In the fashion industry, innovation and increased production is a double edged sword. While it should objectively be a good thing, if production is handled irresponsibly, it can be devastating to the environment.
On one hand, it is exciting and refreshing to see so many creatives immerse themselves in the world of fashion design and the business of fashion. On the other however, there is an age old problem of unsustainable production and generation of waste. The fashion industry generates an astounding amount of waste a year and it wasn’t until recently that it showed signs of slowing down.
In recent years, sustainability has ceased to be a trend and has reached far beyond what used to be a niche. It has almost entirely been adapted into mainstream culture. It started as a way for brands to portray themselves and attract the attention of a market they were previously missing out on, the conscious consumer market. The conscious consumer is one that pays attention to their purchases and expects a brand’s values to align with their own. This is the reason why brands such as TenTree, which plants 10 trees for every item it sells, and CHNGE, which is rooted in ethical manufacturing and has strong societal messages, have become very successful, very quickly.
There are a few ways to be ‘sustainable’ in fashion. Ideally, a brand will cover all the bases and excel at sustainable manufacturing, ethical buying, and social responsibility. In other words, a brand will care about their people, their product, and everyone else.
1. Their people
A fashion brand will manufacture their products in one of two ways: overseas or in-house. Overseas manufacturing of course, means outsourcing to other countries which usually have very loosely worded, poorly regulated labour laws that allow wealthy western companies to exploit their population. To most, this wasn’t such a big problem since the argument was that in any case, individuals from developing countries were in need of jobs and this solved that problem. This of course, leaves out the entirety of the context in which both parties in this agreement operate. Developing countries are trying to do just that, develop and grow. It’s hard to do so when your job opportunities and salary are capped at minimum wage. Especially when for most developing countries, minimum wage is just a few dollars a day. To put this in perspective, in Canada, minimum wage is just below 14 dollars an hour and the average minimum wage job such as customer service representative is quite easy compared to the work that these individuals endure. Imagine working 10 hours in a factory with no air conditioning, little access to water, and absolutely no growth opportunities, for 3 dollars a day.
A sustainable fashion brand, unlike every brand that falls under any of the manufacturing conditions mentioned above, cares about their people. Manufacturing can be sustainable in many ways but for the purpose of this blog post, i’ll refer to the social sustainability aspect of it. Sustainable manufacturing means, providing good working conditions, growth opportunities, and a reasonable salary to manufacturing workers. This is sustainable in the long run because in this case, everybody wins. The brand gets dedicated workers that are loyal to the business on the one end, and on the other, workers can enjoy a solid workplace.
2. Their product
Most clothing companies will manufacture clothing with Polyester fabrics. The reason why this fabric is an all time favorite is that it is stretchy, comfortable, and durable. However, what doesn’t get mentioned very often is that Polyester is manufactured from crude oil and every time a piece of polyester fabric is washed, it releases plastic microfibres that contaminate our oceans. If you head to your favourite clothing store its pretty likely that you will see a percentage of Polyester on just about every item in store. So, what exactly can be done about this and how can we transition out of the excessive consumption of unsustainable fabrics?
From a companies stand point, they would need to transition to highly sustainable fabrics such as Linen which is made from fibres of the flax plant. Another option is to replace cotton with its organic alternative. Organic cotton eliminates the use of harmful chemicals and requires significantly smaller amounts of water to grow. A company can also invest time and money on garment technology but what has always proven to be a safe bet is recycling!
Brands like Ellen Fisher are innovative in their use of fabrics like cotton, wool, and cashmere that have been re-spun from old garments or cutting room scraps. Another example is Thought a UK brand that specializes in creating staples from fabrics like Ramie and Hemp.
3. Everyone else
Second only to oil, the fashion industry is the largest polluter in the world which shouldn’t be too surprising. What might be however, is that nowadays, companies are hiding behind words like ‘sustainability’ or ‘recycling’ to appeal to a consumer market that would have previously considered them too wasteful or harmful to the environment. Ultimately, they end up ‘green washing’ their own brands. Similar to ‘social washing’, ‘green washing’ refers to when brands spend more time and money telling consumers they’re green, than actually implementing new policy. While actual tangible proof that a company is sustainable is necessary, one of the most important elements of sustainability is transparency. The conscious consumer appreciates honesty over everything else. This is why, when H&M introduced it #Reworkit campaign asking consumers to return their used clothing for it to be recycled, the brand was under heat when it was revealed that less than 0.1% of the clothing returned is actually #reworked. While it is understandable that not all fabric can be pulled apart and re-spun, it doesn’t follow their promise of creating a closed loop system.
The issue with these campaigns is that they overpromise and underdeliver. Especially if they are created by an industry giant like H&M. Since they produce such staggering amounts of clothing every day, a recycling initiative is not what the conscious consumer expects to see.
We live in a time when thankfully, sustainability hasn’t been seen as a choice for a long time. Consumers now expect a brand to care about their impact on the world and companies are listening. Smaller, up and coming brands almost have no choice but to make their view on the environment very clear from the start.