Beyond the Labels

The journey of fashion toward innovation


Total consumer spending in clothing and footwear in the United States reached the threshold of $418,376 million in 2017: an increase of 30% since 2009, the first year of recession.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that in 2016 Americans spent an average of $1,218 on clothing and footwear.

What may be more significant than how much consumers spend is the increase in how many items each person buys. According to statistics by McKinsey & Company, from 2000 to 2014, the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60 percent.

The World Resources Institute estimates that 20 garments are manufactured per person each year and consumers worldwide buy more than 80 billion items of clothing yearly.

How much we spend on clothes, how long they last in our wardrobes, and the type of fabrics we wear reveal a complex picture that extends beyond the world of design, runways and trends to include overconsumption, waste, and pollution.

But there is also an important shift underway among apparel producers, and many companies today are committed to developing new strategies and technologies that change the way we think about our clothing, as well as how they are produced and how they interact with the environment.

Reading the world through the lens of clothing, and telling the stories that lie behind what we wear, can give us insight into the economic, environmental and cultural forces that affect our daily lives.

The Fashion Industry
How we got to this point and where are we now?

The GCNYC Fashion Center reports that almost 150 million lives are affected by the global apparel industry daily, whether it's people designing and manufacturing clothing, workers employed in the production and sales of clothing, advertisers and marketers selling clothing to the public, or consumers buying the merchandise. All of them act together in a circular system where the fashion industry shapes consumers' desires, tastes and habits, and consumers influence production by wanting to stay up-to-date with new trends and purchase more clothes at lower prices. At the same time, clothing retailers, such as Zara and Benetton, contributed to the higher demand with the development of the "today style" of cheaper clothes that can be easily discarded and replaced with new ones, a trend known as "fast fashion."

Professor Greys Sosic, who teaches supply chain at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, concluded that "fashion was not so bad when we used a lot of actual materials, when we used to buy garments every five years... But then we came up with what we call fast fashion." Brands labeled under this category "are selling things at a relatively low price, and so you can buy something, wear it two times and then throw it away," said Sosic.

During the late 1980s, the Spanish company Zara, owned by the Inditex group, was one of the first companies to develop a new strategy to reduce the length of time between when new designs debuted on the runway to when they appeared on Zara's store shelves. Zara and H&M were soon joined by other fast fashion brands such as Primark and Topshop. And, as Business Insider reported in 2017, fast fashion may become eclipsed by ultrafast fashion, from online retailers like ASOS and, that can bring garments to market in as little as a week or two.

The increase in the production cycle was coupled with a decrease in the cost of fast fashion clothing, which makes it more affordable for a greater number of people. Since 2000, clothing and footwear sales in the U.S. increased dramatically: 51.8% from 2000 to 2017. What is more alarming, though, is that over the last 20 years, the Consumer Price Index for all items has increased by 63.5% while the price of clothing measured by the CPI for apparel has fallen by 3.3%. What this means is that clothing that would have cost $100 in 1993 would cost $59.10 in today's dollars, according to the American Enterprise Institute.

The decrease in clothing prices has a direct correlation to the increase in how many items we buy. A report by the environmental organization, Greenpeace, using data from institutions such as McKinsey & Company, Textile World, Environment Agency and the International Trade Association, Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA), concludes that: "people in developed countries today own many more items of clothing than they can actually wear." In 2017, as shown in the graph, each person in North America bought an average of 96.6 pieces, compared to Europe, where people bought 50.3 pieces each, and Asia at 16.4 pieces per person.

Here is a snapshot of how the clothing sales increased between 2000 and 2017 in the U.S. (Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data, Clothing and Clothing Accessory, Millions of Dollars, Annual, Seasonally Adjusted.)

The graph shows the number of items purchased per person in 2017. As shown, consumers in the United States buy more, an average value of 96.6 items. (Source: Statista, June 2017. Average Volume per Capita in pieces)
Hover the images below to see which kind of items people buy the most (the percentages refer to the number of items purchased per capita shown above. (Source: Statista, June 2017)


Europe: 25.7%
USA: 24.1%
Asia: 23.2%

Women's Apparel

Asia: 25.9%
Europe: 20.3%
USA: 20.1%

Men's Apparel

USA: 13.4%
Asia: 11.2%
Europe: 10.1%


Europe: 21.2%
USA: 13.7%
Asia: 12.8%


USA: 12.7%
Asia: 4.4%
Europe: 1.3%

Other Clothes

USA: 26%
Asia: 22.4%
Europe: 21.4%

The incremental growth in apparel production directly impacts the environmental resources used during the manufacturing process, and the increase in the amount of cast-off clothing presents problems in waste and recycling. The Circular Fibers Initiative and Euromonitor International Apparel & Footwear 2016 Edition reports that the number of times clothes are worn before they cease to be used decreased 36% between 2002 and 2016; clothes are discarded after people have worn them less than ten times.

Following the Thread
The environmental impact caused by our garments.

We carefully choose our clothes every day because they reflect who we are. Yet, the majority of people have very little knowledge of the story behind their clothing and their consequences on the environment.

The World Economic Forum estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of the world's total solid waste. In fact, the Fair Fashion Center (FFC) -- an institute that provides new solutions to rethink the business of fashion at each stage in its supply chain -- reports that every year 85% of textiles worldwide (about 21 billion tons per year) are sent to landfills and, as highlighted by the report The Pulse of Fashion Industry, only 20% of the cast- off clothes are recycled or reused.

"We can do things to help, Nike and Levi's, for example, along with other companies, are trying to do things following environmental sustainable practices," said Professor Sosic. "But the big thing is that we just generate too much waste, and it is not just fashion, it's everywhere."

In 2015, the United Nations set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by the end of 2030, including "affordable and clean energy," "climate action" and "responsible consumption and production." As shown by a theory called Quantum Redesign of Fashion, developed by the Fair Fashion Center of the Glasgow Caledonian New York College (FFC), the $2.5 trillion dollar fashion industry could have an impact on many of the 17 SDGs.

According to the Fair Fashion Center's website: "When considering the influence the fashion supply chain has on other industries - from farming and manufacturing to transportation, real estate and waste management-there are many distinct but entangled elements that must evolve in order to create an industry that is a respectful and regenerative ecosystem that supports people, planet and profits."

The theory shows how companies within the fashion industry should address each of the SDGs by rethinking their businesses at each stage of the supply chain, especially the dramatic growth in textile production that has raised alarms among organizations like the United Nations.

Elevated textile production increases the quantity of resources needed to create fabrics and the pollution resulting from both their production and disposal. Additionally, the fabrics that dominate the textile market, found in the majority of the garments we wear, are the same ones that have a detrimental effect on the environment.

  • Synthetic fibres: are the ones produced from oil and account for almost two-thirds of the textiles production.
  • Man-made cellulose fibres: are the ones that are not directly extracted by plant, as for example cotton, but the ones who are produced through a chemical transformation of plants-based material.
  • Animal-based fibres: are the ones coming from animal sources, such as wool and silk.
  • Cotton: is the most popular and used among the cellulose-based fibres and it is extracted directly from cotton plants.
  • Others: in this category are usually included the so-called bast fibres (linen, hemp and jute) and other fibres produced not to make garments that we find in rugs, blankets or carpets.
  • Do you know which fabrics are found in the garments you commonly wear? Make your guess and sort the fabrics listed below from the most produced ones- to the less produced.

    Fetch result

    In order for consumers to make choices on buying sustainable and responsible clothing, it's important to realize the production numbers hidden behind the most produced fabrics. Fibers are made in a variety of ways and the downsides generated from their production differ. By knowing which fabrics are produced the most, and their quantity, producers can estimate the overall impact of textile production and consumers can better orient their choices and pay attention to what, and how much, to buy.

    For example, cotton is one of the most common fabrics used in clothing, either by itself or in combination with other varieties. According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), it takes more than 20,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of cotton, the equivalent of a single t-shirt and one pair of jeans.

    Another material commonly found in jeans, shirts, dresses, trousers and underwear is man-made cellulosic fibers, such as viscose, which is made from tree pulp. These cellulosic fibers contribute to deforestation and use toxic chemicals during production, chemicals that are released into the environment. Last but not least, the most used synthetic fabric, polyester, is a main player in causing pollution, not just because it's an oil-based material, but also because it is responsible for the dispersion of microfibers into the ocean, which are shed when clothing is washed.

    Some companies producing textile fibers and clothes have started to develop new business models and new technologies to reinvent the way garments are produced and the materials from which they are made. As fashion designer Stella McCartney stated: "fashion isn't modern [...] The way things are done, the fabrics used - they haven't changed in a century."

    Redesigning Fashion
    The innovative side of the fashion sector

    In the last few years, major institutions, such as the TextileExchange, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Fair Fashion Center and the United Nations, have attempted to incentivize efforts for a more sustainable fashion industry and help companies, as well as their customers, achieve a better understanding of the downsides of apparel production. These institutions have developed tools and sponsored new initiatives to share information and increase awareness among companies of sustainable techniques and methods to encourage them to re-think the way they produce garments.

    The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an institution that promotes environmental sustainability in the apparel, footwear and textile fields, has developed a tool called the Higg Material Sustainability Index (HMSI) that assesses the sustainability level of materials used in garment manufacturing. The index assigns a score, based on production data collected from more than 200 firms that enables us to measure a product's sustainability performance and reveals a huge amount of detailed information about the impact of fabrics on the environment. The HMSI shows that the fibers used most to make garments are also the ones that have the greatest impact on the environment.

    Pollution resulting from textile production involves the consumption of freshwater, a rapid depletion of other natural resources -- such as oil -- the rise of the global warming, as well as an excess of plants and algae in the water, a phenomenon known as eutrophication. By combining the data from the HMSI tool with the conclusions found in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Report, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion's future, consumers can understand how much the most common fabrics they wear impact the environment.

    Do you know how much the fabrics you commonly wear impact the environment? Click on the different type of environmental issues caused by clothing production, and discover which fabrics contribute to it most.

    Fabrics are relevant components to measure the sustainability of items. Knowing how they are produced and the effects they have on the environment at an early stage is one of the first steps in taking action against the fast fashion culture and the issues caused by it. The data shown in the interactive above, from the HMSI tool, can offer consumers insight into the sustainability of hundreds of thousands of materials used to produce garments by allowing them to compare fabrics in a standardized way.

    The tool offers trustworthy data that can help consumers make sustainable choices when they shop for apparel, If people knew that cotton, as shown above, has a big impact on water consumption, that silk, wool and nylon's production contributes to global warming and that bast fibers (fibers made pollute water by increasing eutrophication, they might think twice before buying ten expensive items as opposed to a single, though maybe more expensive, item and keep it longer. Buying fewer items would decrease fiber production and improve its negative impact on the environment.

    An article in Forbes points out that in 1930 the average woman owned nine outfits compared with women today who own 30. Making fewer and more responsible purchases could make the difference. Instead of buying items made of fabric blends that are very difficult to recycle, we can choose to buy items made of pure fabrics that are easily recyclable once thrown away. Cotton is a good example: it is hard to recycle when it is combined with other fibers, and requires a new kind of machinery that few companies have. Another strategy that consumers can use is to make sure their clothing comes from companies that adopt sustainable strategies to produce them. In fact, there are many brands today that provide solutions that rely on the HMSI data to empower their production. One of them is Patagonia, which uses data to carefully choose the materials for its garments and estimate their impacts on the environment. As stated by the SAC, "materials play a significant role in a product's lifetime sustainability impact. Selecting which materials to use is one of the first steps in a product's development. Making informed choices at this early stage can have dramatic benefits, especially when that product is produced at industrial scale."

    The huge changes that, in collaboration with universities or research centers, are experimenting with new ways to create materials, business models and technologies that are going to change the fashion industry's supply chain.

    In fall 2017, TextileExchange released a report called Preferred Fiber & Materials Market where it collected compelling stories of companies in the fashion industry that have been deemed remarkable innovators. The report presents six different areas: strategy, synthetics, plant-based, man-made cellulosic, animal fibers, and leather alternatives. It shows the range of initiatives and alternatives being developed by the industry and offers options for consumers who want to buy brands that are more sustainable and responsible.

    Each company is listed under the area on which it has focused its innovation efforts. Hover on the bar chart to discover the company's name.


    One of the most incredible examples of innovation featured in the TextileExchange report is represented by a dress that was part of the exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern? at the Museum of Modern Art in New York between October 2017 and January 2018. The dress, designed by Stella McCartney, was made of silk entirely created in a lab. The company that developed this fabric, Bolt Thread, has collaborated with Fiorenzo Omenetto, a Professor of Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Tufts University, who was the first to pioneer and develop the study of how to replicate silk's proteins for creating silk entirely in a lab without using spiders. His research is focused on multidisciplinary studies intersecting technology, biologically 0inspired materials and the natural sciences.

    Another feature in the Preferred Fiber & Materials Market report concerns new ways to produce leather. Vegea makes leather by using vinaccia, the byproduct of crushed grapes, and the company Modern Meadow found a new way to produce animal-friendly leather by growing strains of yeast engineered to produce collagen - the protein found in skin - that keeps the traditional qualities of leather while adding new functionalities, such as flexibility. Another area where companies and scientists are experimenting with innovative solutions is for fabric dyes; a new method developed by the company Faber Futures employs bacteria-secreted pigments to dye fabrics, preventing pollution of fresh water caused by the conventional coloration process.

    Yet, beyond the innovations being developed in order to solve environmental problems caused by the fashion industry and make it more sustainable, the research coming from both the scientific and technological world will also affect the relationship between people and clothes. Professor Omenetto says that producing fibers in the lab will completely change the supply chain behind clothes and textile production, along with the manufacturing skills and tools needed to make them which will affect the workers who make them as well as consumers.

    Additionally, as Omenetto pointed out, researchers are not only replicating what nature does - as they already did with silk - but also increasing and improving the functionalities of the materials created in the labs. This type of study will reinvent the way we conceive and use garments. For example, in the future our clothes might be able to react to our human emotions or activities by changing color in response to sweat, or other inputs coming from our bodies such as electricity. "The gap between technology and humans is going to become thinner and thinner," said Omenetto, and technology will help us develop "new signs of expression of the way that we are as human beings."

    Consumers will have more choices available to purchase sustainable garments, and if consumers respond, hopefully the apparel industry will keep producing clothing made from sustainable manufacturing processes. Beyond our clothing labels is an important story about the garments we wear and how they impact our environment. But there is also another hopeful story of how business, scientific and technology experts are working together to make our garments more sustainable for the future health of Mother Earth.

    Designed and Developed by Mara Pometti for Annenberg School for Journalism.
    University of Southern California. 2018 - All rights reserved.