If People Could Only Buy 5 New Clothing Items Per Year, What Would That Mean For Your Fashion Business?

I recently read a report by the Hot or Cool Institute, Berlin titled Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable: Resizing Fashion for a Fair Consumption Space. The 2022 report “links changes in fashion lifestyles to measurable impacts on climate change, in line with the aspirational target of the Paris Agreement to keep the average global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.” It is a fascinating look at consumer use and consumption patterns as well as large scale production impacts and how changes to these can make a difference in carbon emissions. The report finds that “If no other actions are implemented, such as repairing/mending, washing at lower temperatures, or buying second-hand, purchases of new garments should be limited to an average 5 items per year for achieving consumption levels in line with the 1.5-degree target.” 

The report got me thinking. In today’s post, join me on a thought experiment about what fashion businesses would look like if customers could really only buy 5 new clothing items per year.

The fit has to be perfect

Have you ever bought something that was just good enough knowing you could always replace it with something better later? I know at times I have made a purchase that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for for lack of something better at the time. If we really could only buy 5 new clothing items per year, I think more people would hold out for the perfect fit. You know that as a patternmaker I think fit is so important. It can make or break a sale and be a big reason why we choose to wear some items in our closet more than others. Fit goes beyond just how it fits on the body, though, and extends to how it fits our lifestyle and values. If the new clothes budget is only 5 items per year, there is no room for the garments that are just good enough. Each of those 5 items needs to fit perfectly across all these aspects. For designers, this means curating pieces that are thoughtfully designed and given the attention needed in development to make the fit worth being one of those 5 items someone purchases.

The clothing has to last multiple years

You might be thinking that 5 items of clothing is not enough to stay clothed throughout the year and you’d be right. (If you’re interested, the report linked above has a section that discusses optimal fair closet size.) The goal is 5 new clothing items per year, not 5 clothing items total in your closet. Practically, this means that each of those 5 items you buy has to last multiple years because you can’t replace every item every year. So much of clothing today is made to be worn for a season and then thrown away. Or, even if it isn’t intended for that purpose, that’s what ends up happening after the garment falls apart after a few washes. With each item needing to last many years, the quality of the materials and trims is a bigger concern at the design stage. Even the construction of a garment can be optimized to maximize durability, longevity, and ease of repair. 

Designs have to stay relevant for longer

If people can’t replace their wardrobe every year, that means that styles should, ideally, stay relevant for much longer. Designs that are so trendy that they are in style this season and then out-of-date-looking in a few months aren’t useful in a low-consumption model like this. I’m not saying that designs can’t be stylish and feature interesting and unique details. In fact, far from it, I think designs should be fun and have character. They need to be styles that your customers are going to still like and wear even after the hype of the trend has died down. Again, understanding your customer (and as a customer, understanding yourself) is key to creating clothing that attracts your customer’s attention and keeps it for a long time. 

The price needs to be higher

If each person is only buying 5 new items each year (and likely not all five from your brand), that means that your brand is selling fewer pieces of clothing. If you’re selling less, then you need to sell each item for a higher price to make enough money to sustain yourself and your business. The cost of producing each item will likely be higher, too, if you are investing in higher quality materials that last longer. You’ll need your increased prices to cover the increased costs profitably as well. You might be thinking that people can’t afford your products if they were priced higher, but remember that the limit is on the number of new clothing items, not the amount of money being spent on clothing. If people are buying a fraction of the number of items they are currently buying, they can spend much more per item than what they currently do with the same amount of money. The accessibility of sustainable fashion is a very nuanced conversation and I won’t pretend that simply buying fewer items at a higher price is an easy shift for everyone. However, for mid-to-higher-income people who are responsible for the vast majority of carbon-producing over-consumption when it comes to fashion, money isn’t the limiting factor.

Reuse is even more attractive

The Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable report looks at the carbon emissions associated with new versus second-hand clothing consumption. It makes reuse a very attractive option, I think, for both fashion brands and individual consumers. While the carbon footprint of using and reusing (think upcycling, reuse, recycling) is not zero, it is far lower than the carbon footprint of manufacturing new textiles and clothing. Furthermore, the 5 items of clothing per year to meet the Paris Agreement target is specific to new clothing and textiles. I think if this limit were the norm, there would be a greater incentive and benefit to being creative with used textiles and clothing for fashion brands. There is already so much clothing out there and cutting and sewing new garments creates scrap waste as well. If the market for new garments was limited, then I think the fashion industry and the creativity of designers would turn to making use of materials that are not new and finding ways to create value and sell that instead. 

While significant consumer mindset and fashion manufacturing change is needed to meet the fashion-related carbon emission goals for most of us reading this, I actually find the conclusions quite encouraging. Meaningful change in fashion is within our collective reach. The report is a very insightful read, and I encourage you to read the whole report and further reflect on how you can adjust both your fashion business and your personal lifestyle for a more sustainable future.

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