What is sustainable fashion and is fashion sustainable?
The fashion industry is the second most pollutant industry in the world. Now, more than ever, we should be thinking about sustainability. But what is sustainable fashion? And is fashion sustainable?
Is it ecological, is it ethical or is it green?
There are so many definitive buzz words being used in the press that it’s hard not to be confused.
The reality we now, depressingly, find ourselves in, is a situation predicted by Carlo Petrini (founder of the Slow Food Movement). In 1985 he asked a simple question:
“How did we end up in an era when we have to define and certify things that should be normal?”
To understand the definition of sustainable fashion, we should define the Fast Fashion model to illustrate the differences between the two.
Fast Fashion raised its ugly head towards the latter part of the previous century. It coincided with the rise of the internet as a gateway to consumer consumption. The ready availability of all manner of products online gave rise to a fierce competition for customers, exasperated by the global economic recession.
People were persuaded to spend their hard-earned cash on cheap clothes. And they were so excited by the fact that their clothes emulated catwalk trends, thus rendering them ‘fashionable’, that they forgot to think about the bigger implications pertaining to manufacturing costs, worker’s rights, the impact on the planet and landfill.
The big bosses of the Fast Fashion brands, … can name their price and continue to reduce it by ordering larger quantities to sate the appetites of the consumers.
However, it isn’t the consumers who should be reprimanded so severely, yes, they’re part of the problem but it’s the drivers of the Fast Fashion phenomenon who should be held to task. The big bosses of the Fast Fashion brands, by basing their factories in the world’s least developed countries, where the workers are desperate, can name their price and continue to reduce it by ordering larger quantities to sate the appetites of the consumers.
The lower prices led inevitably to mass consumption and mass disposal of clothes. According to the Pulse of Fashion Report, consumers annually dump 92 million tonnes of clothing that could have been recycled.
Sustainable Fashion, on the other hand, can be defined as clothing, shoes, and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects. In practice, this implies continuous work to improve all stages of the product’s lifecycle, from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components.
From an environmental perspective, the aim should be to minimize any undesirable environmental effect of the product’s lifecycle by (a) ensuring efficient and careful use of natural resources (water, energy, land, soil, animals, plants, biodiversity, ecosystems, etc); (b) selecting renewable energy sources (wind, solar, etc) at every stage, and (c) maximizing repair, remake, reuse, and recycling of the product and its components. From a socio-economic perspective, all stakeholders should work to improve present working conditions for workers on the field, in the factories, transportation chain, and stores, by aligning with good ethics, best practice and international codes of conduct. In addition, fashion companies should contribute to encouraging more sustainable consumption patterns, caring and washing practices, and overall attitudes to fashion. (Green Strategy, June 2014)
It seems that we have reached the peak of Fast Fashion and that big changes are being made.
Some consumers have woken up to the fact that while Fast Fashion may fleetingly lift your spirits, it’s an unsustainable option for anyone who cares about the impact on the environment.
If everyone could try to create a vision of increasing their quality of life through decelerating the current rate of growth, production, and consumption, of clothing, then we’d be in a better position to achieve something.
In the past sustainable fashion was a natural thing. Common sense meant that people were predisposed to buy clothes when they needed them. Garments were made with natural materials, more care and attention and manufacturing practices were more ethical. Consumers looked after their clothes and repaired them when necessary as opposed to just throwing them away.
However, brands and retailers are responding to consumers’ heightened interest in ethical manufacturing and sustainable fashion with a variety of initiatives while new companies are emerging with these principles in mind. Some suppliers of Fast Fashion have now introduced more sustainable offerings to the consumer.
For example, H & M, as one of the world’s biggest users of certified organic cotton has introduced a beautiful and exclusive range called Conscious Exclusive
The price points are much higher than for their usual collections but this reflects the higher prices of the natural fabrics and the more ethical manufacturing practices they employ. Some of the fabrics, as well as 100% cotton, silk and linen, include Lyocell, an eco-friendly cellulosic fibre that is biodegradable. The waste products, in the air, and water from the manufacturing process are minimal and considered harmless.
Some of the fabrics, as well as 100% cotton, silk and linen, include Lyocell, an eco-friendly cellulosic fibre that is biodegradable. The waste products, in the air, and water from the manufacturing process are minimal and considered harmless.
Another initiative H&M (a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, whose members include Primark, Marks & Spencer, Walmart and Nike) are spearheading is their commitment to using only sustainably sourced materials by 2030. The key to its success could be in its aim to become completely circular, so clothes are made entirely from reused materials. Its stores already allow collection of clothes and the company amassed nearly 16,000 tonnes of used clothing last year.
The key to its success could be in its aim to become completely circular, so clothes are made entirely from reused materials. Its stores already allow collection of clothes and the company amassed nearly 16,000 tonnes of used clothing last year.
“Ninety-seven percent of all clothes, textiles, and shoes that we collect can be repurposed, and 3 percent goes to energy,” notes Catarina Midby, sustainability manager at H&M UK and Ireland.
A younger brand doing wonders for sustainable fashion is Everlane. With its ethical production process and radical transparency, this company spends months finding the best factories around the world—the very same ones that produce top brands, and then they build strong personal relationships with the factory owners to ensure their factory’s integrity and to maintain ethical production practices at every step of the process.
Customers have the right to know what their products cost to make and where they were made- Everlane
They believe customers have the right to know what their products cost to make and where they were made. They reveal their true costs and share the factory and production stories behind each piece of clothing or accessory. Now consumers have the option of buying pieces that are made with design ingenuity and innovation that prioritize social and environmental justice, along with the aesthetic.
For fashion to be truly sustainable many changes to the manufacture of textiles will have to come about. WWF, the conservation group based in Finland is collaborating with the Nordic Fashion Week Organisation to produce a truly sustainable clothing range.
They argue that textile production, as it now stands, is unsustainable due to the vast amounts of water, chemicals, energy, and land that must be used, while severe climate changes deplete global natural resources in the warming climate.
WWF Finland’s Miiju Sirviö says: “Fossil fuels cannot be spun into a polyester or other synthetic fabrics forever, either. Yet, much clothing is discarded before the end of its lifespan and ends up in landfill sites. This project vows to drastically improve the ecological footprint of garments by encouraging and promoting tangible solutions.” A highly durable material that’s been recycled from textile waste (by Infinited Fiber) will be used to produce the clothes.
Another figure making ripples in the sustainable fashion is Miroslav Duma. With her Fashion Tech lab fund she aims to connect and develop cutting-edge technologies and sustainable innovation with the aim of transforming the fashion industry. Investment targets will focus on the fields of materials science, and high–performance fibers and fabrics, to name a few.
According to Duma, FTL is a hybrid venture capital fund, accelerator, and an experimental laboratory. Recipients of the fund will be able to meet with industry insiders and to experiment with cutting-edge technologies to add momentum to the fashion industries’ efforts to be more innovative and sustainable.
Ultimately, the message to all of us is that in its present incarnation fashion is not sustainable. It requires a certain level of responsibility, from us all, to undertake more sustainable practices in regards to where we purchase our clothes and also to our over-consumption of the latest fashion trends.
The torchbearers for sustainable fashion are the Green Generation; The Millennials and Generation Z, who appear to be making changes within the industry. By following their lead, we can all make a difference for future generations to come.
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