Living a sustainable life is a holistic exercise. It’s a journey dotted with incremental improvements (and failures, we’ve had our fair share!) along the way. Step by step, it requires us to consider all aspects of how we choose to live. From our habits at home to the kinds of products and businesses we choose to support.
So, another stride towards covering all bases, we’re now turning our minds to the notorious fashion industry. No doubt, you’re already aware of some of the pitfalls. But just to get clear on the current situation and what’s at stake, I’ve set out below some of the key issues facing this industry, what these (seemingly easy to define) terms actually mean and one of the easiest hacks to make your wardrobe sustainable and ethical.
But before we get into that, I just want to point out that fixing the fashion industry is part of a much bigger sustainability effort. And that is, to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (have a read on the UN’s website to learn more about this) by 2030. Seems like a lifetime away doesn’t it? Although, when you consider the fact that they include things like solving poverty, providing clean water, affordable clean energy and sanitation the world over, there’s a heck of a lot of work to do. The great news is that just being part of the fashion industry fix will actually work towards the overall global solution.
For now, let’s look at why these fast fashion counter movements matter.
Like most casual consumers (who haven’t yet seen the True Cost documentary), I had a vague knowledge of the fashion industry’s (read: fast fashion’s) dark side. Sweat shops, child labour and horror stories (like Rana Plaza) would make the headlines. But, as with most problems in the developing world, I was admittedly completely removed from the reality of the situation. I also wasn’t a fast fashion victim, only buying clothes that I really liked or needed, and thus by default considered myself a ‘sustainable’ shopper.
With a bit of reading and self-education, I now realise that even my relatively conservative shopping habits are a far cry from sustainable or ethical. I now, to at least some appreciable extent, have a grasp on the gravity and urgency of the situation.
Naturally, when you think of pollution, you think of carbon spewing factories, oil refineries pumping gas and other noxious visuals. What you don’t think of is the fashion industry. Potentially one reason these issues continue to remain at large in mainstream public consciousness. The fact is the fashion industry has been called out as the second (only to coal) most environmentally damaging industry.
Not wanting to dwell too much on the doom and gloom of it all but just to give you a flavour of the seriousness of the situation and so that we’re all across the facts, here’s a few industry attributes to illustrate how glamorous this industry really is:
- Scale: This is directly proportional to the explosion of the population growth (i.e. more people = more clothes). We talked about this in our article on zero waste. Clothing production doubled from 2000 – 2014. But it’s not only about population growth, it’s also shopping habits – it’s about FAST FASHION. On average, shoppers purchase 60% more clothing every year and said clothing lasts only half as long as it did 15 years ago. To put this number into perspective here’s another number: In the USA alone, approximately 23 million tons of used clothes are thrown away every year, that’s about 46 pounds (21kg) per person per year! It’s nauseating just to think about all that waste.
- Insecticides and Pesticides: Nearly 40% of fast fashion clothing is manufactured out of cotton (see here for more disturbing fast fashion stats), which just so happens to be the thirstiest crop requiring the largest % of chemicals: 25% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides. Volume wise, that means, as of 2003 (the latest data we could find which is in all likelihood a fraction of what the numbers are today) at least 5.5 million pounds of insecticides were sprayed on conventionally grown cotton farms. That spells an enormous amount of run-off and pollution for rivers and oceans.
- Climate Change: A ghastly amount of fossil fuel is burned up and used in the production, manufacture (think of countless factories in China / India / South East Asia burning mostly coal for power) and finally distribution (the majority of clothing travels half way around the world in shipping containers before finally hitting retailers) of textiles. The fashion industry accounts for 10% of the world’s total carbon footprint.
- Water Waste and Water Pollution: This variety of pollution doesn’t readily spring to mind when you think of the fashion industry. But, considering almost 2000 gallons are required to grow enough cotton for one (just one!) pair of jeans, the fact that the fashion industry is one of the largest consumers of water in the world swallowing between 6 – 9 trillion liters of water a year, is actually not that surprising. Worse still is the water pollution. As mentioned above, textile manufacturing accounts for 25% of chemicals used worldwide, most of which is dye related. In Dhaka, Bangladesh’s leather tanneries, dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste into Buriganga, which is the city’s main river and water supply.
Overwhelmed, depressed and deflated are some of the words that come to mind after reading those stats. But, nothing was ever solved by crying over spilled milk. So, let’s look at the social movements that aim to solve fast and unsustainable fashion.
Fashionista or not, you’ve almost definitely heard these terms bandied around before. They’re often used interchangeably and, while they may seem easy to define, scratch the surface and suddenly you’ll find yourself in muddy waters.
As is the case with ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ in the food and cosmetic’s industry (which we’ve spoken about before here), ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘ethical fashion’ are not well defined. On the one hand this is a positive as these are evolving concepts and subject to ongoing refinement based on present day needs and ideologies, especially in the case of ‘ethical’, which is, by its very nature, subjective.
On the other hand, however, some argue that without a formal definition, brands and companies are free to make sustainable and ethical claims based on false or misleading audits and standards. That these terms, by and large, serve as nothing more than marketing lip-service. Take H&M’s sustainability catch-phrase “look good, do good, feel good”. Despite their relatively recent push towards a more sustainable fashion industry with the likes of their much-lauded internal recycling bins and organic cotton production they’re still one of the biggest fast fashion pushers out there. A case of having your cake and eating it?
With clearly so much at stake it’s a wonder there are no real fashion-police (not in the false-claims sense of the phrase anyway) who can bring to book those brands and companies making bogus assertions. Alas, such a capitalistic paradigm is not limited to the fashion industry. This leaves us consumers who want to do the right thing in a precarious spot.
But before we delve into navigating the pitfalls of the fashion industry, here’s a breakdown of the general consensus on the interwebs of what ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘ethical fashion’ mean. There is, of course, a lot of overlap and as mentioned, subjectivity involved. It’s also worth bearing in mind that each of these considerations can potentially apply to the many businesses along the supply chain, which highlights the complexity of determining whether a brand or business is sustainable and / or ethical:
Sustainable: generally this term concerns and encompasses all things environment related, such as:
- How the textiles are made (e.g. avoiding the use of pesticides and insecticides by using organic methods)
- What materials are used (e.g. bamboo and hemp vs nylon)
- What standards are applied (e.g. GOTS or Fair Trade which affects the sustainability of local communities who are involved in the production and manufacture of the textiles)
- Whether the materials are upcycled and / or recycled.
- How the textiles are packaged and whether recycled / recyclable material is used for packaging
- Whether they make use of any energy saving initiatives
- How waste water and pollutants are managed and treated
Ethical: as mentioned above this term is subjective, what might be ethical to one consumer, retailer, manufacturer or any other businesses along the supply chain may not be to another. Either way, it makes sense for this to be an inclusive term and keep it undefined as we need to recognize and respect all versions of what one might consider ethical. Generally, though, it is focused on the people on the ground:
- Where are textiles made (e.g. developing country)?
- How much were the workers paid to grow the crops and to make the garments?
- Are their working conditions acceptable?
- How are they treated by their employers?
- Are Fair Trade policies and initiatives followed (some consider this to fall within the ethical bucket)?
This term can also extend to animals, for example:
- Do they use animal materials and if so, how do manufacturers or their suppliers treat the animals (e.g. silk and wool)?
And fashion brands:
- Do they give to charity and / or have any charitable initiatives and policies?
- Do they support their local communities?
- Do they reveal their fair work policies and factory locations?
- To what extent are they open and transparent about other aspects of their supply chain?
As you can see there are many considerations of what constitutes sustainable fashion and ethical fashion and these are just some of the headliners. It’s overwhelming. One can’t help but ask: can a brand or business be completely sustainable and ethical?
Well, even Yvon Chouinard, the founder of probably the most sustainable and ethical clothing brand around, Patagonia, in his management / memoir piece Let My People Go Surfing said: “Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable non-damaging product. But it is committed to trying.” Perhaps then sustainable and ethical fashion as distinct from fast fashion should not be thought of as a dichotomy but rather on a spectrum. Some brands and businesses are just further along the line than others. This approach is not only conscious of, but also allows for, a changing landscape of what constitutes as sustainable and ethical. It also encourages brands and businesses to improve, rather than creating an us and them scenario.
So, accepting that no brand and businesses is, or will ever be, perfect, the larger question still remains: is sustainable and ethical fashion possible in the face of these grand challenges?
Some say no, that the current efforts are little more than a vanity project that merely cleanse our conscious. Others raise the point that sustainable fashion is an oxymoron, how can you reconcile a sustainable fashion industry with the current business model? How can an industry built and focused on climbing revenue and profit continue to grow without increasing consumption, the antithesis of sustainability?
Unfortunately, there are no easy or immediate answers. And while Patagonia represents the best example of a ‘mainstream brand’ that is seemingly managing to walk the line between “good growth” and sustainability through their anti-growth strategy, it’s a diamond in the rough.
Again, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. But, there is something we can do. Up to this point, we’ve been focusing on everything below the line. However, there’s one very important agent in the mix that we haven’t talked about. A hack that can drastically and positively affect the status quo.
No surprises there! It may sound cliché but it’s worth repeating, each time we make a purchase (clothing or otherwise) we’re casting a vote for the type of world we want to live in.
While still far from reaching a critical threshold, this mantra is gaining momentum among shoppers. There is a real conscious groundswell happening, a focus on being mindful not just in our daily meditations but to have intention in all parts of our lives. The New Citizenship Project is an example of such a movement. Established in 2014 the social innovation lab’s mission is to redefine ourselves as ‘citizens’, as studies show we, as citizens, are more likely to take an active role in tackling societal issues like climate change and international inequality than passive consumers.
Perhaps, the best expression of the power of the purchaser is the world’s largest fashion activism movement, the Fashion Revolution Week. The annual event takes place over the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, April 24. It seeks to expose the “opaque, exploitative and environmentally damaging” fashion industry and unite all the players: consumers, manufacturers, retailers and brands to catalyze change in the way our clothes are “sourced, produced and purchased”. There are now teams in more than 100 countries across the globe and hundreds of thousands of people attending local events asking the simple question #WhoMadeMyClothes. The aim is to open a dialogue with retailers and brands, to look at their supply chain and encourage transparency. In many ways, Fashion Revolution Week has formalized the Slow Fashion Movement.
Slow Fashion was Designer Kate Fletcher’s answer to fast fashion. Borrowing from the Slow Food Movement, Slow Fashion encapsulates much of what made that trend successful: awareness, responsibility, quality over quantity, protection of cultural identities, choice and information. Slow Fashion, she envisaged, would enable “a richer interaction between designer and maker; maker and garment; garment and user” and the future would herald “an opportunity for business to be done in a way that respects workers, environment and consumers in equal measure”.
We may not be able to call the shots at the supply chain level, we may not be able to hire and fire suppliers and we may not be able to ensure fair wages for all fashion industry workers, but we do have something. We make the fashion industry possible. We keep businesses and brands in season and we can, collectively, end them. We are active participants in this world and we must focus on the things we can change because they matter. And that comes down to the simple decisions that we make every day. Simple decisions that shape the world. Let’s be intentional with our shopping habits and ask #WhoMadeMyClothes.