Millennial consumers have started to question how their clothes are made but consumers of all ages need to do more to tackle fashion labor abuses, according to a British lawmaker and sustainable fashion campaigner. Baroness Lola Young said young people are increasingly engaged with political and economic issues and willing to fight on social causes – and labor abuses in the garment industry were no exception.
Young said harnessing this energy was vital to revolutionize the fashion industry which has come under pressure since more than 1,100 workers died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. “A lot of young people are very concerned about a whole range of social justice issues and therefore are quite willing to go into the fray when they know what is going on,” said Young, who founded an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion.
She further states that transforming consumer behavior in the West and changing the model of the “throwaway disposable society” is an important way to tackle labor abuses, particularly in the fast fashion sector.
Many big fashion brands have been criticized for failing to improve the conditions for workers in their global supply chains – from poor health and safety standards and long working hours to low pay and bans on forming trade unions.
The Way Forward
According to Young, while young people could often not afford more expensive clothing, she hoped exchange ventures at retailers such as Sweden’s H&M – where customers return old clothes for recycling in return for vouchers – could show a new way forward. She said they are also getting more engaged even as many have concerns over a period of global instability.
“Paradoxically, what feels like current political volatility has made some people sit up and think: ‘What are we doing here? We’ve got to take more control over what’s happening in this world and fight some of these injustices much more openly,'” Young said in an interview. She said different sectors of the fashion industry – from fast fashion to haute couture – had different challenges and will have to take different approaches to the problems.
Yet Young added that fully addressing the issues surrounding the supply chain was a “big ask” for the industry as “we need to look again fundamentally at how the garment industry works.” She further noted, “You really need to look at your business models because they’re not delivering this ethical industry that many of us would like to see.”
Young said that while Western awareness of the issues has grown recently, many people still do not think about where their clothes come from until their attention is drawn by a large-scale event such as the Rana Plaza disaster. Young said one of most effective ways to tackle the problems would be to support organizations working on the ground to implement an effective monitoring system that would empower workers and enable them to fight for better conditions.
She emphasized the urgency of tackling these issues. “Time is running out in relation to the environment, time is running in terms of the dreadful impact that it’s having on various communities and individuals around the world. So you’ve got to get on and do something really really quickly,” she said.
*This story first appeared on The Fashion Law
In December 2015, President Obama signed the Microbeads Free Waters Act, banning the use of plastic microbeads used as exfoliants in personal care products. As a previous director of the organization that first helped uncover this issue, I continue to be astonished by the massive amounts of plastic pollution that originate from a seemingly innocent act: washing our collective faces.
Winning on microbeads took a huge, national coalition of NGOs with a united strategic plan. The next iteration of that work has a new target: microfibers that come from washing synthetic clothing in washing machines.
Oceanic gyres tend to eviscerate big plastics into smaller bits, and washing machines do the same — and even more efficiently. When you wash clothing made from synthetic materials such as polyester, tiny particles of plastic called microfibers are washed down the drain with the washing machine effluent. Microfiber pollution is one of the biggest sources of primary microplastic pollution. In a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report, washing clothing was found to be responsible for 33 percent of primary microplastic releases into the environment. Compare that to the effect of microbeads, which were banned for their paltry 2 percent contribution to watershed microplastic pollution.
For clothing brands, microfiber pollution represents an existential threat to their bottom line, and for outdoor companies, their pro-environment reputations.
Why? Because fossil-fuel-derived, plastic textiles are becoming the go-to fabric of choice for sports and active lifestyle brands due to their performance attributes. Already, 60 percent of all clothing on earth is made of polyester, with even higher occurrences in activewear brands. But whether it’s yoga pants, fleece jackets or underwear, plastic clothes are the new normal — and are shedding massive amounts of persistent plastic pollutants into our shared waters and soil. Unfortunately, with increasing demand for synthetic fabrics, the problem is at risk of getting even worse.
To give an idea of scale, it’s estimated more than 1.4 million trillion fibers are awash in the ocean, a number derived by George Leonard, chief scientist for the Ocean Conservancy, based on an extrapolation from existing data. Now, consider that government data shows more than 103 million washing machines are in the United States doing an average of eight to 10 loads of laundry per week. According to the scientific literature, each load can release between 1,900 fibers per load, to as many as 250,000 per fleece jacket, per wash.
Microfibers are a huge source of pollution, but are they dangerous?
It’s seriously doubtful we’re going to see a scientific study that demonstrates that animals eating plastic is a good thing. As such, many scientists agree there is cause for alarm and that a solution must be found.
What we do know is that plankton, mussels and clams eat fibers and can cause gut impaction and other serious digestive tract problems. We know one in four fish procured from a fish market in California has evidence of microfiber ingestion. We also know microfibers will attract and concentrate (up to a million times greater toxicity) other chemical pollutants present in water, and that after ingestion these toxins can leach from the plastic into an organism’s tissues. Some clothing is also treated with dangerous chemicals that will desorb into water over time as well.
So, although we don’t know the ultimate human health connection implications yet from eating sea life, we know that larger organisms eat smaller ones, and that pollutants thus magnify up the food chain.
So what are clothing brands doing about it?
Forward-thinking brands have acknowledged microfiber pollution is real, and apparel company Patagonia has commissioned a study to look at their products’ contributions to the problem. But few brands have made any significant progress on mitigating their products’ impact on the environment.
In the six years since the first seminal study demonstrating microfiber pollution was published, no clothing company has abandoned synthetic fibers for use in their products. Instead, we’ve seen an increased use of synthetic textiles, especially polyester. Brands love polyester and other synthetics for their performance attributes: they repel water, wick sweat, and the fabric stretches without getting stretched out. Although cheap to produce, polyester is twice as carbon-intensive than the next most carbon-intensive material, cotton.
Some brands, recognizing a way to solve the carbon problem, thought making clothing out of recycled plastic water and soda bottles would be a good idea. This became an overall trend for “green activewear” brands to tell a sustainability story. Although these efforts are well-intentioned, the effect on water and soil remains the same with regard to microfiber pollution.
As is often the case with so many environmental problems, the first solutions are ones that encourage individual actions and technical quick fixes over more complicated, systemic interventions. Although we at The Story of Stuff Project absolutely appreciate innovation and individuals’ desire to “do good” in the world, we’ve been in the environmental advocacy sphere long enough to be skeptical of “sexy” tech fixes that attempt to frame an issue as being solved “if we all just do our part.”
Does anyone really think retrofitting 103 million washing machines in the United States alone is practical? Here are my thoughts on some solutions proposed so far:
- Wash your synthetic clothes less. We have to clean clothes eventually, which seems to indicate that clothing brands are still OK with some amount of fibers going into the environment. This strategy doesn’t address the systemic problem and places the burden on the consumer.
- Put a filter in a washing machine. Again, this is the clothing industry looking for another industry to solve its problem. Technically, it’s difficult to put a filter inside a washing machine because the fibers it catches are so fine they end up stopping the machine from draining properly. This observation comes directly from the mouths of product developers at General Electric, with whom I’ve spoken at length.
- Put a filter outside of the washing machine. This could work, but how on earth would you ever enforce it? This task seems just as hard as campaigning against all textile manufacturers, and again, it puts the burden on the public, not the producer.
- Use a filter bag inside the machine. Recently, there has been a lot in the press around the Guppy Friend, a bag designed to stop microfiber solution by washing synthetic fabrics within the bag. This is a pretty cool stop-gap measure that allows citizens to “do something.” I’d like this better if industry was subsidizing the cost of the bag and giving it away at point of purchase, rather than “hoping” people will buy them.
- Put a fiber collector or innovative detergent in the machine. This may have some promise, but again, how could anyone enforce this? Maybe a detergent could be invented that works as a coagulating agent that grabs all the fibers and leaves a ball of fibers at the end of a cycle. I’m spitballing, but if such a thing could be invented, you’d have to legislate that all detergent sold does this — and we’d need clothing companies to pay for the R&D that creates the product and support the legislative battle to pass the policy. Judging by how hard plastic-microbeads-loving companies fought common sense legislation, this would be very difficult to achieve.
- Stop using synthetic fabrics. There are fabrics from natural sources that could be used more widely — bamboo, for example, can be spun into fabric in a closed loop system (where chemicals used to break down the cellulosic fiber into a usable form are captured, re-used and never enter the environment). Bamboo has a lot of pluses, and also has many of the performance attributes that polyester does.
- Update all developed country sewage treatment to tertiary filtration with the final effluent treated by cloth filters before it’s discharged. Yes, this ultimately could stop fibers from getting into watersheds but it would require billions of dollars of infrastructure spending, and it raises other issues, such as what to do about biosolids. The only way to make this work equitably would be to pass laws that require clothing manufacturers to pay a portion of their revenue, based on size, to a fund the updates the treatment process and offset the loss of revenue derived from selling fertilizers. There are several jurisdictional barriers to work through, but what concerns me most is that eventually, a litigation-oriented nonprofit likely will sue wastewater agencies for discharging plastic fibers in violation of the Clean Water Act or some other nuanced legal theory.
- Coat textiles with a treatment that prevents shedding. This is an interesting idea some clothing brands are assessing. Many questions remain, namely: How long would a coating last? Is the coating environmentally benign? However difficult, this is the solution I like the most so far, because it puts the burden of solving the pollution problem on the front end and on the industry responsible for creating the problem in the first place.
It’s clear that many concerned companies examining the microplastics problem associated with clothes are still in the “head scratching” phase. No clothing brand intended for their synthetic products to be discharged into the environment. Now that they know, they must step up and tackle the problem. As advocates and concerned citizens, we must work hard to listen to the brands but also to guide their proposed solutions and push for systemic fixes.
*This story first appeared on GreenBiz
Fashion for Good is making an industry-wide call for collaboration to transform the apparel industry at a gathering of innovators, fashion and sustainability thought leaders in Amsterdam.
As a holistic and inclusive open-source initiative, Fashion for Good invites the global fashion industry to reimagine how fashion is designed, made, worn and reused.
Fashion for Good aims to promote the five “Goods” of a new, transformed fashion industry: Good Materials, Good Economy, Good Energy, Good Water, and Good Lives. In pursuit of this goal, Fashion for Good enables the fashion industry to embrace innovation, change its business models and adopt a totally new mindset.
“The Five Goods represent an aspirational framework we can all use to work towards a world in which we do not take, make, dispose, but rather take, make, remake,” said William McDonough of McDonough Innovation. “Fashion for Good is about transforming the industry from serving one generation to serving many generations.”
Leslie Johnston of C&A Foundation said: “Open and inclusive, Fashion for Good will share all knowledge and lessons learned from its activities. In doing so, we want to inspire all stakeholders in the fashion industry to work toward a future in which everyone – farmers, workers, customers, and communities – can flourish.”
Fashion for Good is changing the apparel industry through innovation and new business models. Its innovation platform scouts for, nurtures and funds early-stage ideas and it scales proven technologies and business models for wider adoption by the industry. Its Apparel Acceleration Fund aims to catalyse access to finance and its open-source Good Fashion Guide shares knowledge to help the apparel industry transform. As a convenor for change, Fashion for Good enables conversation and collaboration, bringing together co-locators at its first hub in Amsterdam, as well as visitors to the Fashion for Good Experience to learn more about Good Fashion.
With an initial grant from founding partner C&A Foundation, Fashion for Good inspires brands, producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organisations, innovators and funders all working towards a Good Fashion industry and invites industry to join and collaborate.
Fashion for Good has six complementary programmes:
- Early-stage Innovation Accelerator: Fashion for Good works with Plug and Play, a leading Silicon Valley accelerator, to give promising start-up innovators the funding and expertise they need to grow.
- Late-stage Innovation Programme: Fashion for Good finds innovations that have proof of concept and helps them scale by offering bespoke support and access to expertise, customers and capital.
- Apparel Acceleration Fund: IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, is scoping a fund that aims to catalyse access to finance where this is required to shift at scale to more sustainable production methods.
- Good Fashion Guide: This open-source guide proves that Good Fashion is feasible today and shows brands how to embrace it. The online guide provides practical tips, a self-diagnostic tool and a step-by-step guide to production, based on lessons learned while creating the world’s first Cradle to Cradle CertifiedTM GOLD cotton t-shirt produced in Asia, at scale, at a value retailer price point.
- launchpad exhibition of the Fashion for Good Experience:Fashion for Good has opened three floors to the public in its historic building in a first step to build a community around the ambition to make all fashion Good. With vibrant displays, thought-provoking messaging, and a call to action, the launchpad will inform and inspire its visitors to be part of this larger movement of Only Good Fashion. In 2018, the launchpad exhibition will evolve into a permanent Experience Centre.
- Circular Apparel Community: Fashion for Good has rented an historic building in the heart of Amsterdam (our first hub) in order to bring likeminded organisations and partners together, including the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) and Made-By. This community will embrace collaboration to create change and build a vibrant eco-system of entrepreneurs and innovators in the name of circular fashion.
About Fashion for Good
Fashion for Good is the global initiative that is here to make all fashion good.
Fashion for Good sparks and scales innovation by offering practical action in the form of support and funding, shares best practice and lessons learned in open-source roadmaps, and fosters sector-wide collaboration for the entire apparel industry to change.
Fashion for Good invites brands, producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organisations, innovators and funders to jointly transform the industry.
Guests are invited to learn more about the industry at a newly opened Launchpad exhibition in Amsterdam. Fashion for Good was created with an initial grant from founding partner C&A Foundation, and other partners have joined to help build the foundation of Fashion for Good: C&A, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, IDH the Sustainable Trade Initiative, Impact Hub Amsterdam, Kering, McDonough Innovation, Plug and Play, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).
*For more information, visit Fashion for Good
There’s no doubt that the fashion industry is changing. While, for some of us, it may not be changing as quickly as we’d like, there is proof that consumer behavior is shifting, the role of the designer is growing and technology is at the forefront.
Below are six experts in the sustainable fashion industry, sharing the projects they’re most excited to watch in 2017.
“There’s this incredible ecosystem of business resources, services and programs set up to help fashion brands incorporate more sustainable practices into what they’re doing, and it wasn’t that way even two years ago. Some to watch are Factory45, Startup Fashion, ProjectEntrepreneur and TrendSeeder.
I am also paying close attention to the necessary interconnectedness of sustainability in fashion, where you see companies like Evrnu partnering with Levi’s and The Renewal Workshop teaming up with multiple brands to present new ways of thinking about the lifecycle of the clothes we wear.”
– Lorraine Sanders, Founder of PressDope by Spirit of 608 and host of the Spirit of 608 podcast
“I’m really excited about the emergence of sustainable undergarment brands. It used to be that there were so few choices that you could feel good about. Now they’re popping up everywhere and range from the fancier styles of NAJA, which has a women-focused social mission, to the fun styles of La Vie En Orange, which recycles your t-shirts into cute cotton undies.”
– Nicole Giordano, Founder of Startup Fashion
“This year, I’m excited by brands that are blurring the traditional boundaries of fashion. New brands like Kirrin Finch are filling a void for (proper-fitting) menswear-inspired womenswear as established companies like Burberry make mixed gender shows a fixture of fashion week.
In addition, the concept of quality clothing that purposefully endures through sizes and seasons is resurfacing among sustainable lines: Sotela designs dresses that span several sizes while the made-to-order brand DeSmet rejects the fashion calendar to release just one piece per month over the course of the year.”
– Elizabeth Stilwell, Creator of The Note Passer and Co-Founder of the Ethical Writers Coalition
“From yeast-based synthetic spider silk to hybrid fabrics that convert solar power and movement into electricity, fashion innovation will continue to soar to new heights in the new year. But I think that more low-tech pursuits such as knitting, crocheting, and sewing will also see a resurgence, particularly in these uncertain political times, when getting down to brass tacks and working with our hands will bring a more visceral level of comfort.
I’d keep my eyes peeled, in particular, for organizations such as the Craftivist Collective, which uses the art of craft as a vehicle for “gentle activism,” and Knit Aid, which provides refugees with lovingly hand-knit blankets, scarves, gloves, and hats. On a personal note, I’m currently knitting my fourth Pussyhat Project hat for the upcoming Women’s March on Washington. It’s easy to surrender to feelings of hopelessness, but we can rally everything we have against the tide of tyranny and hatred. There is strength in numbers, and it can begin with a single stitch.”
– Jasmin Malik Chua, Managing Editor of Ecouterre
“I’m excited to see Increasing alternatives to leather come to the market. Right now most faux leather ‘vegan’ options are plastic-based, which of course is not compostable. But with pineapple-based and even mushroom leather alternatives becoming available, I’m hoping we’ll start to see more and more of them available on a larger scale!”
– Rachel Kibbe, Founder of Helpsy
“Because of where I stand in the fashion space, I’m lucky to see sustainable startups launching new projects on a regular basis. The ones that I get really excited about are pushing the boundaries of branding, storytelling and marketing to say something different about what it means to be an ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ apparel brand.
Some of the companies that stand out right now are Girlfriend Collective that opted out of traditional advertising and used their budget to get their product into the hands of their customers. Peche Lingerie is pushing the boundaries of the lingerie industry by making undergarments for every “body” and defying gender norms. And then there’s mompreneur brand SproutFit that is challenging traditional sizing for infants and toddlers by making garments adjust as the baby grows.
If I’ve learned anything over the past several years working with sustainable fashion startups it’s that the companies that get people excited are the ones who tell a different story. It’s those unique stories that I’ll be keeping my eye on this year.”
– Shannon Lohr, Founder of Factory45
*This story first appeared on The Huffington Post
Investment in industry-level research and development can give consumers a meaningful metric of sustainability, says former corporate sustainability analyst Mary Hable.
In 2010, fresh out of college with a degree in economics, I began a new job as a corporate sustainability professional at a major apparel retailer. I was hopeful. The apparel industry was full of environmental problems and opportunities for major progress.
At the time, Greenpeace had launched a Detox campaign directly linking textile manufacturing and water pollution, a claim confirmed by the industry’s most influential brands through their organisation of Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals. The Natural Resources Defense Council was building its Clean by Design initiative to collaborate with brands that wanted cost-effective ways to clean up factories in their supply chains. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition was gearing up to foster collaboration among companies, non-governmental organisations, government and academia with the mission of improving the social and environmental performance across the industry. And corporate sustainability departments were being built across the industry.
The problems and opportunities were obvious, but one big thing was missing: Consumers were not clearly rewarding brands for sustainability. Without such an economic payback, brands lacked incentives to develop and deploy systemic sustainability initiatives and so limited themselves to less expensive short-term changes.
As a result, after five years in the field, I’m no longer looking for sustainability solutions to be created within companies. Rather, my view is that the more effective role for brands is to invest in external industry-wide sustainability research and technology aimed at developing those systemic solutions.
To drive investment, industry should track contributions from each company and share the information with consumers. Consumers could then use this information to judge — and reward — brands’ commitment to sustainability. After all, money, unlike environmental impact, is something we already know how to measure well, making sustainability investment a simple metric that can be used to activate consumer choices now.
The bottom line is: Individual apparel industry brands won’t deploy systemic solutions on their own because such solutions are not developed enough to provide either a direct economic payback or an indirect payback through consumer reward for more sustainable choices.
Wanted: Systemic Solutions
On the surface, the sustainability teams I was part of made progress. We found ways to achieve grassroots improvements despite minimal top-down support. At one company, we persuaded executives from design and sourcing to come together to educate each other about sustainability issues and to study what competitors were doing. At another large retailer, management was motivated to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy, saving money that was used to fund other sustainability projects, such as corporate reporting and more internal education.
These successes, unfortunately, were far outweighed by missed opportunities. For years, we cycled through conversations on using recycled, natural and organic fibers without seeing change. We researched and piloted take-back and donation programmes that didn’t gain traction. We developed strict supply chain monitoring programmes, but couldn’t get key decision-makers to sign off on the next step of including sustainability expectations in business agreements. Ultimately, I watched both sustainability teams that I was a part of be downsized.
This wasn’t surprising. An apparel brand’s fundamental purpose is to sell product, not to promote organic agriculture or develop non-toxic fibers and finishes. To be sure, a handful of values-driven apparel companies have experimented with technologies such as greener chemistry, waterless dyeing, and natural and organic fibers. But those companies are the minority, because such changes are either too costly or risk reducing product performance in the eyes of the consumer. Material choices create the products that are the lifeblood of a brand. Any changes need to be made out of confidence, rooted in strong evidence. Currently, brands lack the data needed to make evidence-based changes.
On material recycling, it was also clear that apparel brands acting on their own couldn’t effectively “close the loop” on clothes and shoes at the end of their useful life. A robust take-back and recycling programme turns a store into a hub of reverse logistics, collecting and sending materials back to a facility that sorts, resells or down-cycles material. All of this takes the store’s focus away from the goal of selling product and creates projects that provide little or no economic payback.
The bottom line is: Individual apparel industry brands won’t deploy systemic solutions on their own because such solutions are not developed enough to provide either a direct economic payback or an indirect payback through consumer reward for more sustainable choices.
Investment as a Metric
Brands will make voluntary investments in sustainability only if consumers clearly reward them for doing so. The problem is, even caring consumers do not have the information they need to know what to reward.
Providing consumers with that information is one of the fundamental pursuits of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). Since 2009, the SAC has been developing the Higg Index, essentially a sustainability version of a nutrition label. Over the past three months, the SAC has released two important pieces of the Higg Index: The Design and Development Module and the Materials Sustainability Index. The goal of these tools is to provide consumers and brand designers with information they can use to easily compare varying degrees of environmental impact between products.
To measure and ultimately reduce environmental impact, the Higg Index depends on a vast amount of quantitative data grounded in science. For example, it needs to be able to provide a simple recommendation as to whether a 90 per cent recycled polyester blend or a 50 per cent organic cotton blend is the more sustainable choice. Currently, the Higg Index is not complete enough to make such a recommendation.
For a tool like the Higg Index to reduce environmental impact, the industry needs more sustainable technologies and better ways to measure the benefits they provide. What the industry needs now more than anything is a consistent source of funds to develop those data and technologies, such as research and development leading to new fiber and manufacturing technology. Brands can have a more impactful role in advancing sustainability by contributing to an industry fund that supports these initiatives.
Providing simple information on individual brands’ contributions to the fund as a per cent of revenue can drive consumer choices and, consequently, competition between brands on investments.
The downsizing of corporate sustainability positions that I experienced could be a sign that brands are moving away from investing in internal sustainability initiatives. Given the complexity of the issues, that makes sense. Brands don’t need more people working on sustainability. What is needed is financial investment in systemic solutions related to fiber, chemical, and manufacturing research and technology.
Brands can’t create these systemic solutions on their own, but they can help pay for them on an industry level. Providing information to consumers about brands’ investment in industry-wide sustainability would give consumers a powerful tool for making purchases based on sustainability, which would motivate the apparel industry to take action toward reducing its environmental impact.
Mary Hable is a freelance writer and former corporate sustainability analyst in the apparel and footwear industry. She produced this feature as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. Her mentor for the project was Marc Gunther.
*This story first appeared on Ensia.