Sustainable fashion has become quite the buzzword within the fashion industry — for good reason. While it’s not a new phenomena, growing awareness from consumers demands for brands to stress sustainability within their business models. Consumer consciousness grew from the 2013 Bangladesh textile factory collapse where 1,100 workers perished under hazardous conditions, which shed light on the reality behind the origins of our clothes. Sustainability is not just an environmental initiative, but also encompasses social justice for the labor force that fashion corporations currently exploit.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE FASHION?
The term “sustainable fashion” is an umbrella phrase used to describe the complete production process, from sourcing to manufacturing to consumption. Eco-friendly, ethical, and transparent practices compromise sustainable business methods the industry continues to integrate at increasing rates. Consumer desire for sustainable attributes only seems to grow, forcing brands to reconsider their previous practices under “fast fashion” business models.
Within the last few decades, “fast fashion” was the industry norm, where brands prioritized cheap labor to manufacture inexpensive clothing at rapid rates to maintain “microtrends”. Cutting costs in sourcing and production greatly increases a brands’ profit margins, at the expense of individuals and the climate. As the “fast fashion” business model grew to popularity, consumer habits also shifted in accordance with demands for more garments at lower costs. On average, garments are discarded 50% faster than 15 years ago, meaning a substantial increase in production rates to maintain consumption habits.
“Sustainable Fashion” movement aims to revitalize the fashion industry’s business model in various ways. Firstly, minimizing the environmental impact textile production has by using natural resources or existing garments is key to sustainability, as it reduces the industry’s carbon footprint and ecological waste. Another important aspect of sustainability that aims to change both consumer and production habits is respecting a garment’s true usage. Instead of disposing clothes that are “out of season”, sustainable fashion advocates for both consumers and brands alike to keep garments until it’s no longer feasible. One of the last, but arguably very important elements of sustainable fashion is fair and equal treatment of garment workers globally. This means better working conditions that advocate for workers’ safety and treatment while providing a liveable wage. The current labor practices under “fast fashion” already have devastated the lives of many, proving an unsustainable process long term.
Already, the environmental consequences from “fast fashion” are evident in locations where textile manufacturing is prevalent. 20% of the world’s wastewater is attributed to textile dyeing, and the industry consumes around 93 cubic meters of water a year, leaving behind microplastics and toxic chemicals within the world’s water supply. Also, textile waste contributes significantly to microplastic pollution in Earth’s water and soil. In order to keep up with industry practices regarding “microtrends”, more and more garments are discarded in landfills, which has created an additional 1.92 million tons of textile waste yearly within our landfills. Unfortunately many of these garments cannot be properly disposed of due to the eco-toxic chemicals used, like microplastics, with the evidence being apparent in our oceans and landfills.
“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” perhaps represents one of the worst environmental disasters which the fashion industry has contributed to. Between California and Hawaii, roughly 1.6 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean’s surface comprises plastic waste. The waste accumulates rapidly as the ocean’s currents collect waste into gyres, creating “garbage patches” such as that in the Pacific. Unlike other raw materials, plastic is not biodegradable, meaning it takes decades for plastic to dissipate from the environment into microplastics. Even then, these microplastics are toxic to wildlife and terrain, which drastically harms habitats like that of the Pacific Ocean.
About 12% of the global workforce has some formal employment within the fashion industry, with about 60 million people working in textile factories under varying conditions. It remains one of the most profitable industries worldwide, earning 1.53 trillion USD in 2022 alone. Yet on average, most garment workers do not earn enough to sustain themselves despite the industry’s extensive profits. In India, garment workers average 15 cents per hour, working 10 to 12 hour shifts to earn a few dollars a day. 85% of the workforce consists of women, where the global wage gaps are reflected as female garment workers average 60-70% income of male garment workers despite being the majority.
While such exploitation of the labor force is not unique to the fashion industry, it’s clear that fashion companies’ labor practices exploit a large demographic of factory workers worldwide. A lack of transparency from company to consumer may explain why the humanitarian crisis of garment workers remains appalling still. It is essential to question how companies operate behind the scenes to ensure that ethical business practices are upheld. More brands are sharing their labor practices in attempts to mend the broken trust many customers have as companies’ questionable methods come to light.
As consumers, we must hold brands accountable to ensure that ethical labor practices are maintained within the fashion industry to protect garment workers. We have great power over the fashion industry, so it’s essential we use our positions as customers to demand sustainability within fashion. The “sustainable fashion” movement is the future for the fashion industry, and it’s time we delve into eco-friendly business practices on a global scale.
Feature image by Anand Kulkarni.