Rich fashionistas costing the earth
Black Friday arrives immediately after the crushing disappointment of COP27.

For the richest consumers in countries like the UK, USA, and Japan, this means only buying an average of five new garments a year.

The climate is still changing faster than the behaviour of the people most responsible for global heating.

With barely a breath between the disappointing outcome of the COP27 climate conference and the seasonal celebration of overconsumption starting with Black Friday, few are likely to even connect their shopping habits to the survival of a habitable planet.

Read the full report now.

But now there is a walk-in wardrobe full of evidence showing that unconstrained consumerism concerning how, especially the wealthiest, people dress themselves, is ripping the shirt off the biosphere’s back.  


It’s becoming ever clearer that fashion has to change to fit a fair, global consumption space, if we are all to have a future.

Each and every year, the fashion industry produces more than 100 billion garments, roughly 14 for every person on Earth and more than double the amount in 2000. That consumption is, of course, highly unequally distributed.

According to our new jointly published report, ‘Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable: Resizing Fashion for a Fair Consumption Space’, on its current trajectory the global fashion industry will leave our climate and the natural world threadbare.

By 2030, it will be emitting around 2.7 billion tonnes of carbon emissions a year, roughly the same as India emitted in 2021 - a nation of 1.4 billion people. On its current trajectory, by 2050, a quarter of the remaining carbon budget could be eaten up by fashion alone.   

The hesitancy towards recognising fashion’s environmental impact, and transforming the industry to align with global climate commitments and legislation, is because fashion cuts to the heart of overconsumption.


Through it, the injustice of climate change becomes apparent, with fashion consumption highly unequal between and within countries.

In rich countries like the UK, USA, and Japan, consumption of fashion garments needs to fall by an average of 60 per cent by 2030, less than eight years from now. Yet in less wealthy nations, like India and Indonesia, the average carbon footprint for fashion is below the 1.5°C target.

Within nations, such inequities are even starker. The richest 20 per cent of British people, with an average disposable income of £69,126, would need to cut their fashion consumption by 83 per cent, while the richest 20 per cent in France need to cut theirs by half.

On average, the richest 20 per cent of fashion consumers cause 20-times more emissions than those of the poorest 20 per cent. These disparities of income and resulting impact from higher levels of consumption are mirrored in other energy-intensive and polluting sectors of the economy, such as air travel. 

For the richest consumers in countries like the UK, USA, and Japan, this means only buying an average of five new garments a year.

The urgency of tackling climate change, and the dwindling timeframe in which humanity has to make meaningful progress, means that a refit won’t cut it - fashion needs systemic and structural change.


Buying second-hand clothes, repairing and maintaining long-loved garments, as well as washing clothes at a lower temperature, can all help cut carbon, but in rich countries there must be absolute reductions in the amount of new garments bought each year. 

For the richest consumers in countries like the UK, USA, and Japan, this means only buying an average of five new garments a year.

To put that into perspective, a dedicated fan of a football club like Manchester City could use up their quota simply by emulating their team.

Big clubs change their kit every year and earn money by encouraging fans to buy the kit. Manchester City’s men’s range includes their home and away strips, a ‘third’ kit, goalkeepers kit and e-sports kit. And that says nothing of the World Cup, sponsored big fossil fuel polluters Qatar Energy and Qatar Airways.

One big step forward will be to stop promoting our own self-destruction with adverts that sell polluting, over-consuming lifestyles.


Fashion is something that now looks like it needs to be added to the list of products, alongside other high-carbon items such as red meat, that should not be advertised.

Doing things that make behaviour change easier, like removing the pressure to consume from advertising, are key.

As Dilys Williams, Professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability, at the London College of Fashion, says, there are real limitations to the, “techno-centric approaches to sustainability being taken within an exploitative system.”

Fashion therefore needs to be put in the same category as the fossil fuel companies themselves, as car makers and as airlines. Consumers of such products, the Badvertising campaign shows, need no encouragement. 

Now should be the age of the ‘sufficiency wardrobe’. The concept of rethinking consumption like this will be alien to many in the age of fast fashion, e-commerce, and guilt-free returns.


But absolute reductions are now a necessity, due to the sheer scale of the global fashion industry, its cyclical short-termism, and growing demand for specific fibres and textiles.

Despite the best intentions of some consumers in wealthier nations, shockingly around 30 per cent of used clothes exported overseas via various re-use and charity schemes end up being directly incinerated or landfilled at the destination.

Globally, less than one per cent of used clothing gets recycled into new garments, despite the flurry of promises from fashion houses. In comparison, about half of paper gets recycled. 

Sky-rocketing demand for synthetic fibres is also causing fashion’s standing in sustainability to come apart at the seams.

Polyester, a plastic that is created from oil and gas, is the most commonplace fibre in world fashion and is used in over half of all the garments produced. Demand for polyester is driving emissions and plastic pollution ever-higher.


There is also evidence that fashion’s insatiable demand for polyester is causing some of the biggest brands on earth, from Nike to ASOS, to rely on Russian oil exports, despite Russia’s exploitation of its energy supplies for political leverage, the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the countless related human rights atrocities. 

Fashion is not only guilty of driving climate change and adding to already endemic plastic pollution, but its supply chain has also been directly linked with several forms of illegal or unethical practices.

System and behaviour change, especially by wealthy consumers with bulging wardrobes, need to come together so that people dress themselves within planetary and climate boundaries.

It’s time for the world of fashion to resize. The fashion consumption of the wealthiest, within the richest nations, needs to be called out for what it is: unfit, unfair, and deeply unfashionable.  

These Authors

Lewis Akenji managing director of the Hot of Cool Institute. Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance and an author. M: @andrewsimms; T: @AndrewSimms_uk.

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