Today’s consumerist society is a far cry from the idealistic progress towards a sustainable future: Destruction for production, consumption for growth.
As bad as Big Oil?
The fashion and textile industry is one of the biggest culprits of a throwaway culture. Vast quantities of precious resources are pumped into (often overly-priced) garments, which may be little-worn and quickly disposed. The textile industry is the second largest polluter (behind oil) in the world and it’s the second largest polluter of clean water (behind agriculture). The fashion industry utilises 25% of the industrial chemicals that are produced worldwide.
Despite the relative recyclability of textiles, 1,000,000,000 kg of clothing are sent to landfill every year in the UK alone. Aside from the obvious problem of clogging up our beautiful countryside with landfill sites, the chemicals that are used in many clothing manufacturing processes can leach out into groundwater and contaminate the environment. The commonplace chemical components of our clothing include an array of concerning substances such as napthol, chromium compounds, arsenic, lead, mercury alongside formaldehyde based dye fixing agents, chlorinated stain removers, hydrocarbon based softeners.
Consumers, for the most part, remain ignorant to the hefty supply chains, heavy drainage of resources and the toxicity of production behind a prized garment.
Although many of these materials are perfectly natural and non-harmful, upon reaction with other substances such as disinfectants, by-products can form. If these compounds are then allowed to leach into the environment, they can deteriorate soil quality for crop production and add pollutants to water which can be toxic for aquatic life and decrease the quality of our drinking water.
Never judge a brand by its marketing
The ‘Fast Fashion’ business model, although ingenious, puts tremendous strain on finite resources and intensifies an already blinkered and environmentally-damaging fashion industry. Many ‘fast fashion’ retailers have fantastic sustainability teams ensuring each garment is as ecological as possible.
For example, Primark are passionate about working with their cotton farmers to minimise waste and increase the profits of their farmers. A recent project saw their farmers’ profits increase by 150% in the first year, alongside decreased use of water and pesticides. On the other hand, some brands that are known for their ecological credentials are actually fairly average in terms of their environmental impact – take this as a reminder: never judge a brand by its marketing.
However, despite a decline in impact per garment over the last few decades, the huge and increasing scale of the fashion industry means that the net impact is still on the rise. The fashion industry is booming and quick, affordable hits of retail therapy have been lapped up by austerity-stricken citizens around the world.
Choice-editing is imperative
What the fashion industry needs is an empirical shift – the entire system is flawed and unsustainable.
There are many factors people choose the clothes they do – for temperature regulation, for protection and most importantly, to express their identity. This is a problematic point: Sustainable clothing options are often limited and expensive. For many consumers (who do not identify as an ‘environmentalist’), asking them to choose a garment based on ethics is akin to asking them to sacrifice part of their identity.
Therefore, it is the responsibility of the fashion industry and governing bodies to move this forward. That comes down to choice-editing.
Choice-editing can be instigated by a cross-brand decision or on the back of a governmental decision which forces the change. For example, the recent governmental ban on microbeads from cosmetics will force all cosmetic brands to remove problematic plastics from their ranges. The consumer will be unlikely to notice any change in their products as the industry will invest in developing replacement substances quickly and seamlessly so as not to impact their sales figures. These changes are time-consuming and costly for companies and so are understandably put off until it becomes a requirement.
A recent example of this happening within the textile industry is when the Norwegian Environmental Agency announced a ban on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in consumer products. A ban in one country causes limitations to international trade due to differing trade requirements – this ultimately instigates a merge of international standards. So all Norwegian clothing brands had to produce garments without PFOA – which is environmentally beneficial. The price was little affected so as to remain competitive internationally. International customers then purchased the Norwegian-made product because it is more environmentally friendly, for the same price. Which motivated the competition to begin producing equal products.
Brands know best
So, sometimes, the brands know best. By limiting the available choices to only environmentally friendly products, consumers have no choice but to buy responsibly. Factors including finances, identity and practicalities can then take priority.
We all have a whimsical idea of a sustainable future – but what does that really mean? We need concrete movements towards that. As the Ghandi famously said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.
We need governments to facilitate positive change, we need industries to stop pushing for consumerist behaviours, we need retailers to support ethical purchasing and we need to be responsible consumers. We need to start where it counts.
But why aren’t consumers conscious now? Well, they don’t tend to ask the right questions. This is convenient for the industry. The current fast paced society has left many people detached from the origins of products. And, ignorance is bliss. If you were to know the impact of your most recent purchase, perhaps you wouldn’t have bought it.
A call for societal revolution
Fashion Revolution is an initiative to inspire consumers to know before they buy; to understand the journey that their garments have made and the sacrifices that have been chosen by asking: “Who Made my Clothes?”
Fashion Revolution was born off the back of the 2013 disaster in Bangladesh where a garment factory collapsed killing 1134 people. The founders believe in using the enormous fashion industry as a force for good, with creativity, quality, environment and people are valued equally.
Can the industry adapt?
The next question is, can we accommodate stable business growth with sustainability and minimised consumption? Is it simply a case that there will be winners and losers in a sustainable future?
Thousands of people rely on the income and careers generated by the high sales figures of big brands. If society is to move towards focusing on ownership and longevity, will these high-production manufacturers be able to survive? This in turn raises two questions: is sales growth necessary for economic stability? And by what means shall we measure our success if not by the accumulation of ever larger piles of material wealth?
This is where polite society’s’ use of the buzzword “Sustainability” must be challenged with the reality. Is the world ready to face a sustainable future?