As one of the most polluting industries in the world (second only to oil), the fashion industry is clearly in need of significant change. In recent years, the issue of sustainability in fashion has become increasingly important. The urgency of the situation calls for immediate action and it all starts with education. The mainstream consumer must become aware of the problems facing the industry and become more knowledgeable about the idea of sustainability. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I will tell you what I’ve learned so far.
Problems facing the industry
The social, environmental, and ethical impact of clothing consumption is something that has been overlooked for far too long. Much of the damage that has been done has originated from the consumption of “fast fashion.” Fast fashion is a term used to describe the quick and inexpensive supply chain that is utilized by the majority of fashion retailers. It allows the mainstream consumer to buy the most recent fashion trends at the lowest price. Unfortunately, fast fashion has become synonymous with disposable fashion. Fast fashion retailers sell clothing that is expected to be worn only a few times and then disposed of. Our addiction to fast fashion has given rise to the issue of overconsumption. The environmental impact of overflowing landfills and contaminated water supplies as well as the exploitation of garment workers in developing countries and the health risks of chemical and pesticide use are problems that have become extremely urgent in recent years.
A single cotton t-shirt uses 2700 liters of water. Cotton production is responsible for 25% of all pesticide use and 20% of industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles (Fast Company). The fashion industry employs over 25 million workers in over 100 countries. Garment workers in developing countries work long hours in unsafe conditions. They are paid far below a living wage and many are subject to physical and verbal abuse, penalties, and dismissals (Labour Economics).
For more information, I highly encourage you to watch The True Cost. It is directed by Andrew Morgan and featuring major players in the industry like Stella McCartney. It opens your eyes to the darker side of the fashion industry and delves deeper into the topic of sustainability.
What is sustainability?
Sustainability is defined as the capacity to endure. In the fashion industry it refers to the use of socially responsible, environmentally friendly, and ethical practices throughout the entire supply chain. The term slow fashion exists in opposition to fast fashion. Retailers taking part in the slow fashion movement take pride in their transparency. They tell you where the materials come from and who performs the labor. The clothing is built to last and reduce waste and chemical use is limited with natural materials and processes. Sustainability is built on the idea of reducing consumption. Reusing garments for different purposes or passing them onto others is encouraged. Recycling the garments that can’t be reused is also highly encouraged. In other words: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
As urgent as the situation is, there is hope. Many brands are beginning to recognize the importance of changing their practices to become more sustainable. Stella McCartney, Eileen Fisher, and even H&M are among the larger brands to embrace sustainability. Social norms are also changing. Millennials are beginning to question consumption and ask for an explanation of what’s in their products and where the products came from. Celebrities and other high profile individuals are showing more support for positive change in the industry. Money is being invested into research dedicated to the search for sustainable solutions. A new €1 million competition sponsored by the H&M Conscious Foundation has been searching for ways to make the industry more sustainable. The five finalists in the competition have come up with revolutionary new ideas including polyester-eating microbes and algae-based fabrics.
Ok so now that I think I’ve sufficiently depressed you, you may be wondering why I’m taking the time to write about this. I swear I’m not trying to make you feel guilty and I’m definitely not trying to convince you of my expertise on this topic. I am just as much an offender of supporting fast fashion as any one of you. However, after having become aware of the impact that my consumption has on the rest of the world, I have begun to change my consumption habits. I find myself questioning where my clothing comes from and reducing the amount I consume in general. I would much rather buy a few high quality items then build a closet full of cheaply-made, essentially disposable clothing. I think before I buy and I encourage you to do the same.
For more information on The True Cost visit truecostmovie.com
Learn more about the H&M Conscious Foundation competition here.