TORONTO, Canada – Coco Chanel once said: “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” As our world changes socially, environmentally and economically, our ideas and lifestyle choices as consumers and global citizens have begun to change as well. This shift raises many questions about the sustainability of our current fashion industry practices, what this will mean for young people, and what we should be doing to ensure a more viable and innovative fashion industry for our future generations.
With recent global incidents such as the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, dramatic climate shifts and increasing conflict over natural resources – sustainable fashion and ethical business models are transforming from a niche to a necessity.
The Social Impact of the Fashion Industry
The Rana Plaza Building collapse that occurred in April 2013 was a tragic way to bring to light the situation many workers face in some of the leading garment producing regions of the world. With limited workers’ rights legislations and poor enforcement of these regulations where they do exist, working conditions are extremely unsafe. Furthermore, low wages and a lack of direct market access lead to workers receiving little remuneration for the garments they produce, while large retailers earn hefty margins. These conditions further the poor quality of life and future prospects while increases inequality among workers. The results of these practices is a fast fashion retail strategy that focuses on bringing trends to the market in the most efficient way, which brands such as H&M and Zara have embraced.
The Environmental Implications of Fashion Industry Practices
Current fashion industry practices have led to global resource depletion and other irreversible damage to the environment. Considering that it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton, equivalent to a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans, the depletion of natural resources such as fresh water is foreseeable. The drying up of the Aral Sea in central Asia, widely considered “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters,” can largely be attributed to the fashion industry. Once considered one of the four largest lakes in the world, the body of water has shrunk by three quarters since the 1960s, gravely impacting the livelihoods of those who rely on the lake for fishing and agriculture. This tragedy is the result of decades of uncontrolled irrigation by cotton farmers in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest cotton exporters.
Resource depletion is not the only harmful effect of fashion production. Fashion supply chains have led to the usage and dumping of toxic chemicals, cruel treatment of animals in producing fur and leather, and millions of tonnes of unwanted textiles ending up in landfills each year.
The Economic and Political Effect of Fashion
Even more frightening is the tension that is arising from growing inequality. While the billion dollar global fashion industry takes advantage of cheap labour and raw materials in developing nations, it is the workers in these regions that are paying the true cost of this production. Per Tamsin Lejeune, Founder and CEO of Ethical Fashion Forum:
The basic premise for all conflict is inequality.
The inequality is perhaps most evident at pictures of Rana Plaza, where clothing with popular brand labels can be identified scattered amongst the rubble. The pressure and unrest that is resulting from the depletion of resources and growing inequality is increasing the instability in many already volatile regions.
A Sustainable Solution
What will our future generations face if we continue to focus on profits, cheap prices and fast fashion? Lajeune believes that if we do not change how we produce and consume fashion, the future will look dire and “we will not be able to consume the way we do for much longer.”
Global outcry and action against the damage done by the fashion industry has led to a focus on sustainable and ethical fashion. For Lejeune: “Ethical fashion represents an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment.” By work towards poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood creation, and minimising or counteracting environmental concerns, the movement is transforming our approach to production and consumption.
Sustainable fashion requires numerous stakeholders to build the ecosystem necessary to penetrate mainstream fashion. These stakeholders include not-profit organizations providing resources, advocacy and other support, governments creating the regulation necessary to encourage ethical enterprise, fashion retailers and consumers.
It can be argued that fashion retailers play the most critical role in bringing ethical, fashionable products to the market. One of the largest retailers to embrace a sustainability agenda is the Swedish brand H&M, a company that is paradoxically also heavily associated with fast fashion. As Emily Scarlett, PR Manager for H&M Canada commented:
Respect for the environment is an integral part of H&M’s business and we work actively to limit the impact that our business and that of our suppliers, stores and logistic centres have on the environment.
The company created a sustainability strategy in 2009, which includes broad commitments such as being “climate smart”, adopting the “reduce, reuse and recycle” philosophy and strengthening communities, as part of their Conscious campaign. These goals are being translated into tangible actions, which included donating 3,555,687 garments to charitable causes in 2013, using 340 million fewer litres of water in denim production last year, and being the first brand to sign the Accord for Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh.
Is it Sustainable Fashion Sustainable?
As with all disruptive ideas, sustainable fashion is facing a number of criticisms, which include questions over the viability of the business model, the true motivations of large brands embracing sustainability agendas and whether it is possible to quantitatively measure sustainability. While Lejeune recognised that there are “incredibly pioneering and inspiring” ventures taking very critical first steps, the movement clearly requires growth. According to her, this growth must include a shift in thinking when it comes to the fast fashion model, more collaboration within the industry and more accountability from retailers.
One key gap Lejeune identified is an absence of global governance, as regulation tends to vary enormously from nation-to-nation, resulting in a lack of standardised benchmarks to measure the impact of ethical fashion initiatives. There have been efforts to bridge this gap through engaging independent auditors, building databases for best practices, conducting research and developing financial reporting standards that measure a triple bottom line of financial, environmental and social impact. In fact, both Nike and Puma now release triple-bottom line accounting reports to transparently present their ethical impact each year.
Another prevalent issue is the negative criticism given to fast fashion brands such as H&M. By focusing on their Conscious initiatives, H&M is trying to integrate sustainability without “transferring any possible cost for creating our products more sustainably to our consumers,” said Scarlett. “All these things are investments, but we want to utilize them to strengthen our customer offer rather than just transfer a cost from one point to another to the consumer.”
What Will the Future Look Like?
If we do not change our behaviour – our future generations could see a world where workers continue to be exploited, resources become even scarcer leading to more irreparable damage and conflict, and profits are more important than values. However, we could reverse this trend if we focus on the triple bottom line, by ensuring that the processes we use in supply chains are ethical.
Fashion development is supposed to be a creative and aspirational process. With the industrial revolution and a focus on mass production, much of this changed. Creativity was replaced with efficiency and quality with quantity. Our future should not and cannot be that. Our future should be one where people consume less and value the items they consume more, all companies adopt a vision of sustainability and the supply chain becomes an empowering and inspiring process.
H&M has seen the value and demand of adopting such principles. “We have seen really strong reactions from our customer, employees and stakeholders,” said Scarlett. “Specifically in Canada, we collected over 200,000lbs of garments for our garment collecting initiative last year alone which is phenomenal. Our staff tells us they appreciate working for a company that has a sustainability focus and they like educating customers and friends on the work we do.”
What can we, as consumers, do to work towards such a future?
- Educate ourselves on the supply chain process for our favourite brands.
- Support ethically-conscious and sustainable brands.
- Consume less and consider upcycling, recycling and reusing our garments.
- Join the movement by advocating for and raising the profile of ethical fashion
As our climate changes, our political values evolve, our economies see turbulent shifts and our social consciousness progresses – these changes must and will transcend into our ideas and discussions around a more sustainable fashion industry.