The concept of sustainability in the fashion industry emerged late owing to the elusive division drawn between the social world and the natural world.
Several fashion studies, focusing on not only the social, cultural, and economic aspects of fashion but also the environmental and ecological aspects, have highlighted the environmental costs.
The emergence of the issue of sustainability dates back to the mid-1990s, when the issue of child exploitation by some suppliers of Nike grabbed the attention of the Western society. Since then, different non-governmental organisations have urged fashion brands to move towards more sustainable business models and practices.
However, it took the fashion industry until the beginning of the 21st century, after the publication of several scientific journals, to adopt the idea of sustainability.
Academic works have directed all their efforts to promote dialogue on fashion and sustainability and from the production of these works, the terminology used in the academic discourse has streamed from "eco-fashion" to the prodigious use of the concept of "sustainable fashion".
Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose encapsulated sustainable fashion as a concept that promotes good social and environmental practices, including relegation of the production and consumption of clothing to promoting recycling and the use of renewable and organic materials.
Moreover, Claudia Henninger, in her article "What is sustainable fashion?", emphasised that sustainable fashion means moving away from the production and consumption practices of the fast fashion system.
Amidst all this publication of academic works and the promotion of sustainability in several campaigns, an important question surfaces: Can the fashion industry ever be sustainable?
The rationale behind this trepidation encompasses the environmental impact caused by the fashion industry, specifically the fast fashion industry, and the mounting evidence of intensified global clothing consumption paired with enlarged accessibility and affordability of clothing.
Adding fuel to the fire is the meticulously cloaked work of corporations using social and environmental justice affairs to market products which are manufactured through environmental and social injustice, exclusively in the Global South.
The fashion and textile industry are considered the second most polluting industry. Every year, almost two billion cotton T-shirts are made and almost 100 billion T-shirts are purchased annually.
A 2020 statistic states that it takes 2,700 litres of water to make a cotton T-shirt which is worth 2.5 years of drinking water and most clothes are worn for a maximum of seven times before being tossed out.
During manufacturing, several chemicals are used and the wastage produced are thrown into the water, contributing to water pollution. From the textile industry, 50,000 tonnes of dye is discharged into the global water system.
The United Nations has affirmed that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse emissions annually. According to a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, textile productions generate such an exceeding amount of greenhouse gas emissions that it surpasses that produced by the international aviation and maritime shipping combined.
An excerpt from "Can the Fashion Industry Ever Really Be Sustainable?" anticipated that water consumption by the fashion industries will increase by 50% to 118 billion cubic metres before 2030. Carbon footprint will increase by 2,791 million tonnes and waste produced by the industry will hit 148 million tonnes.
Moreover, the environmental impacts of the fashion industry are exacerbated by excessive consumption practice. The fast fashion industry is contributing to such voracious proclivity which is attributable to the detriment faced by the industry in terms of sustainability.
It is known that the human behaviour of consumption of clothes is much more fuelled by the desire to satisfy their emotional and egotistical desire. It is contemplated that consumers would be able to subjugate their hedonistic subconscious forces if information concerning ethical issues is advocated strongly.
However, the majority of consumers expressed that several expert opinions coupled with the complexity of the issues concerning sustainability are plunking them to a muddled state. Therefore, it gets easier to compel the consumers to turn a blind eye to the issue and buy that new shirt.
Amidst this escalated popularity of the fast fashion brands in this era, they are encountering heavy scrutiny regarding their transparency in terms of working conditions, detrimental environmental impacts, factories, supply chains, etc.
Despite the trenchant criticisms, most companies are not inclined to advocate fewer consumption practices. Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish newspaper, in 2019 published an interview of the former CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson, where he stated that consumption should not be stopped as it leads to economic growth. Rather, a solution must be placed in innovation.
Nevertheless, many fashion companies, to retain customers' trust, have incorporated feminist and sustainability policies in their marketing strategies to sell their products through greenwashing and such marketing strategies are moulding consumers' opinions regarding their consumption habits.
As a result, it is leading them to believe that they are buying more and more sustainable, cruelty-free clothes. This is predominantly true for women.
This has been evidenced by the advertisements of many fashion brands. For example, Gina Tricot's music video "The Way" showcased catchphrases like "organic" repetitively. However, the phrase has never been elucidated.
The reiteration of such catchphrases and using organic materials do not ensure sustainability of the product when considering the whole product lifecycle. It should be noted that the term "life cycle" is misleading as the chain of the process does not form a "cycle". Instead, it forms a linear sequence of events, with a conspicuous beginning and end.
A true cyclical life cycle guarantees recycling or reusing, and feeding the final waste back into the system to be reused. It is known as the 5Rs of fashion – Reduce, Repair, Recycle, Repurpose, and Reinvent.
Delhi-based fashion studio "Doodlage" uses waste materials to make new clothes. Furthermore, trends like swap party and vintage clothing are being endorsed by many clothing brands such as Broqué, a Bangladeshi clothing brand, to mitigate environmental impacts.
It should be remembered that a textile product's life cycle will never be completely impact-free as it depends on the environment to some extent. Therefore, the focus must be on the minimisation of such impacts coupled with the establishment of proper corporate social responsibilities, and not on green or fem washing.
An ardent belief must be restored by the consumers that they do not need to purchase excessive clothing items.
Nusrat Zahan, a lawyer and a certified human rights trainee