By: Amy Sumin
The conversation on the “sustainability of fashion” has ironically become quite a fashionable topic amongst the industry in recent months. Not as humorous, are the long-term dire consequences that have sparked public campaigns pushing for higher standards of transparency and accountability in terms of the ethics and sustainability involved in the outsourcing, manufacturing and supply processes. You may have noticed social media campaigns rating big brands on their “ethical scale” or the resulting big brand campaigns such as H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’. Fundamental industry questions are raised- who makes our clothes? Are we unknowingly funding exploitative worker conditions? What are the environmental and sustainability impacts of these current manufacturing and consumerist patterns? Most importantly, what can we as informed consumers do to make a difference?
Firstly, consumers must raise their level of awareness of the impact of their clothing purchases. Barriers to this include an understandable preference for convenience and pricing over informed ethical choices. Informed choices are also harder as the bias nature of marketing serves an aim to sell rather than provide a transparent account. This is where activist groups such as the Greenpeace “Detox Campaign” and UN Environment and Fashion Revolution have proven instrumental in raising awareness on these hidden topics to provide public platforms for changemaking. Greenpeace reports highlighted alarming statistics that the average person in 2014 bought 60% more items of clothing and kept them for half as long as in the year 2000 and in the USA, 10.5 million tonnes of clothing are sent to landfills every year which is about 30 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.
Activists have stated that low cost clothing often has a high cost attached to it as the “fast fashion” industry involves significant ethical and environmental processes. Documentaries such as “River Blue” highlight the polluting realities of the world’s manufacturing hubs in Bangladesh, Jakarta, India and China. Are the workers underage, underpaid, or exposed to unsafe chemicals or processes in factory conditions? Environmentalists, also, warn that in the creation of leather, tanneries were one major culprit releasing harmful chemicals into the rivers that populations sourced their water from- resulting in quantifiable illness and health impacts. Many manufacturers argue that the “river has self-revitalising powers” and “steps have been taken to mitigate production wastage”. But environmentalists argue this is inexcusable, using the example of the recovery of the River Thames to set a precedent for rivers such as the sacred Ganges in India to be enforcedly protected. A case study into “blue jeans” found that the signing of USA’s NAFTA 1994 allowed the outsourcing of cheaper production and “responsibility” to third world countries resulting in acids, dyes and chemicals committing unregulated “hydrocide” to rivers.
Change must be made from the producer’s end through awareness, structural change and innovation. Innovative examples include Jeanologia employing laser light methods to distress jeans rather than manual sandpaper and excessive chemicals. Also, Italdenim’s Chitosan innovation enhanced the jean dyeability in order to use less dye. However, change is needed from the Big Brands as the uprising of smaller sustainability-focused brands have costing limits in competing against mass producers.
UN Environment suggests a “Circular Economy” which upcycles and recycles rather than discards clothing. However, this has many challenges including that of being at odds with consumerism, business and marketing culture as seller priority is often profit over sustainability. For example, although Adidas is launching recycled-material shoes, they fundamentally still aim to exponentially sell more products through releasing new trends. A change in the perceived need of the consumer and the role of the producer is needed to have a sustainable user experience in mind. for example, a better curation of a fashionista second-hand or rental market where the seller makes more money through short term rentals whilst being sustainable.
So what can you do? Firstly, be informed and spread awareness. Support ethical brands. Reassess your spending habits. Try to repurpose, thrift shop and minimise buying unnecessary new items that add to the “waste argument”. Simple things such as doubling the “useful life of clothing” can significantly reduce emissions. Consumers are in the driving seat of industry change through their buying power. Together we can and must change the sustainability of fashion.
We would love to hear your thoughts on sustainability in fashion, please contact: Amy by www.facebook.com/ElitePlusMagazine