In a world of accelerating demand for apparel, consumers want— and can increasingly afford — new clothing after wearing garments only a few times. Clothing production approximately doubled from 2004 to 2019, driven by a growing middle-class population across the globe and increased per capita sales in developed economies. This increasing pace of consumption and production puts more pressure on the planet, the workers making clothes and the communities impacted by associated environmental hazards like air pollution and water contamination.  

WRI addresses these issues and provides apparel companies with environmental and social guidance for transformative change as well as a blueprint for setting science-based targets. Many of these resources can be applied to other sectors as well.

Entire business models are built on the premise of “fast fashion,” providing clothes cheaply and quickly to consumers through shorter fashion cycles. This linear fashion model of buying, wearing and quickly discarding clothes negatively impacts people and the planet’s resources.

For example, more than 15,000 chemicals are associated with garment production. Some of these chemicals, including formaldehyde and chlorine, are toxic. The rush for cheaper and quickly produced clothing has real impact on factory safety, such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse disaster that killed more than 1,100 people and injured over 2,500. Low wage issues persist as well. For example, garment workers in Ethiopia make $26 a month and workers in Bangladesh make $95.  

So, what does a more sustainable and ethical apparel industry look like, and how do we get there?


The first step is for companies to measure their environmental and social impacts, consider how future growth will affect their resource use and understand areas where they can improve. Next, they must recognize that the fashion industry must do more than improve efficiency to sustainably meet demand in the years ahead. Companies must produce fewer, longer-lasting products and ensure that stakeholders are benefiting equitably.

Finally, companies need a better understanding in three key areas: 

1. Consumer demand.

Our market intelligence report  demonstrates potential mass market appeal for reuse business models, which would benefit both consumers and businesses. 

2. The impacts of new business models on people and the planet.

Our social impact guidebook supports companies’ transition to reuse in a just and equitable way. We’re also developing a guidebook to assess the environmental impacts of clothing reuse business models compared to staying with current linear models.

3. Market-based policies.

Our inventory of policies and government explores actions that are enabling or blocking the advancement of circular business models around the globe. Please contact Eliot Metzger for more information (

WRI’s collaboration with the apparel sector provides our experts with an inside view of the sustainability challenges that companies face. This, in turn, informs our research and guidance, allowing WRI experts to craft practical and scalable solutions that can facilitate a sustainable and just transition within companies. 

Photo Credit: Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash