The fashion industry is the second dirtiest industry in the world(1). Comes as a rude shock to most of us because when we think of dirty industries causing environmental degradation, we envision big ones like petroleum and the mining industry stripping away at our natural resources. What does not spring to mind is the glitzy world of fashion that creates pieces of wearable art, your beautiful silk jacket, the classic white cotton shirt or the cool blue denim jeans you don every day. When you think of fashion, you think of beauty and style and usually not the environmental and social problems you will be reading about here.
The mainstream fashion industry is complicated. The industry’s raw materials are environmentally degrading, has complex and unsustainable supply chains and still uses parochial, mass production methods to churn out garments at extremely cheap prices. This is all to keep up with global fashion trends and relies heavily on cheap labour with its products meant to last for less than a season. At the same time the industry is guilty of constantly creating excessive demand where customers are swayed to purchase way more than they need, only to discard them after a few wears. The cycle of increasing variety which comes cheap and easy on your high-street does not in-fact come cheap. Like with most things, there is a hidden, hefty environmental and social price tag for all our throwaway items.
A couple of examples for you. The basic cotton tee with the main raw material being cotton, a crop with a very high water and carbon footprint and extremely high-intensity pesticide and chemicals usage. Next is that $19.99 silk or polyester top that you just bought from a fast fashion retailers like H&M and Forever 21. Be it the workers in sweat shops, some form of child labour or the cotton growers in Pakistan, Bangladesh or India, someone is paying the price along the supply chain for these products.
Most clothes on average are worn only a few times before they are discarded. We can thank fast fashion for that. Fast fashion is a trend based on producing billions of new apparel items a year.
Slow fashion, on the other hand, is an approach at odds with this fast cycle of production and consumption (see Technically Speaking below). It is a movement for the entire fashion cycle – designing, creating, and buying garments for quality and longevity, based on being a conscious consumer who makes more informed choices other than just the colour of the season or the 8-week cycle of the fast fashion brands.
Slow fashion encourages mindful, conscious purchasing, slower production schedules, fair wages, lower water and carbon footprints along with reduced waste. Sounds like utopia and too good to be true? I mean, why would designers and fashion houses want to slow down their money churning businesses which are so dependent on the ‘season’? Intuitively, it may sound like an oxymoron but there are many designers out there who are building sustainable businesses, conscious of the ubiquitous environmental effects of their fashion house. Consider Stella McCartney who has never worked with leather due to its environmental effects and runs one of the most sustainable fashion houses at the moment (another reason why I did not feel guilty about buying that Stella bag last month). Ralph Lauren is another one who is leading the way in sustainability and designing pieces for longevity. If they can work towards a more sustainable fashion industry, we believe that other brands can too.
Slow fashion entails a little more than simply buying an organic cotton tee (which may be an ethical, conscious decision, however cotton is one of the thirstiest crops. It is extremely water intensive and requires up to a whopping 10,000(2) litres of water to produce one kg). This really doesn’t mean we have to be boring in our fashion choices or take extreme measures like buying one clothing item per year or donning bin liners for the rest of your life. What it does mean is making conscious choices. It means not simply following Instagram, Twitter and other social media channels with style inspiration feeds refreshed every 30 minutes or so. (Heaven forbid if you are caught in the same outfit twice!) Slow fashion means buying less and differently. It is about replacing that cheap, fast buy with the purchase of items that are of better quality, maybe at a higher price, but with the knowledge that it will last longer. Given our planets limited natural resources and the urgent need to protect what remains unpolluted of our waters and land, the fashion industry will soon need to move to a more social and environmentally friendly model.
The fashion industry is still an old-fashioned (pun intended) beast that has not evolved from the historic methods of manufacturing and sourcing. Inherently systemic problems are mostly due to lack of regulations, policy and industry standards. This leads to a lack of transparency and accountability. One example is sportswear and the high performance outdoor wear industry(3). These industries use chemicals such as perfluorocarbons (PFCs) that should have been banned years ago. They are man-made chemicals that make outdoor clothing, footwear and equipment waterproof and stain resistant. PFCs are highly contentious as some believe they lead to cancer and are one of the biggest environmental challenges we face today. These are incredibly sturdy and difficult to breakdown while remaining in the natural environment for hundreds of years and contaminating water and food chains. Some of the dyes used in the clothing industry, similarly, use hazardous chemicals, releasing them into freshwater and rivers in local communities around the world.
In 2011, Greenpeace launched a powerful campaign “Detox My Fashion”(4) urging the textile industry to be accountable for all the environmental problems it has caused. It has focused on phasing out 11 groups of hazardous chemicals and now has 76 major fashion brands on board making commitments to phase out the use of these chemicals. Retail giant Marks & Spencer has committed to detoxing and eliminating all releases of hazardous chemicals throughout their entire supply chain and products by 2020. They are joining other giants of the industry like Adidas, Nike, H&M, Puma and many others. The campaign has had far-reaching political impact which has led to stricter enforcement of wastewater standards. Similarly, the EU has banned the use of nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), a hazardous chemical. The ban will come into force in 2020.
Social impacts of the garment industry is also huge. The sector is dominated by Asian, developing countries where the majority of jobs are located at the bottom of the supply chain. Women and (sometimes children) form part of the majority of the workforce earning meagre wages. The apparel industry is one particularly affected by sweatshops and the collapse of a sweatshop factory in Bangladesh in 2013 was not an isolated example. Nike was not the only company shamed for their labour practices in sweat shops. Nike has, however, come a long way since, becoming the first in the industry to publish a complete list of the factories it contracts with in 2005. You can view Nike’s policy on transforming manufacturing here.
Overall though, these irresponsible practices are global but production processes aside, there is even more damage to the environment once you have bought the garments and launder them. Some of our fancy clothes can only be dry cleaned (or we choose to do so) which is a pretty environmentally intensive process. Synthetic, nylon pieces are made of petrochemicals which harm waterways by releasing fibres from these toxic fabrics when washed. Increasingly, a large number of clothing items form part of our wardrobes, and we wear them for less time, washing them more often.
Needless to say, there is a lot of pressure on manufacturers and fashion houses to increase public disclosure, to be more transparent about their supply chains, practices and products. Change will not come overnight, and it certainly will not be consistently delivered, but we should applaud and support the companies that are making this change. Big fashion houses like Swedish H&M are here to stay (even if they do promote fast fashion, and introduce new items in-store every couple of weeks). They should be applauded for starting some initiatives to try and do things better. We will take that over irresponsible companies who refuse to budge and change the way they do business.
So what role do we play as consumers?
As consumers, we have more power than we realise. Our focus needs to move away from fast consumption to developing a true understanding of the issues caused by our buying decisions, the production cycle and supply chain of consumption for our wardrobes. Personal is political, so your choices accumulated over time affect the state of the world we live in.
How does one start to reduce our fashion footprint and create a greener, sustainable wardrobe?
Starting a sustainable wardrobe really starts at home so go shopping in your wardrobe. Find the items that you have not used in a while. You might be surprised by what you find. The biggest impact comes from (re) using what you have at home. Get the hem of your pants re-done. If you’ve lost or gained weight, get your clothes altered. ‘Refashion’ your shirts by getting new buttons or accessories on them or if a dress is too short or long, alter it instead of tossing it out. Reincarnate your pieces by taking them to the tailor and giving your existing clothes a new lease on life. If you have a special occasion or a ball to go to, borrow from a friend instead of buying a new frock. Swap with friends. Go to the thrift store for vintage clothing which is oh-so-fashionable at the moment. And if all else fails, buy. But buy with the same standards that you would food – buy organic (cotton) and local (trade fairs). Buy classics and focus on quality even if it means paying a little bit more for things that are more durable.
And most of all, support designers who are making a change or are making initiatives in the right direction. We will be bringing you an interview with one brand that is committed to this change in fashion, a brand called Guru who, while producing slow fashion, is also achieving acclamation in such publications as O – The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, Vogue, Verandah Magazine and The New York Times as well as being featured on MSNBC and the CBS Morning News. Subscribe below so you don’t miss this interview.
The fashion industry is slowly cleaning up its act and you should do the same! Mellow your choices, be inspired and be yourself instead of following fast fashion trends. Make a positive change and take it slow with your fashion. You may discover your own signature style and feel good about helping the environment in the same process.
The term “slow fashion”, coined in 2008 by sustainable design consultant Kate Fletcher, describes an approach to clothing and fashion that is decidedly at odds with the fast (and even faster) fashion cycle.
Carbon Footprint: The amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, organization, or community. Source: Oxford Dictionaries
Water Footprint: The amount of fresh water utilized in the production or supply of the goods and services used by a particular person or group. Source: Oxford Dictionaries
(2) This is the global average water footprint for 1kg of cotton, in countries like India where inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution lead to consumption of 22,500 litres of water, on average, to produce the same one kg, according to research done by the Water Footprint Network. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/20/cost-cotton-water-challenged-india-world-water-day
(3) Research on animals has shown that some PFCs cause harm to reproduction, promote the growth of tumours and affect the hormone system. Read more here: http://detox-outdoor.org/en/about-pfc/
Images by stocksnap.io unless otherwise indicated.
This article was originally published on ordinarypeople.ink and may have been edited for this platform.