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Is ‘Fickle Fashion’ Holding Back Sustainability Progress?

Reports of millennials’ “wokeness, at least when it concerns clothing, may have been greatly exaggerated, according to a new study about the yawning gap between Gen Y’s principles and practice. Is “fickle” fast fashion to blame? 

In a Onepoll survey of 18- and 35-year-olds commissioned this past September and October by London’s Fashion Retail Academy, 83 percent of the 2,000 respondents confessed to buying clothing they never wear. More damningly, nearly one quarter—22.5 percent—said they have purchased more than 10 items they have never worn.

And it seems like having a closet full of clothes but nothing to wear isn’t just an old chestnut: More than one in 10 (11 percent) of those surveyed admitted to leaving about half the clothes in their wardrobes unworn. Plus, despite passionate exhortations by the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Livia Firth to “buy less, choose well and make it last,” almost two-thirds (61 percent) of U.K. shoppers denied any interest in well-made, long-lasting garments. More than a quarter of them, in fact, copped to preferring cheaper, trendier clothes they can toss out after one season.

Certainly, for all of their talk about social and environmental justice, millennials don’t appear to be putting their money where their mouths are. While more than 70 percent of respondents liked the idea of clothing that is produced sustainably, per Onepoll numbers, one-third of them (33 percent) balked at paying more than 5 extra pounds ($6.35) for that guarantee.

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But Lee Lucas, principal and CEO of Fashion Retail Academy, made a case for coughing up just a little more for ethically made clothes and keeping them for the long haul. 

“Sustainable clothing is becoming more readily accessible, and if consumers are willing to pay that bit extra for their items now, they could really reap the benefits in the long term,” Lucas said in a statement.

As it stands, the United Kingdom consumes more new clothing than any other European country—26.7 kilograms (58.9 pounds) per capita versus 16.7 kg (36.8 pounds) in Germany, 14.5 kg (31.9 pounds) in Italy and 14.0 kg (30.8 pounds) in the Netherlands, according to the Textiles Recycling Association.

Going through clothes like Kleenex isn’t just wasteful; it’s expensive, too. In 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that landfilling clothing and textiles costs the U.K. economy around 82 million pounds ($108 million) per year. 

Onepoll data also revealed that millennials in the U.K. aren’t completely sold on the idea of the secondhand economy. More than one-third (35 percent) of respondents outrightly refuse to buy used clothes, and 12 percent said they bin their castoffs instead of recycling them. Still, there’s at least one silver lining: Roughly 60 percent of consumers who throw away their clothes said they are willing to buy secondhand. What’s more, women are 16 percent more inclined than men to wear previously owned items.

“With this new tech generation there are now so many more ways to recycle clothes, not just through charity shops but through eBay, Depop and other secondhand-selling apps,” Lucas said. “Recycling clothes is not only good for the consumer who can purchase clothes more affordably but also massively reduces the environmental impact of our clothes and lessens our personal fashion footprint.”