the story behind these items that can be the real catalyst behind consumer change.”

Additional information that could be accessed through the QR code might include the carbon footprint of the garment, and how to extend the life of the clothing. Practical tips could be offered on carrying out do-it-yourself sewing repairs, along with contact details for professional tailors for more serious work to extend the life of the clothing, or to recycle the garment.

Other solutions identified by the students included greater education for consumers, so that they not only understood the problems caused by overconsumption of fast fashion but were also given the skills to repair clothes to prolong their lifespan.

Education would hopefully help consumers to support the shift from clothes being disposable towards a circular economy, in which items and their materials were designed to be repaired and reused, removing waste from the equation, with information delivered online or through a physical hub in Edinburgh.

They also identified the need to set targets for clothing brands and manufacturers, with those that improve their sustainability being awarded accreditation. Their accreditation stamp could be displayed on garment labels.

Muir says: “The challenge we set tackled big questions and so it required lots of blue-sky thinking –not simply about what Pivot Earth could do but about wider changes that need to be made.

“The idea of a local sustainability hub – which could share resources, skills, and knowledge, and through which communities could support local businesses – really struck a chord, and ties in with the networks that are already forming, through Sustainable Fashion Scotland and elsewhere.

“Having experienced Covid restrictions, people now understand QR codes a lot more, and so the idea of using them to increase transparency –by allowing small brands to input information about their sustainability, ethics, and other areas, which customers could then scan to read – would really help.

“Sustainability and ethical labour is a messy area, especially in fashion because of the long supply chains and lack of regulation. The sustainability hub and the QR codes require support and government funding if we want Scotland to lead on these innovative initiatives, but they’ve given me some ideas for the general path we’re following, and I’ve already shared that information with Sustainable Fashion Scotland.”

Muir concludes: “A lot of students from different disciplines took part in the project – engagement with the topic can lead to change because people discuss and understand the issues and become more aware about them through those discussions. They then carry on those discussions with their friends and families, which has a knock-on effect.”