Fashion is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think about pollution, environmental destruction, or human rights’ violations. On the contrary, it’s something that we embrace, celebrate, and quite literally can’t get enough of. At it’s fundamental level, clothing is needed to protect us and keep us warm. As our ‘chosen skin’, fashion is a means to express our style, mood and individuality. It has the power to communicate something about ourselves without the use of words. Over the past four decades, fashion has evolved into a 3 trillion dollar industry of mass-production, accounting for 2% of the world’s GDP and employing over 75 million people worldwide. Be you a fashion addict or not, we are all connected to the
fashion clothing industry in some way or another.
As the holiday season approaches, outfit sourcing for special occasions will be on the top of our priority list. Bargain hunting will help us get more for our buck, buying ten versions of the same clothing item that we have sitting in our already expansive wardrobe. We’ll no doubt feel incredible after our fashion splurge and it should take at least two days before the novelty wears off and the unhappiness that we were trying to mask with a new dress resurfaces among a pile of clothing lying on our bedroom floor when we can’t find anything to wear. We actually can’t remember what made us buy that dress in the first place, but it’s okay, Black Friday is next week so we can once again spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.
The fashion industry is a relatively young one; the 1950’s marked the beginning of one of the biggest economic booms in US history and spurred the rise of consumerism and American excess. Still, fashion was something exclusively for the elite aristocracy, on a made-to-order basis. Most people made their own clothing or bought from their local seamstresses, and luxury designer clothing only appeared on the catwalk of a few urban centres, but still produced locally. In the 1960’s, 95% of American clothing was produced in America. The average American invested in a mere 25 pieces of clothing a year, spending 10% of their annual budget on clothing. Today, Americans buy 4 times more clothing than in the 60’s but spend less than 3%. South Africans only spend 4.8% of their annual budget on clothing and footwear. ”Our consumption of fast fashion is pushing at the boundaries of the Earth’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, hazardous chemicals and clothes waste as well as depleting resources such as water and land. On any level, this cannot be sustained.” – Greenpeace
THE SYSTEM ISN’T WORKING
Using a framework that I discovered on Fashion Revolution, developed by researchers Rebecca Earley and Kate Goldsworthy, I am going to explain why the fashion industry has to change, using three simple categories; Model, Material and Mindset.
MODEL – The Business of Fashion
The fashion industry has been reinvented; the democratisation of fashion, which has made designer looks more available and affordable to middle-class consumers, has created a new breed of fashion, namely fast fashion; inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. As soon as something hits the runway, fashion retailers will make sure they get an inexpensive version out to the consumer in a matter of weeks.
Fashion used to be seasonal, with a new trend or collection emerging for each of the four seasons. Now you will find that it’s more like 52 seasons, with new styles and millions of garments pouring into fashion retailers every week. The way in which fashion is produced and consumed has rapidly accelerated during the last 20 to 30 years. Over 80 billion new garments are made annually, and 2 million tons of textiles land up in landfills each year in the US alone.
Due to globalisation and free trade, brands are able to outsource their clothing manufacturing to developing countries, where labour and the cost of production is cheap. It is in these countries where garment workers don’t earn a living wage, and things like collective rights, trade unions, pensions, health care and maternity leave do not exist. Garment workers often spend up to 12 hours a day sewing thousands of clothes for less than $3 a day.
Despite the rising cost of energy, textiles and production, fast-fashion companies are still selling their clothing for cheaper than ever. When brands are competing for lower prices, they encourage their suppliers to cut their wholesale prices down. Obviously the suppliers don’t want to lose business, so they agree and offset their losses by reducing employee wages and maintenance of factories. The garment workers are the only part of the supply chain that is compressed. We’ve seen the deadliest factory disasters in textile history occur in this time period, and an industry that maximizes profits at all cost.
One of America’s largest retailers, Gap, has been frequently connected to labour violations in multiple countries for two decades, including child labour, unsafe working conditions, and unapproved factories. H&M was exposed when a Norwegian film crew traveled to Cambodia intending on visiting H&M factories, but were refused entrance to all factories because they did not give H&M enough time to prepare.
Just last week, Zara went under fire when shoppers at a Zara in Istanbul discovered messages on the labels of the clothing being sold. The messages read, ”I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.’’ The tags were placed in collaboration with the Clean Clothes Campaign, an organisation that advocates against labour abuses, when garment workers claimed that they hadn’t been paid for work done at The Bravo Tekstil factory, where several major European brands were getting their clothing from. The factory closed down last year July, and the owner disappeared without paying the 150 garment workers for their hours. I think it’s worth mentioning that the co-founder of Zara, Amancio Ortega, is the third richest man in the world.
MATERIAL – People & Planet
”The speed of fast fashion amplifies these issues and magnifies five fundamental problems for the fashion industry: high water consumption, discharge of hazardous chemicals, violation of human rights, labour standards, greenhouse-gas emissions, and waste production.”
The apparel industry is the second most polluting industry after oil, and is responsible for 10% of the world’s total carbon output – 6 times more than airline travel. It accounts for ¼ of chemicals produced each year, is the second largest water consumer after agriculture, and the second highest polluter of fresh water. Approximately 80 billion items are produced each year from virgin materials, and 3 out of 5 pieces of clothing end up in landfills each year. In America alone, 13 million tonnes of textiles are dumped in landfills every year. That’s 30kg per person!
All through the life cycle of a single piece of clothing, from fiber growth and textile production, to garment manufacturing, transportation, purchase and then disposal, the journey of apparel has significant impacts on the environment. To briefly touch on that; a fiber, such as cotton – the most used natural fibre, is a chemical-reliant mono crop and, whether organically grown or not, requires exorbitant amounts of water. After it’s picked, it needs to be woven into cloth, and dyed with harsh chemicals which are deposited into rivers and drinking water. Cotton fabric is then transported to another country to be cut and sewn into apparel, exported to another country to be sold in our favourite shops, and then disposed of when we deem it no longer usable. ”The speed of fast fashion amplifies these issues and magnifies five fundamental problems for the fashion industry: high water consumption, discharge of hazardous chemicals, violation of human rights, labour standards, greenhouse-gas emissions, and waste production.” – State Of Fashion 2017
Fast-fashion is fueled by polyester, an inexpensive, synthetic fibre derived from petrochemicals. It’s used 4 times more than cotton, and while it uses just a fraction of water needed to grow cotton, it is extremely energy intensive. It’s non-biodegradable, meaning every piece of polyester ever made is still in existence today. Every time you wash it, micro plastics are released into water sources, eventually entering our oceans.
A sweatshop is defined as a factory or workshop, especially in the clothing industry, where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions. This term can be used to describe almost every garment factory operating out of Bangladesh, China, India, Vietnam and Cambodia. 1 in 6 people work in the apparel industry, making it the most labour-dependent industry in the world. 80% are women, and 98 % are not earning a living wage.
Some industry members excuse sweatshops as necessary, for it helps lift the workers out of poverty, and claim that the alternatives are far worse. This is far from the truth, because garment workers in developing countries earn just enough to feed and shelter their families, and cannot afford to educate their children, thus the viscous cycle of poverty continues. Maybe the alternatives are worse, but the industry is exploiting their need to work.
Bangladeshi government have strategically kept their minimum wage low in order to attract investment from major apparel industries. It’s economy is now dependent on the fast-fashion industry, with 80% of it’s GDP constituted by the ready-made garment industry. When brands compete for lower retail prices, they encourage their suppliers to lower their manufacturing prices. A factory owner knows that if he refuses, the brands will take their business elsewhere, therefore he accepts the lower prices and offsets his loss by reducing wages and building maintenance.
On 24 April 2013 just outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1134 garment workers lost their lives when the Rana Plaza building collapsed. The tragedy happened shortly after two factory fires, one in Bangladesh and one in Pakistan, killing 113 and 300 respectively. It drew attention to the horrific conditions in the garment industry, with consumers suddenly wanting to know where their clothing came from. The eight story building housed five factories, manufacturing clothing for many Western brands.
The industry could no longer ignore these conditions, with consumers, activists and organisations demanding that brands divulge the names of the factories that they use. Campaigners went to the extent of physically searching for labels among the rubble, to find out exactly which brands were sourcing apparel from these factories. Among those brands, Walmart, Target, and Gap labels were found.
On 15 May 2013, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was signed. It is ”a five year independent, legally binding agreement between global brands and retailers and trade unions designed to build a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry.” It also aims for more transparency in the industry, calling on brands to provide public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports and corrective action plans.
Due to a complex and mismanaged supply chain, only 5% of brands know where their inputs come from. Many factories sub-contract to other factories to keep up with the high volumes. It is for this very reason that transparency is so necessary, as it holds brands accountable for the conditions in the garment industry, it holds them accountable when disasters strike, and it ensures a safe and healthy working system. It is impossible for brands to ensure that the garment workers and the environment are taken care of when they can’t even trace their supply chain.
As of June 2017, Fashion Revolution have counted 106 brands across 42 companies/parent groups that are disclosing at least some of the facilities making their clothes. ”Some publish every factory where their clothes are manufactured. Others may only reveal a selected portion of their manufacturers, such as their core high-volume suppliers, factories located just in one country or only the factories the company owns.” They also discovered out of the 100 brands included their Fashion Transparency Index 2017, 32 are publishing a list of their factories at the first tier, where clothes are cut, sewn and trimmed. 14 brands are publishing their processing facilities, i.e. where clothes undergo dyeing, printing, finishing, laundering and other processing, and no brands have published details about their raw material suppliers.
The Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge urges companies to come forward and commit to publishing a list all sites that manufacture their products and display it on their website for public viewing. Unfortunately only 17 of the 72 companies that were asked to sign, have agreed to implement full transparency by 31 December 2017. Those brands include Adidas, Cotton On, G-Star Raw, H&M, Levis, Nike, ASOS and Patagonia.
Although I believe that the Transparency Pledge is a giant step in the right direction, I still feel that we shouldn’t make our purchasing decision based on that alone. Names and addresses of factories give us little insight into what the factory conditions are like. Are the workers’ rights being respected? Are they earning a living wage? Are there fire and safety measures put in place? Are the names of the sub-contracted factories included? Are they using sustainable practices?
For example, H&M were among the first to incorporate more transparency and sustainability in their company. They issue a sustainability report every year, which provides detailed information on all aspects of H&M’s supply chain – from raw materials and garment production, to transportation. They have committed to the RE100 campaign which encourages large businesses to use 100% renewable energy, they are a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative which I spoke about in a previous post, and aim to address textile wastage through a garment collection initiative. However, as I mentioned above, H&M still uses factories in Cambodia – infamous for the mass fainting of workers in a factory that supplied H&M. Workers barely earn enough money for food and shelter, and are often severely malnourished. If I hadn’t watched Sweatshop, a documentary that uncovered the mistreatment and exploitation of H&M contracted factory workers, I would never have learned it from their supplier list.
MINDSET – The consumer
It is the very concept of fast-fashion that has turned us into passive consumers, chasing the fantasy that buying new clothes will make us happy. However, it would appear that the more materialistic we become and the more we pursue happiness in the form of things, the more unhappy we are. Advertising, like propaganda, convinces us that we need to be or think in a certain way. It convinces us that we need something to complete us and only once we’ve acquired it will we be happy or even acceptable to society.
Consumption is the backbone of any industry, and like Earnest Elmo Calkins described in his book Consumer Engineering: A New Technique for Prosperity, when the demand for new goods declines, production should not slow down, but rather artificially create the demand for a product through design and advertising. ”Goods fall into two classes: those that we use, such as motor cars or safety razors, and those that we use up, such as toothpaste or soda biscuits. Consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use.’’
With more clothing ending up in landfills than in our closet, the consumer mindset has to change. Cheap prices cannot not be our motivation to buy something. Instead, we need to focus on it’s origin, it’s quality, and it’s function i.e you don’t need ten pairs of jeans Felicia! Buying a R50 T-shirt from Mr Price gives us absolutely no incentive to look after it because it is easily replaceable. We need to view our clothing as investments. We need to form an emotional bond with our clothing. Fashion must never be seen as disposable.
In the fast-fashion industry, there is a lack of connection between the producer and the consumer. It’s up to us to reestablish that connection. 50 years ago we probably would have known the name of our shoemaker, now our clothing is not even made in the same continent let alone the same community. A label will state, Made in China, but where in China? Which factory? What are the lives of the women who made the garment attached to that label like? It is up to us to question and critisize the industry, because only when something is discussed and scrutinized will it improve.
According to Maxine Bédat, co-founder of Zady; “Consumers are reaching their limit. While the pleasure of cheap fashion is neurologically very real, consumers are equally experiencing the mental exhaustion from the accumulation of all of this cheap clothing. …..We have a broken system and a consumer that is hungry
for change”. According to the State of Fashion 2017 report by the Business of fashion, 2016 saw consumers become more demanding, more discerning, and less predictable in their purchasing behavior. ”If 2016 was a year of opposing forces clashing, the push for sustainability was one common thread across the industry. Sustainability is becoming an important new driver of consumers’ purchasing decisions. In emerging markets, for example, more than 65 percent of consumers actively seek out sustainable fashion.’’
The first and most radical approach is to buy less; a simple solution for a long-lasting behavioural change. Let us not waste time, money, and resources on clothing we know we will not wear in the years to come. The 30 Wears Campaign, started by founder of Eco Age, Livia Firth, challenges consumers to ask ourselves, before buying something, whether or not we will wear that piece of clothing at least thirty times. If we cannot commit to that, then we shouldn’t buy it. This will really make us think before we shop. Once we have committed to a piece of clothing, we need to care for it. Loved clothes last longer. Care for your garment according to the instructions on the label. Limit the washes and avoid tumble dryers.
Support emerging artisans! Yes, artisanal products may cost more than fast-fashion, but don’t question why they are expensive, question why fast-fashion is so cheap. Buy local; here in South Africa, the textile industry has also been affected by globalisation, as fast-fashion produced overseas has flooded the local market. Gareth Cowden, founder of concept brand Babatunde, said in an article about ethical fashion in Johannesburg, ”…after the opening of South Africa’s economy by the World Trade Organisation in the 1990s, an act that allowed competition from Asia and lead to mass factory closures and job losses in South Africa.’’
Look for Fair Trade certification. Fair trade is a citizen response to correcting the environmental and social injustices in an international trading system which is largely dysfunctional. It serves to protect the rights of farmers, workers, and producers.
Shop vintage. Vintage clothing are often great quality which has given them the ability to last long enough to be considered vintage. They’re usually one of a kind pieces and are therefore irreplaceable.
Choose slow-fashion; look for ethical, sustainable, and up-cycled clothing brands. Get rid of any preconceived notions of tie dye and hemp shirts. The sustainable fashion industry is really becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Eleven million tons of textiles clog up approximately 126 million cubic yards of landfill space – and that’s just one year’s worth of discards. Decomposing textiles release methane into the air, which is a massive contributor to global warming. It’s also totally unnecessary to throw away something that is 100% reusable and recyclable. If every single person in South Africa recycled one T-shirt each, we’d save almost 8 trillion litres of water.
The Rag Bag initiative, created by Fredrik Wikholm who is the co-founder of From Air, a company that makes climate-positive clothing and textiles using synthetic fibers made from greenhouse gas, aims to recycle a garment every time a new one is bought. At first just the plastic bag you take home with you with your new purchase, the Rag Bag folds into a courier bag that you can insert an old piece of clothing into and send for recycling.
It is this sort of innovation that is required by the industry to remedy the the past four decades of environmental exploitation. It is ultimately the responsibility of the brands to initiate the transition from fast-fashion to sustainable fashion, as they are the ones profiting from the industry, and have the ability to instigate change on a greater scale. If consumers have no choice but to pay 2-3% more for a garment if it meant doubling the wages for garment workers, then so be it. If consumers have to spend 20-30% more on an organic cotton T-shirt or bamboo socks, so be it.
”Stop trying to ‘improve the conditions’; fix the system, or else you’re not serious.” – Richard Wolff, Marxian economist
Sustainability asks us to consider really deep questions about our relationship to nature and the impacts of our decisions. But it’s also about reverting to our basic instincts and reconnecting with our place in the natural world.
All images from Pinterest unless stated otherwise.2