A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the need for ethical practice in apparel manufacturing. Another facet of the Fashion Revolution that deserves our attention is sustainability and the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. It is such an overwhelming topic encompassing so many issues, and involving so many people and economies. Just as it is obvious that change needs to happen, it is also obvious that there will be no one easy solution.
Before we delve a bit more deeply into this topic, I would like to extend an invitation to an upcoming event that is being hosted by the Apparel Designers Network and Rhode Island School of Design, "Who Made My Clothes". It will be a chance to hear speakers on this topic, engage in discussion, and come away with ideas of how some small steps can affect change. If you have not already signed up, there is still space available and it promises to be a very interesting event with engaging speakers and a film screening of River Blue. Hope you can make it!
image via TDS blog - polluted river in the Phillipines
Fashion is a dirty business
We have all heard statistics about how much water fashion uses, how hard it is on the environment, and how much pollution it generates. But most people do not realize that in fact, fashion is the second most polluting business in the world behind oil! Let that sink in for a moment - it is crazy that what we adorn our bodies with creates so much filth and reeks so much destruction on our planet. These pollutants affect not only the factory workers' water supplies (as if that's not bad enough), but also the habitats of all living things, and seeps into food supply of all as well as contaminating the air we breathe. Dyes that color our clothing are a big culprit with waste often being dumped directly into waterways without any treatment whatsoever. Polyester, a staple in most fast fashion product because of its incredibly low cost, is a major pollutant. At every stage polyester reeks havoc: in its production because it is a petroleum based product. During its lifetime, most polyester releases microfibers from clothing every time these garments are washed, which make their way into the ocean, eventually ending up in the food chain. In its eventual afterlife when no longer useful as a garment or anything else - it is a widely accepted fact that all polyester ever produced still exists on this planet as it does not break down and decompose as natural fibers do. Fast fashion also demands unprecedented volume of product and deadlines tighter than ever before in order to maintain the constant flow of new merchandise to the stores. Forever 21 supposedly receives shipments of new styles EVERY DAY. This untenable appetite means that factories are sometime working around the clock to meet shipment dates, which means the consumption of water and electricity is unrelenting. I could go on and on, but I will leave this topic with one last uncomfortable truth: the fashion industry purportedly uses nearly 25% of the world's insecticides. Something needs to change.
image via Social Media Today
Sustainable...Ethical...Eco-Friendly....what do these really mean?
As of yet, there are no industry-wide standards that a brand or manufacturer has to meet to obtain a universally held notion of "sustainable", "ethical" and the like. Factories that are adhering to ethical standards rarely pay workers more than minimum wage of that country, which is never a living wage - that hardly seems ethical. Even "organic" can be rife with conflicts as to how great it is for the environment when it takes as much as 77 gallons water to produce a T-shirt. Whether it uses organic cotton or not - that's one T-shirt using more water than average person drinks in an entire year! Fibers such as bamboo or banana, which are often touted as being sustainable and/or eco-friendly, consume vast amounts of water and often harsh chemical processes to produce a supple textile appropriate for garments. Then there is the pollution-fraught step of dyeing these fabrics. With labels like these open to vast interpretation, they run the risk of becoming mere buzz-words to placate a consumer whose conscience might just be starting to nettle them about their shopping habits. Many firms that are catching on to the consumer's newly awakening conscience are being accused of "greenwashing", meaning to leverage this as a marketing ploy.
images: Miller Waste Mills | right photo credit Luke Casey
Breaking the dirty habit of over-consumption
So here's the real radical yet completely attainable sollution that nobody really seems to want to tackle: we need to stop buying so much cheap stuff. The fact is that the easy fix of fast fashion, allowing us to indulge our urge to impulse buy because the prices are just so low: "really, at this price who cares if I love it?" In fact the industry is actively encouraging it, because with new styles coming into the store every day, there is a fear in the consumer's mind that it just won't even be there if they go home and sleep on it. In addition, if the purchase is made and regretted, the cost is so cheap in most cases most of us wouldn't take the time to return it. In the course of 3 decades or so American consumption of clothing has risen exponentially - some put the rise to as much as 500% since the 1980's. All as a result of a complete mindset change on the part of the consumer about the value of clothing. What was once a cherished possession to be cared for, repaired, passed down, has now become completely disposable. Author Elizabeth Cline sums it up very comprehensively in her book "Overdressed: the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion" quote: "It's not that we can't pay more for fashion; we just don't see any reason to." The inevitable result of the unprecedented low prices is a lack of respect for and over-consumption of the product. Those of us who suffer a pang of conscience when wanting to discard these items once the thrill of purchase has quickly passed, flood donation centers with these cheap clothes, some with tags still attached. In fact the Goodwill centers and Salvation Army donation warehouses cannot keep up with the flood of clothing. An entire industry has sprung up around trying to deal with our unwanted clothes - and it is met with some consternation by some who thought their unwanted things were going to charity but are annoyed to find some of these companies are turning a profit. The fact is, if they are providing a service, and have their own expenses to deal with, what do people expect? At least some of it is being kept out of landfills, but unfortunately not enough of it: estimates have over 10 million tons of textiles end up in landfills from America alone in one year. This is a bad habit we need to break.
image via The Council for Textile Recycling
Accountability and Transparency
Many companies really are interested in changing the industry for the better, but it is very difficult for a large established company to change its current profitable mode of doing business. This would mean having to reevaluate their profit margins, rethink established protocols, potentially break long-standing relationships with current suppliers not willing to change, and so many other issues and details that will make an already complex and stressful business much moreso until this is established as the new normal. If they have no motivation to do so, most companies certainly will not put themselves (and their shareholders) through this. The onus is really on the consumer to affect changes - the more vocal consumers are about their desire for garments that are made in keeping with their morals, the more companies will have to shift their practices to meet consumer demand. Although it may not be possible for a company to do everything “right”, transparency is a clear step of intent in the right direction. Fashion Revolution organization publishes a resource to check the accountability of companies.
click through the images below to see some companies' alternatives that may help going forward
clockwise from top left: hemp crops | Patagonia | Zady alpaca vs cashmere | FairTees campaign
More food for thought and resources
Through the help of organizations such as Fashion Revolution, there is now greater consumer awareness and greater company accountability. Their immensely popular “Who Made My Clothes” campaign has really gained traction and it has enabled individuals to have a dialog with companies to voice their concern and advocate for change. It opens a discourse regarding the impacts our purchasing decisions make on the lives of those who make what we wear and on the environment that we must preserve and share. It is an easy and fun campaign to take part in and has gained steady momentum - brands are taking notice. I encourage you to visit their site to read more and get involved.
There are other small things that you can do as a consumer to have a positive impact:
> Resist the impulse buy and consider carefully if you need the item in your shopping cart.
> Try to purchase quality over quantity and buy things that will provide years of use
> Be mindful when donating. While donating used clothing is a great idea in theory, be mindful that you should not use the donation pile as a trash heap. Donate things that are in good condition and still useful. Many donation sites are overwhelmed with clothing donations; maybe there is another route that can keep your unwanted items out of landfills…
> Consider repairing or repurposing items. If you are crafty, you may already be doing this. If you are not, get to know your local tailor or employ the help of a crafty friend to come up with creative ways to give these things new life
> Organize a clothing swap with friends, you will get those items out of the back of your closet and hopefully gain some new (to you) pieces to refresh your wardrobe.
Do you have any other ideas for our list? We would love to hear them! Reach out to us in comments to let us know.
In the meantime, we hope you can attend our event on 4/29. There is so much to discuss and learn about this important topic!
Sources: TDSblog|Alternet | Forbes|A-plus | Georgia Political Review|Fashion Revolution | The Atlantic
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