In recent years, consumers’ need for fast-fashion has started decreasing, as people become more conscious of the impact these brands are having on the wellbeing of the planet. Moguls of the fast-fashion industry, such as Zara, H&M and Forever 21, have all made changes to adhere to a more sustainable way of doing business, but are these changes enough for these brands to label themselves as eco-friendly?
Perhaps one of the most significant proofs that consumers have started becoming more conscious of the high price the planet pays for fast, cheap fashion is Forever 21’s recent filing for bankruptcy. Last fall, the company announced they will close down 350 stores in Asia and Europe, raising numerous questions about the future of the fast-fashion brands that have dominated the industry for the past two decades.
But even though consumers have caught up on the fact that there is something very wrong with fast-fashion, is this enough to safely say we are on the right track towards sustainable fashion? And, what’s more, are brands doing enough to respond to the planet’s needs for sustainability?
Fashion – one of the world’s biggest sources of pollution
For quite some time now, there was a statement going around, claiming the fashion industry is the world’s second-largest contributor to pollution, after oil. Whether this is true or not is still up for debate, but the impact fast-fashion has had on the planet is unquestionable.
In 2014, people were purchasing 60 per cent more pieces of clothing than in 2000, making clothing production double since the beginning of the century. Fashion companies are now launching at least 5 collections each year, compared to just two in the 2000s.
Unfortunately, a lot of these items end up in the landfill, contributing to global pollution. Consumers are now keeping clothes for half as long as they used to, and it is estimated approximately one garbage truck of clothes ends up in a landfill every second.
But can you really blame brands for trying to fulfill consumer needs? If there’s a demand for certain items, then there is going to be someone ready to provide. We are just as much of a contributor to pollution as fast-fashion brands are. Each year, we release 500,000 tonnes of microfibres into the waters. This accounts for nearly 50 billion plastic bottles. These microfibres are, for the most part, polyester, whose production releases double the amount of carbon emissions compared to cotton. In fact, the fashion industry is accounted for 10 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, more than maritime shipping and international flights combined.
If things don’t change rather fast, experts predict the numbers could more than double by 2050. But without our involvement as consumers, can brands really find it within them to provide sustainable pieces of clothing that put less harm on the environment?
What exactly does sustainable fashion mean?
We keep asking brands for sustainable clothing, but are we entirely aware of what that means? What makes a brand sustainable? Is it just their choice of materials, or is it more than meets the eye?
To put is as clear as possible, a company can safely say they are sustainable if they are doing active work to lower their carbon and social footprint for as much as possible. You can use organic materials as much as you want, but if you don’t change the way these materials are turned into products, then you are not doing enough to call yourself a sustainable brand.
Sustainability needs to be present everywhere, if a brand wants to come out and claim themselves “green”. And it all starts with workers.
A 2017 report found out that only 4 per cent of retail prices for fast-fashion goes into the salaries of garment workers. Countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia or Vietnam are the largest garment producers, but the minimum wage in such countries is less than one dollar an hour. This means workers there earn just enough to eat on a day to day basis, but not sufficient to tend to their other needs. The same report shows that, if 5 per cent of retail prices would go to workers, factory workers could be paid living wages, which should be enough to cover their daily expenses and leave them with some money left to set aside for emergencies.
Fashion is a consumer-driven industry, so brands know they need to answer consumer needs. But when people ask for sustainability, they release new clothing items for us to buy – sustainable fashion, they call it. But is it sustainable if it still leaves a massive environmental and social footprint? Allow me to doubt it.
Technology and education are the key enablers of change
We claim we want clothes that are sustainably made, but are we willing to compromise and take more out of our pockets to pay for sustainability? Organic cotton, for example, is 30 per cent more expensive than polyester, but do consumers understand why?
If we want to make a change, education and technology are our best bet to turn the textile industry into a more sustainable, yet affordable one. It costs more to make sustainable products because we lack the technology to streamline the process and the desire to do so.
Fabric dyeing, for example, accounts for 20 per cent of the global waste and fabric printing releases ammonia and hydrocarbons that pollute the air. But what if, instead of printing on their clothes, companies would switch to embroideries and textile patches? Because they are made out of textile, companies can create patches out of recycled fabrics, and we have the kind of technology needed to do so.
Although less popular than Zara, H&M or Forever 21, numerous textile companies around the world are experimenting with new methods to reduce pollution. Be it water-free dying processes, smart textiles or other discoveries in material chemistry, interest in sustainable fashion is rising. We can only hope we will live to see a world where fast-fashion becomes a thing of the past and protecting the planet sits at the core of big companies all over the world.