Month: September 2020

Fast fashion 2 – How does the fashion industry need to change?

In our first post, we found out how our fashion trends are having a serious impact on our planet. In our second instalment, we investigate how the fashion industry needs to urgently change, and how it is showing promising signs that it is, albeit slowly, starting to become more sustainable.

By Nadin Moustafa, PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

As explained in my first post, it is becoming increasingly blatant that the fashion industry, and specifically the way its operating in terms of fast fashion, is detrimental to the environment. It is accountable for 10% of the CO2 emissions globally (UNEP, 2018), it contributes to 31% of the ocean’s plastic pollution (IUCN, et al., 2017) and a truck of clothes is thrown in a landfill every second (UNEP, 2018). It has been estimated that 1.13 million tonnes of clothing was purchased in the UK in 2016, which is an increase of almost 200 thousand tonnes since 2012. It is clear the fashion industry is not going anywhere; they do however need to work towards sustainability. UK citizens discard around a million tonnes of clothes per year (House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 2019), considering that they buy a little over a million tonnes per year – there is a clear need for circular economy. Thus, companies need to rethink their traditional linear business models and work towards a circular economy, which is challenging. Circular economy in the fashion industry requires a lot more work than just recycling and reselling clothes and even then, recycling clothes is not that simple.

Circular Economy in Fashion

To achieve circular economy in the fashion industry, companies need to consider several factors including collection procedures, textile recycling, the actual design of products and strategies for resale. Those “action points” were highlighted at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2017. As of June 2018, 94 companies signed the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, representing 12.5% of the global fashion market. The 2020 commitment includes the following action points:

  • Action point 1: Implementing design strategies for cyclability
  • Action point 2: Increasing the volume of used products collected
  • Action point 3: increasing the volume of products resold
  • Action point 4: increasing the share of products made from recycled textile fibers.
Figure 1: Circular economy in fast fashion (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

Business models are expected to integrate reuse and resale into their strategies due to economic and environmental benefits. 95% of the clothes discarded can be recycled or reused. Increasing the life cycle of products by as little as 9 months through reselling reduces waste, water and carbon footprints by 20-30% each (WRAP, 2012). The businesses also have to gain since the apparel resale market share is USD 20 billion and is forecasted to reach USD 41 billion by 2022. This also aligns nicely with shopping habits, where 9 million more women bought second-hand in 2017 when compared to 2016 (ThredUp, 2018). That said, reselling does come with its challenges mainly including the consumers’ perception of used clothing. Another challenge is uncertainty of quantity and quality of products from collection schemes. Global collection rates of textiles are as low as 20%, hence the majority ends up in landfills and incinerators (Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, 2017). Collection schemes would need to consider incentives, transportation, sorting and whether the item will be resold, repaired, recycled with hopefully a small percentage going to incineration or landfill.

What do businesses need to do to achieve circular economy?

Circular design requires businesses to consider their end-goal when it comes to their products. For example, the company can either design for durability where the aim is to extend the use of a garment to multiple owners. And on the other hand, a company can design for circularity where the aim would be to enhance recyclability or biodegradability.

Figure 2: shows the different ways clothes would pass through the value chain depending on the aim behind the textile design (Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, 2017).

Recycling requires technology developments that will incorporate disassembling and then regenerating into new yarn. However, there is still yet to be commercial scale processes that are technically and economically feasible. Currently, less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is currently being recycled; even though there is potential to tap into the current loss of USD 100 billion from wasted materials (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

Implementing such measures would not necessarily exacerbate fast fashion. It would mean that the fast fashion still exists from the consumers’ perspective, but it is slow from an environmental perspective.


UNEP, 2018. Putting the brakes on fast fashion. [Online]
Available at:

IUCN, Boucher, J. & Damien, F., 2017. Primary microplastics in the oceans: a global evaluation of sources. [Online]
Available at:

House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 2019. Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability. [Online]
Available at:

WRAP, 2012. Valuing our clothes: The true cost of how we design, use and dispose of clothing in the UK.. [Online]
Available at: sites/files/wrap/VoC%20FINAL%20online%202012%2007%2011.pdf

ThredUp, 2018. ThredUp 2018 resale report. [Online]
Available at: https://

Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, 2017. Pulse of the fashion industry. [Online]
Available at: download/3620/

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017. A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. [Online]
Available at:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future. [Online]
Available at:

Fast fashion 1 – Why is the fashion industry an environmental problem?

In our first series of blogs, we look at the modern phenomenon that is the fast fashion industry and its impact on the environment. Published weekly in 4 instalments, we will explain how fast fashion came to be, why it needs to change, and, crucially, what we the general public can do to help.

In our first post, we find out how our insatiable desire to keep track with the latest trends is having a serious impact on our planet.

By Nadin Moustafa, PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

French artist Christain Boltanski’s ‘No Man’s Land’, was made of 30 tons of discarded clothing. Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images (The Guardian, 2017).

We’ve done more damage to our environment in the past 100 years, than we have in the world’s history. Governments, companies, industries and individuals are all trying to work towards a more sustainable future. One of the important things to realise in my opinion, is that we cannot fix one thing and expect everything else to fall in place. There are so many topics we need to focus on. One of the major topics that has been highlighted recently is fast fashion. “Fast fashion” is a term that we are becoming increasingly aware of but what does it mean? And why is it a big problem? Fast fashion is essentially the production of cheaper clothes, with less quality as often as possible. On average, fashion companies went from producing two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011. In 2012, Zara was able to produce and deliver new collections in two weeks; Forever 21 in six weeks and H&M in eight weeks. On average people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000 and they only kept clothes for half as long (McKinsey & Company, Ellen MacArthur). This a problem because the fashion industry has a disastrous impact on the environment including depletion of non-renewable resources, emission of greenhouse gases and use of significant amounts of water and energy. The Quantis International report found that the three main drivers for the industry’s environmental impact are dyeing & finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fiber production (15%).

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

IPCC calculated the industry is accountable for 10% of the global CO2 emissions. That’s more emissions that all international flights and maritime shipping combined (UNEP, 2018). The polyester production for textiles alone was equal to the amount of CO2 released from 185 coal-fired power plants in 2015. If the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory their share of carbon budget will increase to 26% by 2050 (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). By 2030, it is estimated that global middle class will increase to 5.4 billion people as opposed to 3 billion in 2015. Thus, the demand for fast fashion is expected to increase and we will need three times as many natural resources by 2050 when compared to 2000 (UNEP, 2018).

Environmental impact

The fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of water worldwide (UNECE, 2018). Cotton is a water intensive plant so the production of one cotton shirt uses more than 3000 L of water. As if that wasn’t enough, a pair of jeans uses more than 9000 L of water. That’s enough for a person to drink ~2.4 L per day for 3.5 & 10 years respectively. In 2018, more than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide (Lacombe, 2018)! That would’ve been enough water for 4.5 billion people to drink for 10 years; 780 million people do not have access to an improved water source (World Health Organisation and UNICEF, 2012).

The truth about fast fashion: cheap for you but costly for the planet (WTVOX, 2020).

The industry also pollutes the oceans with microplastics. This is because washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean every year. That is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles (UNEP, 2018), (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that the fashion industry contributes to 31% of the overall plastic pollution in the ocean (IUCN, et al., 2017). Apart from emissions & textile production, textile dyeing is the world’s second largest polluter of water, since leftovers are dumped into streams or rivers (UNEP, 2018). Wastewater from textile dyeing has determinantal effects. Some dyes do not degrade. Whereas dyes that do degrade produce harmful substances as thy decompose, which effects plant life in the water. Azo dyes, which are a class of synthetic nitrogen-based dyes are cost effective to produce but have toxic and carcinogenic effects (Lellis, et al., 2019). What’s more, more 85% of all textiles are dumped each year. One garbage truck of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second according to UNEP. Since recycling in the fashion industry is still facing a lot of challenges, less than one percent of all materials used in clothing is recycled back to clothing (Sajn, 2019).

Can fashion be sustainable?

The fashion industry is not going anywhere (I for starters sincerely hope it doesn’t)! However, the important question is, how do we make it sustainable? The industry needs to fundamentally change in order to mitigate its environmental impact. There are several ways to work towards a greener fashion industry. Those include embracing renewable energy, developing new methods for recycling, using a biodegradable and/or sustainable substitute to polyester and finally, producing better-quality, long-lived products. It is important to not only research into those possibilities but to focus on how to scale them and make them commercially viable.


UNEP, 2018. Putting the brakes on fast fashion. [Online]
Available at:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017. A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. [Online]
Available at:

UNECE, 2018. Fashion and the SDGs: what role for the UN?. [Online]
Available at:

Lacombe, G., 2018. Global jeans market set to grow to $60 billion by 2023. [Online]
Available at:,1041775.html

World Health Organisation and UNICEF, 2012. Progress on Drinking Water and SAnitation: 2012 Update, s.l.: WHO/UNIVEF.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017. One garbage truck of textiles wasted every second: report creates vision for change. [Online]
Available at:

IUCN, Boucher, J. & Damien, F., 2017. Primary microplastics in the oceans: a global evaluation of sources. [Online]
Available at:

Lellis, B., Favaro-Polonio, C. Z., Pamphile, J. A. & Polonio, J. C., 2019. Effects of textile dyes on health and the environment and bioremediation potential of living organisms. Biotechnology Research and Innovation , Volume 3, pp. 275-290.

Sajn , N., 2019. Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry; what consumers need to know. [Online]
Available at:

Welcome to our blog!

Welcome to our new blog series from the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering!

Although our Institute’s name might seem quite niche and specific at first, the relevance of our work on society is anything but. Through this blog, we hope to bring you some of the stories of how our approach can revolutionise the 21st century, and has done so already in previous ones. How can we make the fashion industry more sustainable? Does the Philosopher’s stone already exist? These are just some of the questions we hope to address.

In our first outing, we hear from our Co-Director on how the ethos of our Institute was inspired.

By Professor Nic Harrison, Co-Director of the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering

In his wonderful biography of Thomas Young, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Andrew Robinson points out that Young was a polymath who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone. In my own work his contributions to understanding light, colour, the strength of materials and fluid flow are of everyday importance. It seems that two hundred years ago it was truly possible to know everything. I can’t think of a true polymath alive today. Scientific and technical knowledge has expanded at such a rate that specialisation is now the norm. We develop our collective understanding at an ever growing pace while dividing science into disciplines and subdisciplines so efficiently that we often struggle to fund, motivate and reward interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary projects.

Portrait of Thomas Young, 1855.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Nevertheless, it seems that rapid innovation happens most efficiently at the nooks and crannies between our self imposed boundaries. For example, if we are to produce a vaccine, an antiviral agent or an anti-viral surface in a crisis we need to form teams of experts who can provide the deep expertise in areas ranging from molecular synthesis to distributed manufacturing: teams that can communicate, collaborate and thrive.  

We bring together researchers, policymakers and business to develop new solutions to problems faced by society – one example is antimicrobial surfaces.

At Imperial College London we have a track record of doing exactly this and also a recognition of how hard it can be in our world of intense specialisation.  The Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering was founded to help define and develop Convergent Science. We don’t want to wind the clock back two hundred years yet we do realise that we have lost something important along the way. Students who have achieved core expertise  are now also being educated in molecular science, engineering, business and clinical application. They are learning the value of being able to reach across traditional disciplinary boundaries.  New large scale research programmes are emerging that are designed from the ground up to be inclusive and to merge the best that can be offered from all perspectives in addressing global challenges.

The spirit of Thomas Young lives on in our Institute and a new generation of polymaths. You can find out more about the work we do by visiting our website