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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Clothing's 'opioid' problem

Updated: Apr 29

We make too many clothes. All the volume growth in clothing is synthetic


We dig up way too much stuff. It's 50 years + since humanity first started overshooting and since then it's got worse every year. Unfortunately we don't count all the stuff we dig up because both GDP and Material Flow statistics don't pay any attention to all the waste. So the 20 tonnes of rock that gets dug up to get enough gold for your wedding ring does not count. Anywhere.*


Material Flows since 1970
Material Flows

Clothing companies are overproducing like crazy


In 1975 clothing companies used to make just under 8kgs of new stuff for every man, woman and child on the planet. In 2025 they are due to make 16kgs of new stuff per head. These numbers take into account none of the other stuff that has to be used making all these clothes - the water, the energy, all the 'raw' waste.


The total amount has quadrupled in the time the global population has doubled.

Textile Exchange tracking volume by fibre type
Textile Exchange track volume increases - helpful

16KGs is a lot of clothes. A big chunky knit might be 0.5KGs. So someone, somewhere is buying a heck of a lot.


Or are they?


People aren't wearing more layers of clothing - so if these numbers are right then the total amount that is being stuffed into wardrobes is massively up. And/or being thrown away. Or both.


Clothing companies are obsessed with volumes


I've spent a lot of my life looking at growth in different sectors. Clothing has a volume growth addiction like I have never, ever seen. It's a collective obsession. As if the only route to success is by producing more and more stuff.


Production push - what gets produced gets sold


This is not a demand led phenomenon. The volume per head inflation is a specific peculiarity of clothing.


But it does bear the same hallmarks as the automotive industry at its most volume obsessed. Nobody wanted to lose market share. Everyone agreed that next year's market would be "this year's + X%". And so planned production to meet that number.


What gets produced gets sold. Somehow. Always. I know - I was the guy who had to make all the sales before year end by hook or by crook. Sometimes that meant recording "sales" even when really they weren't bought. Sometimes it meant a mad scramble in the last week of December to shunt unsold stock to special channels where it could be recorded as sales. December was always a great month. For numbers.


Polyester


When you unpack the numbers all of the per capita growth in clothing, all of it since 1970 has been in polyester and other synthetics.


"Natural" fibres have remained steady at 5KGs+ per head whilst synthetics have rocketed to just under 12KGs.

Per head, per KGs volumes of clothing by year
All the growth is synthetic

Volume vs "sustainable materials"


Nobody needs 16KGs of new clothing every year.


But there is no discussion in clothing world about stepping back from the volume brink. Every forecast I've ever seen for apparel only goes in one direction.


Which, in the context of the climate and biodiversity challenges, is pretty amazing.


Instead there is a heated debate about whether material X or material Y is better for the planet. And in the extremely odd maths that is used to answer that question polyester ends up being "better" than "wool". By a lot.


What this diagram communicates is that wool produces 34X the amount of GHG emissions for every 1 tonne. Whereas polyester produces only 2.6X.


Ergo every tonne of polyester is "better" than every tonne of wool.


lamb minding its own business
Planet destroyer.....

The danger of simplistic numbers


There are at least two issues with this. The maths seems not to count all sorts of vital stuff such as impact on environment and impact at end of life. And - perhaps most obviously - a material simply cannot have a linear footprint relationship.


The idea that XYZ material per se is or isn't "sustainable" is nonsense. Unless we're looking at landscapes you can't tell.


It depends - always. Depends on the place. Depends on the farming system. Depends on intensity. An intensive farm using tonnes of chemicals is going to have a much higher GHG footprint than say our Mongolian South Gobi herders whose footprint is negligible (or maybe even less than negligible - we're on the hunt for emissions).


Context matters. I know that behind these numbers there is a strenuous attempt at context - but in this telling polyester looks "better" than wool.


Clothing has become so massively fragmented and globalised that at the brand level all that can be seen are materials. Context is lost. Landscape context is lost.


Volume is the key problem


The debate about Material X vs Material Y is not the point. I can't get involved (except to point out that natural fibres are getting a raw deal on the analysis).


The key issue. The big problem. Is that there's just too much stuff being produced. None of us need all that stuff.


The inflation in clothing volume is entirely driven by synthetics. So weaning us off synthetics at such high volumes is a fundamental part of the answer.


But it's complicated. Textile Exchange have produced a report on the Future of Synthetics that points out that simply switching the same volume from synthetics to natural fibres would be devastating (my italics):


"....a total shift away from synthetics to land-based raw materials – particularly at current production rates – could lead to an overreliance on and depletion of natural ecosystems."

So climbing down from the production rate is the necessary first step to avoid yet more damage.


Weaning us off synthetics is much, much harder than getting us hooked.


Production led markets are all about push. This market is all about the growth of synthetics. It's easy to get hooked on synthetics - every history of every synthetic has the same trajectory. The original excitement (all that performance, none of that cost), the exponential growth (cheap stuff!), and then the hangover and the realisation that maybe it wasn't such a great idea for human and planetary health.


But by then it's too late. Fentanyl has taken off like widlfire, single use plastic is the norm, 50% of all clothes are synthetic.


Maybe a 8KG world is better for everyone


There is a way out of all this. But it's not going to come from mainstream clothing companies who are as much a victim of this economic trap as anyone else.


Instead it will be a few pioneering folk reimagining value systems and demonstrating a new paradigm. A better system for everyone, creating more integrated value, and operating at volumes that meet the constraints of the planet.


More on that new paradigm here.


But in the meantime let's end with this thought.


It looks to me as if the whole industry was more stable, more profitable, and less 'rollercoaster' when only producing 8KGs per person. Revenues may be up but a production push model only introduces extreme volatility. Unsold stock (and there will be a lot of it) is the prime determinant of whether you thrive or suffer.


Which is why everyone who works in clothing seems to be very stressed. All the time.


Maybe the people who suffer most from the push are the brands themselves.




*read "Material World" by Ed Conway. Amazing.








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