Sustainable fashion, often dubbed as slow fashion, is the movement where fashion designers, manufacturers, and consumers strive to foster positive changes in the industry. This change is geared toward better environmental integrity and ensures social justice in a broader perspective.
The advent of popular sustainable clothing brands signals the rise of the Sustainable Clothing Movement around the world. Evidently, there is a growing consciousness about the fashion avenues that are linked to pollution and climate change.
For instance, apparel in the fast fashion sector involves intense and harmful chemical processes where more than 8,000 types of chemicals are used to bleach and dye garments. Here are some more harrowing statistics:
1. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second (UNEP, 2018),
2. 500,000 tons of microfibers are released into the ocean each year from washing clothes — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017),
3. The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of humanity's carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined (UNEP, 2018),
4. Around 20% of industrial wastewater originates worldwide from the fashion industry (WRI, 2017).
These are just a few examples of our ferocious appetite for constant clothing consumption that is leading to a slow disaster.
The environmental cost of fashion has skyrocketed with 'fast fashion' culture - cheap, stylish, trendy, clothing that doesn't last long. For years we have been obsessed with buying clothes. Some of us would buy pairs of cheap jeans just for the sake of having more diversity in our wardrobe, even though we often ended up wearing only a few of them.
Riding on this trend, many brands are increasing the number of collections they produce per annum, while consumers are buying more clothes than they need. The end result is, barely worn clothes end up in landfills and statistically over 50% of fast fashion products are disposed of within a year.
At this rate, by 2050, the fashion industry could use up over a quarter of the carbon budget, which may cause global temperature to increase by 2-degrees Celsius. If the practice continues, the world is headed for a disaster we are not ready for. Hence, the fashion industry needs to move away from a fast fashion mindset to a more thoughtful production and consumption pattern.
Building on four basic pillars (i.e., ethical fashion, fair-trade, organic, recycled), sustainable fashion strives toward creating new values, integrating ecological ethics and providing green wealth for society and the economy.
And this process involves the full life cycle of a fashion product - from the initial design, sourcing materials, production, usage to how it's going to be reused. Supporters of sustainable fashion prioritise eco-consciousness, green society, and ethical improvement in their work processes and agendas.
Fast fashion is not just spearheading environmental pollution; it is also facilitating space for workers' exploitation. We all remember the Rana plaza tragedy in 2013 where hundreds of workers were crushed under that factory. After that incident, many international brands had stopped placing orders with Bangladesh. But it is the workers who have paid the heaviest price since they did not receive wages for months.
Owing to Covid-19 induced decline in consumer demand, it is evident that many brands have faced a downturn in profit and are unable to sell their existing inventory. Several global brands have cancelled orders to factories based in the developing world. This unprecedented situation serves as a wake-up call to revisit the fast fashion model.
The pandemic has also revealed that sustainability and workers' justice go hand in hand in the fashion industry. While the world aspires to get business back to usual in the post Covid-19 time, it is imperative for the fashion industry not to continue their past practices. Fashion conglomerates and renowned brands must adopt a three-pronged approach in their operations - people, planet, and profit.
Moving to sustainable fashion is a huge task and requires intensive work on different levels. However, individual actions do matter a lot. Consumer preferences are paramount for shaping brands' approaches and holding them accountable for sustainability practices and goals. Together, we as consumers can make a difference by being more thoughtful and responsible.
For starters, we could try to find out how much of the dress we bought for $50 went to the poor woman who made the dress? Coming to factories, every aspect of their production chain needs to transform, from raw material sourcing and workers' rights and their treatment. Also, factories must arrange dialogues with brands for transparency in both raw material sourcing and supply chain management to ensure garment workers are being paid fairly.
Last but not the least, support must be provided to small businesses as they are more open to share information about their practices. With the world evolving and all of us adapting, positioning sustainable fashion as the next step is not impossible.
The writer is a knowledge Management, communications and advocacy professional
The views expressed are personal.