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How NOT to Make the Fashion Industry More Sustainable

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This week, representatives from all the major brands – from fast fashion retailers like H&M, Asos and Zara, through to luxury labels like Burberry and Swarowski – are gathering in Copenhagen to discuss sustainability in the global fashion industry.

The fashion industry is one of the most lucrative and destructive industries on earth. It generates €1.5 trillion every year and produces over a billion clothes every year. With global garment production set to increase by 63% by 2030, this model is reaching its physical limit.

This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit is focusing  on “circularity” – an industry buzzword that promises relief to the problem of limited resources within one of the world’s most resource intensive industries. In 2015, the fashion industry consumed nearly 80 billion cubic meters of fresh water, emitted over a million tonnes of CO2 and produced 92 million tonnes of waste. The Summit admits that the industry has a disastrous environmental impact and that we face “increasingly higher risk of destabilising the state of the planet, which would result in sudden and irreversible environmental changes”.

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Panelists at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 10 May 2017. Credit: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

While their focus on circularity sounds promising, it’s simply not enough.

Industry leaders rarely talk about the real solution: reducing the overall volume of production. All their talk about sustainable investing and innovative new materials and technologies comes under the assumption that the industry continues to grow. But unlimited growth is impossible on a planet with finite resources.

The industry wants to place the responsibility on consumers to educate themselves and recycle their own clothes, while continuing to heavily market cheap fast fashion at us.

Real change is not going to happen without investing in designs and strategies to extend the life of clothing and reduce the environmental impact of production at the design stage. Fashion brands need to redefine their marketing strategies and start involving customers in a new narrative where people buy less and clothes are more durable and repairable. We need to slow down.

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Trash queen street performance in Taipei, November 2016
It’s not enough to sell customers placebo solutions that ultimately leave shopping patterns untouched and guilt free. Even if we encourage people to recycle more, we have to remember that recycling is a resource intensive process relying on chemicals and vast amounts of energy, with many unsolved problems making it far from commercially viable.

We already know that we own more clothes than we can wear. Shopping doesn’t make us happy in the long run. High volumes of fast fashion and rapidly changing trends aren’t catering to our real needs.

If the Fashion industry really wants to be “an engine for a global and sustainable development”, it needs to think about how to shift the business model beyond the current paradigm of continuous economic growth. We hope that the fashion industry doesn’t wait until 2030 to realise that.

*This story first appeared on Greenpeace.org

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6 Experts Reveal the Sustainable Fashion Projects to Watch in 2017

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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.


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“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


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“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


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“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


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“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


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“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


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“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

‘Made in America’ Versus Fast Fashion

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Workers manufacture blue jeans in Congshin textile factory on February 9, 2012, in Xintang, Guangdong province, China. Photo: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

Earlier this month, online retailer Nasty Gal shocked fans by filing for bankruptcy. The e-commerce darling, which sold original designs, vintage pieces and items from other brands, became a social media hit thanks to innovative branding. Fellow millennial favorite American Apparel’s demise was not quite so surprising, having long been simmering in the pot despite the brand’s popularity. While both companies cited a number of reasons including legal troubles and mismanagement for their financial crashes, a major, troubling factor was also key—they kept most of their manufacturing within the United States.

The higher wages and management costs of the “Made in USA” label, although ethical, come at a very expensive price. Midrange brands trying to maintain that status have met with obstacles that fast-fashion competitors can sidestep by offering similar designs with minimum financial hassle.

The global fashion market is now an almost $3 trillion annual industry. While one may think that high-end designers with their expensive price tags are the prime contributors, most of the profits can be attributed to the fast fashion industry. TJX companies, a discount and off-price retailer, for example, generated nearly $31 billion in revenue in its 2015 fiscal year alone. It comes as no surprise then that one in every six people alive in the world today work in some part of the global fashion industry. This makes it the most labor-dependent industry on earth, majority of which is outsourced into the developing world, particularly in Asia, where Western household names dominate. According to Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization that monitors the working conditions in factories around the globe, H&M is the largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh.

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Mumbai factory. Photo: Nicholas Adams/Getty Images

Until the 1960s, America was still making 95 percent of its clothes. In 2015, only 3 percent was produced in the United States and a staggering 97 percent was outsourced. Most fast-fashion retailers see much sense in offshoring their manufacturing practices to countries like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, China and Vietnam because of their low wages, lax local labor laws and agreements of free trade.

“The cheaper the price, the more the profit” rhetoric also stems from the fact that most Americans don’t really care about how the clothes are made as long they’re cheap. Indeed, a 2013 Gallup poll stated that over 55 percent of American consumers make absolutely no effort into finding out where the clothes were created when shopping. New brands are aware of that and hence paranoid about taking the financial risk of local manufacturing. “The entire industry is asking for cheaper prices. Brands will publicly state that that’s not the case, but, off the record, if you ask any factory its biggest issue right now, I don’t care what country they’re in, they’re going to say ‘intense pressure from their clients to lower the price,’ ” Edward Hertzman, founder of Sourcing Journal Online, a trade publication covering the apparel & textile supply chain, told Business of Fashion.

With something new coming into the stores every week, instead of two seasons, brands now have 52 seasons a year. In order to support this mass production efficiently while maintaining their low prices, they see sweatshops and fashion factories in third world nations as a viable and profitable option. “When the Western retailers lower their prices, we are forced to comply and lower our prices and this directly affects what our workers make,” a disgruntled garment factory owner in Bangladesh told Observer on the condition of anonymity.

Currently, over 4 million people work within these sweatshops and an average worker in Bangladesh, makes about $67 a month, which comes up to only a little over $2 a day. Today, they are amongst the lowest paid garment workers in the world. Additionally, over 85 percent of these workers are primarily women who have no health benefits or any form of financial security. Unionization is illegal and working conditions only get intolerable. But these low wages and unsafe working conditions are all excused by most large companies under the assumption that they ultimately “provide jobs” to those who need one. Unfortunately, even tragedies such as the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed over 1,000 workers, has done little to change their point of view.

“Opportunities were missed to reinvent the supply chain and I cannot say with any confidence that there will not be a repeat of Rana Plaza in terms of scale. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, been injured or had their health compromised by producing garments since Rana Plaza and the garment industry remains dangerous, polluting and energy intensive when it need not be any of these things. Retailers were allowed to control and lead negotiations in the aftermath and were not selfless enough in the way that they approached them,” British author and journalist on 2015 fast-fashion documentary The True Cost Lucy Siegle said in an interview.

But how hard is it for a multitrillion dollar industry to ensure fair living wages of its workers and guarantee the most basic of human rights?

“So many of us have been told the sweatshop story based on a false zero sum ratio. It’s explained as either improve conditions or take away jobs. We can build better systems to keep these jobs while also implementing conditions that respect the most basic human dignity of the workers and longterm health of this planet we all call home,” said Andrew Morgan, post production — he was director of  The True Cost. “I can think of no other industry today that so clearly forces us to face the implications of globalization, human rights, women’s rights, and the environmental collision course we’re on,” he added.

The risks of the flawed supply chain are ultimately carried by those most vulnerable and at the bottom, who have no alternative but to be a part of it. They are the ones paying the price for the cheap clothing we buy. However, the industry is slowly but surely changing, starting at the top. There has been an apparent, albeit slow, shift in the effort to change these manufacturing practices. Kering, the company behind top designers including Stella McCartney have paved a new path in the fashion world, to sustainability. Earlier this year, Burberry announced plans to invest £50 million to expand and move most of its production to the North of England. People Tree, Brooks Brothers and Zady are brands catching up with category leader Reformation in the sustainable style race.

Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textiles and textile technologies at Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest trade fair companies, organizes the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin and praises the fact that sustainability is now becoming a cornerstone for a growing number of shoppers. “Consumers now have a broad range of contemporary fashion brands rooted in sustainability to choose from. For instance, at our trade fairs, more than 160 labels exhibit their collections every season and work in a sustainable and transparent manner.”

Because the biggest step towards sustainability and humanitarian-inspired shopping can only be taken by the consumer. The “Made In USA” label may come at a higher price, but it definitely is the more ethical one.

*This story first appeared on Observer