The 2015 documentary The True Costhas largely accomplished what it set out to do: wake up Western consumers to the horrifying impact of the fashion industry on exploited workers and the environment. And more consumers watch it every day.
But there’s one criticism of the movie that rings true: After all the visual carnage, viewers are left with no next steps. If we agree that mass-produced fashion is awful, that garment workers shouldn’t die making our clothes, that rivers should not be poisoned just for a cheap T-shirt, and that 1.715 billion tons of CO2 released a year (or about 5.3 percent of the 32.1 billion tons of global carbon emissions) is way too much, what can we do to change it?
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent in the fashion industry to Michael Pollan’s sharp, easy-to-remember instructions: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s because the fashion supply chain is so confoundingly opaque and complex, that even if you buy a purse that was handcrafted by a Peruvian artisan, the leather tannery might still have poisoned the local river, and the cows that provided the leather might have been abused. It’s exceedingly difficult as a shopper to say with any certainty that you are making the “right” choice when you buy something from a green collection or one that is purported to be fairly made.
Still, once you know all the horrible, awful, no-good things the fashion industry does to the planet (pouring carbon into the atmosphere, dumping increasingly large mounds of waste into landfills) and to (mostly female, mostly brown) workers, it feels wrong to throw up your hands and say, “Welp, everything sucks, and I’m going to do some retail therapy at Forever 21.”
As complicated as it can be, there are still things that you can do to lessen your impact on the planet and, of course, not feel like a total hypocritical dirtbag. Here they are.
According to this analysis, a full 22 percent of a garment’s climate impact comes from the process of a consumer driving to the store to try something on, driving to another store to try that thing on, then bringing their final selection home in their car. If you live in a city where you can walk or take public transportation to a store, then do that!
And don’t feel guilty about ordering items online. First, because a UPS, FedEx, or USPS truck is like public transportation for your clothing: efficient at moving a lot of stuff with minimal fuel. Second, your clothing probably comes through a distribution center, skipping the process of going to the store at all and going straight to you. And according tomultiplestudies, online shopping has a much lower environmental impact than brick-and-mortar shopping. It may feel wrong to get an item of clothing in a plastic bag in a box, but rest assured that if it goes to a store instead, it’s also showing up in a plastic bag — the bag’s just gone by the time you see it on the rack.
Another benefit of shopping online is the opportunity to be more thoughtful and discerning with what you buy. In a physical store, it might not be possible (or even occur to you) to research every brand you encounter then and there on your phone. But when you’re home and on the internet, you probably have more time, along with more access to resources, to do some deeper digging.
There are some excellent resources documenting the bad, good, and gray areas of shopping. The Good on You app lets you search for a brand’s environmental impact, labor policies, and even animal-friendly considerations, plus makes recommendations in different categories (dresses, hosiery, outerwear) of sustainable and ethical brands. Project JUST does about the same thing — carefully researches the impact and policies of various brands, plus puts out roundups of the most ethical and sustainable brands in categories like athletic wear and denim — but on a website.
There’s also the DoneGood browser extension, which pops up in the corner of your browser when you’re shopping and tells you whether or not the brand site you’re on is sustainable and/or ethical, and links you to alternatives if it’s not. If you’re visiting a conventional webstore, it also highlights which sustainable brands you should check out while you’re there.
Also, look through the About section or — even better — the sustainability or social responsibility section of a brand’s site to see if they say anything about how items are made. (If they don’t, it’s a bad sign. Skip ahead to step #7 and reach out to your favorite brands.) Google the brand’s name and look for recent news. And finally, check and see if it’s in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a trade group that requires its members to quantify their supply chains’ impact on the environment and is funding some really cool initiatives along the way. (It’s not the same as a third-party certification like the ones mentioned below, but does indicate that a company is serious about making changes.)
Of course, all of this supposed efficiency will be negated if you’re the kind of person who buys a dozen things from a dozen different stores and returns 11 of them. All of this advice really only works if you’re the type of person to use the internet to buy smarter, rather than impulsively.
Look for certifications.
There are a few gold-standard certifications that indicate that an objective deep dive into a product’s supply chain has been conducted. OEKO-TEX is an independent test and certification system for textiles, and it offers multiple levels of certification, the most basic of which indicates that the product is free of hazardous chemicals. The next level up concerns whether the textiles are made in socially and environmentally responsible conditions. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is a certification for textiles that contain “a minimum of 70% organic fibers.”
Forest Stewardship Council certification indicates that any trees involved (yup, some fabrics are made from trees — more on that later) were sustainably harvested. Fair Trade certification indicates that the factory workers are paid at least the minimum wage, and that the working conditions are safe.
It’s pretty hard to avoid polyester altogether, especially if you enjoy athleisure clothing, swimsuits, or anything with stretch. So look for polyester that’s made of recycled water bottles, fishing nets, carpet, and other post-consumer products. These products financially support the recycling industry and help to keep plastic waste from the landfill and ocean.
Tencel is a viscose rayon alternative by the Austrian company Lenzing made from sustainably-sourced eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop process that ensures no toxins are released into waterways. Silk, hemp, linen, and wool are all natural, low-impact textiles. (Just watch out if you’re vegan — the typical silk thread process kills the silkworms, and wool-producing sheep aren’t always treated the best, especially in Australia.)
Vegetable tanned leather doesn’t use heavy metals in the process (but as an FYI, that means it’ll take longer to soften up and break in). More leather alternatives are coming, but right now the best new alternative available for purchase is Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaf waste.
Seek out brands that pay their artisans fairly.
Understanding the environmental impact of your garment’s entire supply chain is nearly impossible — all the variables (production, dying, finishing, shipping), debates (are GMOs bad or not?), and scientific reports can lead to a mental burnout on the whole idea of conscious consumption. But picturing the positive social impact of a fairly-made garment is much more inspiring — and easy.
Many fair trade brands, like Lemlem, Voz, Siizu, Brother Vellies, Par en Par, Ace & Jig, Uniform, Manos Zapotecas, and more, have photos and information on their websites of the women and men who hand-make the garments or the factories they use. Other brands, like Reformation and Saint James, give factory tours. Still others, like Naja and Nisolo, give you a report on working conditions, pay, and benefits, plus how getting paid to use their community’s traditional skills positively impacts a worker’s community.
We could argue all day about relative merits of recycled polyester versus organic cotton, or how much you’re benefiting the environment by paying more for organic cotton, but it’s hard to argue with a mother getting paid a fair wage in safe working conditions. It feels a lot more rewarding, too, which can help keep you motivated.
There is a glut of secondhand fashion in the West. Secondhand shops can only resell about 20 to 45 percent (75 percent on a really good day) of unwanted threads — the rest is downcycled into insulation, carpeting, or rags, or (if it’s still wearable) shipped to developing countries to be resold for a few dollars.
This overabundance of orphaned clothing makes secondhand the perfect solution for fashion addicts who feel guilty about their waste and wallet. It prevents production of toxic or exploitative new clothing, and it keeps textiles out of the landfill or from being shipped overseas. Secondhand stores are almost all charitable, locally, or family-owned, so you direct your dollars away from multinational corporations and to small business. And best of all, it’s a way to get fresh threads (sometimes with the tags still on!) for fast-fashion prices.
If you have something really specific in mind and find the chaos of the thrift store intimidating, you could shop online at affordable sites like ThredUp and Tradesy, or Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal for upscale and designer items.
Show your favorite brands you care.
Not ready to pass up on that so cute ruffled viscose top from J.Crew? Curious where it’s made? Email or tweet at the brand! “Consumers think their voices don’t matter, but they do,” says Jessica Radparvar, the founder of the social impact communications consultancy Reconsidered. “Tweets, emails, questions asked in retail stores — if frequent enough, these communications get laddered up. I know many Corporate Social Responsibility teams that then use these anecdotes as ‘proof points’ to show that consumers are demanding transparency,” she says. “That can in turn help them get buy-in, approvals, and funding for projects they want to push forward.”
Again, that only works if the brand has a team like that instated. If they don’t answer, and you can’t find any information anywhere about attempts to go sustainable or ethical, you might want to cross them off your shopping list.
Capsule your wardrobe.
The best thing you can do is just buy less stuff. And you can buy less stuff if you buy things that are timeless and high-quality enough to last a long time.
How you launder it, how you dispose of it, even where it’s shipped from — all these factors are a sliver of the total impact of a typical garment. But most of the impact comes from the very fact that it was produced. The longer you use a garment, and the more times you wear it, the lower the impact. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and buy exclusively locally-made, organic fashion that costs well in the hundreds of dollars. Whatever it is, if you think you will wear it 30 times or more, that’s definitely a sustainable choice.
One popular notion in the conscious fashion world is the idea of a capsule wardrobe: an extremely edited collection of versatile pieces that can be endlessly mixed and matched, so that you get maximum use out of minimal possessions. If you want some guidance in this area, try the app Cladwell, which helps you discern your style, whittle down your wardrobe, donate or sell what you don’t love anymore, and come up with interesting new combinations.
The goal is to stop getting tossed about on the expensive seas of new trends, and confidently stand in your own personal style, with a closet full of (and only of) pieces that make you feel like your best self. If you love your closet and can easily put together a great outfit, you’ll never say, “I have nothing to wear!” and run out to buy something last minute to make you feel beautiful again, nor will you be tempted by whatever fun cheap thing is in the window at Forever 21, because you already have everything you need, thank you!
If you’re keen to try out a new trend, have a special event coming up, or you’re just bored with your closet but on a budget, renting lets you feel fabulous while using fewer resources. You can try Style Lend, which lets you rent luxury fashion from real women’s closets; Le Tote, which sends you a box of everyday items to try; or the OG of renting, Rent the Runway.
The main thing to know is that you can take or leave any of these tips and build a sustainable wardrobe that feels right for your lifestyle, your budget, and your personal style. There’s no one way to be a conscious consumer, just like there’s no one way to dress yourself. And as the sustainable fashion movement grows and evolves, dressing yourself with thought will hopefully only get easier with time.
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”.
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.
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.
A new survey, commissioned by Greenpeace, of the shopping habits of people in Europe and Asia finds that regularly buying too many clothes, shoes, bags and accessories has become an international phenomenon. This is especially striking in China and Hong Kong, but is also widespread in Europe, with up to half of consumers buying more clothes than they need and use.
Overconsumption of fashion is now deeply entrenched in our everyday culture, both in old European economies and in emerging ones such as China. In many ways, China is currently leading this trend, with more than half of Chinese consumers owning more clothes and bags than they need. Almost half of Chinese consumers buy more than they can afford – and more than makes them happy, and around 40 percent qualify as excessive shoppers, shopping compulsively more than once a week. Young, high-income women are the most vulnerable. The spread of online shopping and social media makes people even more susceptible to overconsumption.
These people are not shopping because they need something new – their motivation is the longing for excitement, satisfaction and confidence in front of others. Shoppers also seek to release stress, kill time and relieve boredom.
However, shopping does not make them happy; people already own too much and they know it. Around 50 percent report that their shopping excitement wears off within a day. A third of the East Asians feel even more empty and unfulfilled afterwards. They also seem to know they are on the wrong path; around half of consumers are hiding their purchases from others, fearing accusations of wasting money or other negative reactions.
Shopping behaviour is widely influenced by people’s social environment and media consumption. Social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook or WeChat in China are driving shopping mania, especially among young digitally connected East Asians. Browsing fashion blogs or following friends and celebrities triggers even more buying. After excessive shopping people experience regular tiredness and boredom – the binge is followed by a hangover.
About this survey
For this survey commissioned by Greenpeace, independent survey institutes Nuggets, TNS and SWG asked European and East Asian consumers about their shopping habits (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy, Germany) – how often, where and for how long they shop for clothing. We also wanted to know why they go shopping, what triggers them to buy new clothes – and whether they get fulfilled by doing so. All surveys are representative and were carried out between December 2016 and March 2017 amongst at least 1000 people aged 20 to 45 in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy and Germany.
Conservation charity WWF and the fashion industry aim to make desirable clothes that have zero impact on the environment
It is not a brand synonymous with style, but WWF, the world’s biggest conservation organisation, is teaming up with a London-based online fashion community to produce what it claims will be the world’s first 100% sustainable clothing range.
Big-name stores including Selfridges and Harrods are being lined up to sell the range in the UK, but WWF wants to make this a global project. It is determined to prove to the fashion industry that it is possible to design and produce clothes with zero impact on the environment.
“It’s hugely challenging,” says Alfredo Orobio, founder of the online community AwaytoMars that is working with WWF. “Everything from the buttons, zippers, labels, tags and packaging to the fabric and production process itself – all of it has to be sustainable.”
Orobio was approached at the end of last year. The project was attracted by the way his crowdsourcing platform allows anyone, from anywhere in the world, to have a hand in making clothes. Participants in the community upload their design ideas and the best ones will be chosen for the final collection, which is code-named “The New Normal Project”. It will be overseen by the Nordic Fashion Week Organisation, based in Finland. All profits from the venture will go to WWF.
The clothes will use a newly designed cotton fibre, from a Finnish startup called Infinited Fiber, that can be recycled an infinite number of times and which won’t, in theory, wear out. But this project goes way beyond the fabric, Orobio says. In a detailed 150-page document, WWF has stipulated “all the things we can’t do”.
“So it’s about finding the right suppliers, for example, and not using any pigments, only natural colour,” he says. “The whole of the production process has to be sustainable, even the lights and energy. The seamstresses must be paid a living wage, all the packaging will be recyclable, the trimmings, the labels, the tags.”
All of that is expensive, perhaps prohibitively so, which is one of the main reasons that sustainable fashion has yet to take off. But Orobio believes the bigger barrier is the lack of consumer buy-in and the fact that most shoppers are unaware of how polluting the industry is – fashion and textiles, says bestselling US designer Eileen Fisher, are second only to the oil industry as the biggest polluters on the planet.
It is not just the energy-intensive process of making the garments, the reality is that most of the clothes we wear end up in landfill. According to a recent Greenpeace report, the average European consumer now buys 60% more clothing items a year and keeps them for half as long as 15 years ago.
Synthetic fibres are one of the biggest problems. Manufacturing polyester, for example, which is already present in 60% of clothing, produces almost three times more carbon dioxide than organic cotton, and it can take decades to degrade – as well as polluting marine environments with plastic microfibres. And around 21 million tons of polyester was used in clothing last year, up 157% from 2000.
“Cheap fast fashion is a huge obstacle to a more sustainable industry,” says Tom Cridland, who started his own green fashion brand three years ago with a £6,000 government startup loan. “Theoretically, a 100% sustainable fashion collection is not impossible but we need more brands to promote buying less but buying better.”
Cridland’s unique selling point is the 30-year guarantee he attaches to his T-shirts, jackets and trousers. The notion that we can buy an item of clothing and keep it for much longer is taking off, he says, with sales now over £1m a year.
Karinna Nobbs, a lecturer at London College of Fashion, thinks WWF’s involvement could make some difference, but ultimately sustainable fashion needs big-name front-runners to make it more of an industry norm.
“If that doesn’t happen, I think we’re truly in danger of ruining the planet,” she says.
Some big-name designers are already putting sustainability at the forefront of their brands. At a recent speech on sustainability at London College of Fashion Stella McCartney declared that her industry was “getting away with murder” yet even her latest collection is only 53% sustainable.
One of the key barriers to consumer take-up is that the expense involved in turning every part of the life cycle of a garment green means the cost of sustainable clothing is out of the reach of most. Current prices at AwayToMars, for example, range from £50 for a T-shirt to £390 for a wool jacket. Cridland’s signature 30-year jacket costs £190 while a T-shirt is £35.
Of course Cridland and the sustainable fashion movement argue that you end up spending more in the long term with a fast-fashion route, but others say that is part of the attraction – the ability to buy clothes and discard them when fashions or fancies change.
Fashion lecturer Nobbs believes the industry is close to a tipping point. “Prices will normalise – they will have to as more brands get involved in sustainable clothing,” she says.
Orobio agrees that price is an issue but says he is undaunted. “My main goal is to be affordable – I don’t want to exclude the people who design for us,” he says. He believes that people will want WWF collection pieces because they will be “buying a piece with a huge story. It’s very different form buying something from Zara that was just copied”.
His online community will start having their say on the new WWF project from next month, and the aim will be to come up with six to 10 different looks. The prototype of the collection will be shown at the Helsinki Fashion Week in July.
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 aboutbrands’ 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.
It’s the new year, so you know what that means — deals, deals, deals. Now I can’t resist a good deal as much as the next person, but I’m finding the affordable accessibility of clothing to be a year-round thing. In fact, according to Greenpeace, today we buy 60 per cent more clothing than we did 15 years ago.
The average US consumer, according to The Atlantic, buys around 64 items of clothes per year, proving that the fast-fashion industry is alive and well. What is fast-fashion you may ask? It is an industry where companies continuously churn out on-trend styles at cheap prices. In the beginning, it seemed like a pretty good idea. Companies produce clothes at low-cost and consumers get the hottest designer styles as fast as they want. Everybody wins right? Unfortunately, not the environment.
The fast-fashion industry is incredibly taxing on our environment due to the amount of pollution it creates. In fact, the fashion industry was deemed the second largest cause of waste in the world, next to oil and gas.
It all seems pretty bad right now, but luckily the trend of sustainable and ethical fashion is on the rise. Now more than ever, large fashion brands that you and I shop at are joining the fight to make our world more sustainable.
H&M, for example, launched its Conscious Collection that exclusively uses recycled materials in order to produce their garments. They also launched their Garment Collection program in 2013, which aims to close the waste loop in fashion and recycle unwanted clothing. Last year, H&M even came to the UBC’s Vancouver campus so that students could easily drop-off their clothing.
Birkenstock — who make those hippie sandals that we all wear — has now developed an alternative called Birko-Flor, which is made of acrylic and polyamide felt-fibres that are totally vegan.
Even startups are doing their part. Rothy’s is a San Francisco-based company that creates comfortable and stylish womens’ shoes out of recycled water bottles. So I would definitely be recycling my plastic bottles if I were you. They could end up being worn on your feet.
I know its hard to directly shop for ethical clothing with a tight budget, so it’s good to know that the stores people often shop at are doing their part.
But what about locally?
With Vancouver’s great sustainability culture, a few ethical clothing brands were bound to pop up. If you’re ever in the Gastown area, I’d recommend taking a walk into retailers such as Neighbour, who sells a number of ethically sourced brands, and One of a Few, selling handmade accessories and vintage leather bags.
More notable brands are John Fleuvog. A majority of their soles are made with 100 per cent biodegradable hevea tree latex and cemented using water-based glue.
There is also our beloved Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC)! This brand is known for consistently recycling fabric, and limiting the waste from packaging and shopping bags. They use lower impact options like organically-grown cotton and recycled nylon. A fun-fact is that twice a year, teams at MEC stores don coveralls and jump in their dumpsters to do a waste audit and find ways to improve. They go hard.
Eco Fashion Week, a not-for-profit organization, also aims to present the solutions and innovations that work to develop a more sustainable and responsible fashion industry. Just having its 11th season last November, it has expanded internationally to hosting a show in Seattle and grow the sustainability community.
What can you do?
So there are a lot of cool innovations going on around the world, as well as in Vancouver, but all these things mean going out and buying more. Weren’t we supposed to be reducing the fashion waste? That is definitely doable and here are a few tips:
Only buy what you love. If you can’t see yourself wearing it 30 times, rethink the purchase.
Buy quality over quantity. If you can hold onto your clothing article for a month longer and not buy anything else, you will actually be reducing your carbon footprint by 5–10 per cent.
Finally, if you really want to know if there are some purely sustainable brands out there, check out the B-Corp website. As the website states, b-corps are for-profit companies, certified to meet the rigorous standards of social and environmental performance.
As author Anna Lappé stated, “Every time we buy something, we vote for what kind of world we want to live in.” Our purchasing power as consumers makes us in control of how sustainable the fashion industry and our environment can be. So let’s get on with it and — as cheesy as it sounds — make a difference in whatever way we can, big or small.
Sustainability in textile development and manufacturing is an ongoing conversation, much of it revolving around processes that conserve energy, water and natural resources. But beyond manufacturing processes, sustainability issues are driving true technical innovation, resulting in new products offering a host of advantages.
Replacing PFCs in DWRs The search for alternatives to perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) such as PFOA and PFOS (used to render textiles durably water and stain repellent have been front and center, primarily in the apparel , carpet and upholstery, and outdoor sectors. Loudly condemned by NGO and sustainability campaigner Greenpeace, and subsequently by various government organizations, PFCs persist in the environment and bio-accumulate in animals and humans, creating a number of health issues.
The European Union has banned the use of PFOS, and is considering a restriction on PFOA. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) negotiated with the chemical companies who produced them to phase out PFOA by 2015. As a result, textile and chemical companies have been forced to innovate sustainable, water or bio-based DWR finishes such as Chemours™ Teflon Eco-Elite™, Sciessent CURB™, Huntsman PHOBOTEX®, Schoeller® Technologies ecorepel®, HeiQ Eco Dry, and Bolger & O’Hearn’s Altopel F3®.
Based in Fall River, Massachusetts, Bolger & O’Hearn developed Altopel F3 some time ago, but felt that testing with the Hohenstein institute would add legitimacy to the product, which is now being launched via textile marketing group Concept III. “Sustainability is inspiring us to take a closer look at our raw materials and supply chain,” says Shawn Honeycutt, Bolger & O’Hearn sales manager. “We think we have the best performing product in the market.”
The PFC-free alternatives generally impart a softer hand to textile products, and repel water-based stains; but unlike PFC-based finishes, they do not have the ability to repel oil-based dirt and stains. As a result, some manufacturers of high-performance outdoor gear, such as Patagonia and W.L. Gore & Associates, are funding additional research. Patagonia has invested in a Swiss company, Beyond Surface Technologies, which is working to develop better chemistries for outdoor apparel; the Gore Enterprise is putting $15 million into researching non-PFC materials. The first non-PFC Gore-Tex products should be available in 2018.
At Chemours, “The story is moving towards stain management,” says Gerald Brown, the company’s principal investigator for textiles R&D. “Our customer is asking for it, and we feel we are making strides towards that end.”
Improving on nature
While many proponents of sustainable textiles maintain that you can’t beat Mother Nature, the truth is that innovative synthetic materials are being engineered with better green credentials. Nonwoven wipes are an example. The market for single-use, personal care wipes (generally made from polyester) reached $8.2 billion in 2013, according to Euromonitor International, and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 3 percent through 2018.
While most wipes are not flushable, ending up in landfills, consumers are demanding the convenience of a flushable wipe. A large proportion of wipes are flushed anyway, much to the dismay of municipalities who must deal with the problem of blocked sewers.
The industry is developing new requirements for flushable wipes, and some manufacturers have turned to cellulosic fibers, which can be more easily biodegraded. But according to Bynum Poole, president of the Greenville, South Carolina-based Poole Co., a leading distributor of polyester fibers for the nonwovens industry, cellulosic nonwovens are more expensive and more difficult to process than polyester.
Like many polyester suppliers, the company offers post-consumer recycled fibers, via their EcoSure® brand. Last year the company took the process a step further with the development of EcoSure® BioBlast™, a biodegradable fiber made from 100 percent recycled PET bottles, shown to biodegrade 12 times faster over a year in landfill conditions than traditional polyester fibers.
While biodegradable is not the same as flushable, it is perhaps a step in the right direction. According to Poole, the product could be tweaked to biodegrade faster to meet the needs of a brand partner. “The nonwovens ship turns around slowly,” he confessed. “But we have a lot of interest and ongoing trials.”
EcoSure BioBlast fibers are also seeing interest from outdoor apparel and sock brands, as well as the automotive industry, Poole says.
The textile industry is also taking a closer look at the sustainability story being told by bio-based fibers such as DuPont™ Sorona®, which has been around for more than a decade. Given the generic “triexta,” Sorona is a type of polytrimethyl terephthalate (PTT) containing 37% Bio-PDO™ (bio-based 1,3 propanediol), made by fermenting glucose from corn.
“We’ve never really told our story,” says John Sagrati, global segment leader for Sorona carpet. “Sorona is more like a natural fiber; it comes from fermentation. Think of us as a natural fiber, with the same softness as cashmere or silk; and great natural springiness. The magic is in designing from nature forward, instead of being ‘just like’ other synthetics in the market.”
Bio-PDO™ (bio-based 1,3 propanediol) contains three carbons, and nature is filled with three-carbon and six-carbon forms. “People are beginning to understand the concept of ‘biomimicry’,” says Renee Henze, global marketing manager for Sorona.
Because those carbons are impervious to stains and odor, Sorona has seen its greatest success in carpeting. Sagrati pointed out that soft, resilient Sorona carpet fibers don’t require coating with silicone softeners or stain-resistant finishes (read: no PFCs). “It doesn’t look or feel synthetic; there’s no extra stuff on it,” he said. “And moths won’t eat Sorona.”
The Sorona technical team is also working closely with carpet mills to develop new blends that take advantage of the fiber’s softness, and to engineer latex-free backings, further reducing the product’s environmental footprint.
The latest use for sustainable Sorona fibers is in makeup brushes, where it replaces natural animal hair. Sorona’s softness and stain-resistant qualities are also attracting the high-end automobile industry, where “glowing” light-colored interiors are trending, according to Sagrati.
Creatively applying recycling
The proliferation of closed-loop textile systems that keep textile waste out of the landfill is creating a host of recycled yarns and materials that can be used to make new textiles, primarily for apparel and industrial end uses such as insulation, batting and bedding. But recycled and sustainable materials are also being used to engineer highly technical products.
Leaders in this area are Leigh Delaware Holdings, the parent company of South Carolina-based Leigh Fibers, a processor and trader of recycled fibers, and ICE Recycling, which reprocesses polymers, cardboard and metal. Leigh recently announced the formation of a third sister company, SmartVista™, to focus on the development of new products and technologies from these materials for a variety of industries.
SmartVista’s first product, called SPILLARMOR™ – RDS100, is a lightweight, self-contained emergency response unit designed to rapidly absorb hydrocarbon spills.
“SmartVista will continue developing customer focused technologies for a wide array of industries where sustainable solutions may not currently be available,” says Mariel McAllister, director of public relations for the three companies. Through sustainable engineering, Leigh Fibers has diverted morethan 14 billion pounds of textile waste and byproducts from landfills.
There are dozens of sustainability-driven innovations currently in development in the world of textiles, from synthetic spider silk and fibers spun from oceanic plastic waste, to eco-alternatives to spandex, dyes and printing inks, goose down, building materials, or geo-synthetics. Indeed, one could argue that sustainable imperatives are perhaps the greatest driver of textile innovation today, giving product developers the opportunity to not only make textiles more sustainable—but to create something new and different in the process.
New research on fashion trends and textile waste, released by Greenpeace on the eve of Black Friday, highlights the serious environmental consequences of overconsumption. Clothing is among the most sold products on the annual shopping day promoted in many countries, which, critics say, encourages impulsive overspending and unnecessary purchases through bargain ’ offers and discount prices .
“It is hard to resist the allure of a good bargain, but fast fashion means we’re consuming and trashing fashion at a higher rate than our planet can handle,” said Kirsten Brodde, head of Greenpeace’s Detox my Fashion campaign.
To counter excessive consumerism, growing numbers of people choose to abstain and observe “Buy Nothing Day” instead. As part of this movement, “trash queens” in dresses upcycled from discarded clothes are visiting shopping centres in three major cities in Asia and Europe to remind customers how many impulse buys of today end up as trash tomorrow.
The research, Timeout for fast fashion, published today by Greenpeace Germany, shows how the fast fashion business is rapidly expanding: Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, with sales rising from US$ 1 trillion in 2002 to 1.8 trillion by 2015, and a forecast of 2.1 trillion by 2025. The average person buys 60 per cent more items of clothing every year and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago, producing immense volumes of textile waste.
Environmental impacts detailed include chemicals from textile factories polluting rivers and oceans, high levels of energy use and pesticides from cotton growing contaminating agricultural land. One of fast fashion’s biggest costs to the planet comes from the rising use of synthetic fibres, says Greenpeace, in particular polyester that emits nearly three times more CO2 in its lifecycle than cotton. Already present in 60 per cent of clothing, polyester can take decades to degrade, as well as polluting marine environments with plastic microfibres.
As of today, recycling is not a solution. Markets are overloaded with unwanted clothes and technological challenges mean full recycling of clothing into new fibres is still far from commercially viable. “Our research indicates that the second hand clothing system is on the brink of collapse. Fashion brands need to urgently re-think the throwaway business model and produce clothing that’s durable, repairable and fit for re-use. As consumers, we also hold the power. Before buying our next bargain item, we can all ask ‘do I really need this?’,” said Brodde.
Since 2011, Greenpeace’s Detox campaign has gathered support from 78 companies including fashion brands, retailers and textiles suppliers to achieve zero discharges of hazardous chemicals in the manufacturing supply chain by 2020 and many are making progress towards this goal. However, if the trend for more and cheaper clothing continues, any gains that are made on eliminating hazardous chemicals will be outstripped by higher rates of production and consumption in the industry as a whole.
What’s in your jeans? A rogue’s gallery of unpronounceable chemicals whose effects on humans are suspect.
Perfluorochemicals , phthalates and azo dyes are among the substances that are widespread in making clothes. Under pressure from consumers demanding safer alternatives to harmful chemicals, American companies including Levi Strauss & Co. are taking a more European approach. The European Union has banned or restricted more than 1,000 chemicals; in the U.S., fewer than 50.
Consumer demand for safe products has global companies scrambling for greener ingredients, but obstacles are daunting.Suppliers are often reluctant to share their formulations, buyers balk at higher costs, and in some cases cost-effective safer substitutes simply aren’t available.
Levi’s has prohibited certain chemicals since 2000, but this is different. The jeans maker and other companies are asking suppliers to use materials generated from bacteria, fungus, yeast and methane gas to replace the petroleum-based substances that make up more than 95 percent of U.S. products’ inventory of chemicals.
There are plenty of incentives to change. A Pike Research report estimates that the global market for green chemistry will increase to almost $100 billion by 2020, from $11 billion last year. Millennials are overwhelmingly interested in sustainable investing, according to Morgan Stanley. And innovating can give companies a competitive advantage, said Monica Becker, co-director of the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council , which works with companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Companies can make false promises that a product is consistent with green-chemistry practices, Becker said, but guarding against that are assessment methods used by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice program.
Rules can also confound the efforts of U.S. companies. To approve chemicals and processes, the European Union uses a so-called hazard-based approach that the Chinese government is also considering. Manufacturers need to prove their products meet safety standards before they bring them to market. The U.S. method is risk-based. It involves weighing metrics, such as quantity and duration of exposure, to assess the danger in an existing product — if data exist.
Proponents of a hazard-based approach argue that exposure to even tiny amounts of some chemicals correlate with learning disabilities, asthma, allergies and cancer.
“Shouldn’t it be that chemicals are guilty until research proves them innocent?”
“Shouldn’t it be that chemicals are guilty until research proves them innocent?” said Amy Ziff, founder and executive director of Made Safe , a new hazard-based certification program. Levi’s said its goal is to use only chemicals that pass hazard-based screens by 2020.
Even as some suppliers push back, “we wouldn’t give up on hazard-based,” said Bart Sights, Levi’s director of global development.
Levi’s already uses some green methods to make its signature blue jeans. To give them a worn look, Levi’s uses an enzyme derived from fungus and tumbles the jeans in ozone gas instead of bleach — a process that Sights estimated has had the added benefit of saving the company a billion gallons of water in the past three years.
“Some companies are spending the same amount on environmental compliance as they are on research and development,” said John Warner, president and chief technology officer of Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry , who created the first green-chemistry Ph.D. program in the U.S., at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Companies can be roiled by the use of non-green chemicals. Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc. was beset by lawsuits last year after a “60 Minutes” investigation said it used unsafe levels of formaldehyde. Shares plunged before a government probe ended without a product recall. The company no longer sells the flooring.
Such problems have investors taking notice, said Mark Rossi, whose company, Clean Production Action , created the Chemical Footprint, modeled on the carbon footprint, that investors can use to measure risk and costs. It also developed and licenses a chemical-screening method used by Levi’s and others.
Rossi has signed on firms including BNP Paribas, Calvert Investments and Trillium Asset Management, while companies like Johnson & Johnson and Clorox Co. participated in the first survey to assess their footprint. Gojo Industries Inc., maker of Purell hand sanitizer, has pledged to cut its chemical footprint in half by 2020.
In the five years since it launched a campaign to spur clothing makers and sellers to get rid of toxic substances, Greenpeace International has signed on 78 brands, said Kirsten Brodde, head of the organization’s Detox My Fashion campaign.
At the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry , across the Bay Bridge from Levi’s San Francisco headquarters, students have worked with the jeans maker and companies such as outfitter Patagonia Inc., office-furniture maker Steelcase Inc. and Mango Materials Inc., which manufactures plastics out of methane gas, to develop safer materials, including a non-toxic resin for Autodesk’s 3D printers.
But an overnight change for the greener just isn’t possible.
“When it comes to materials, we’re at the very initial step, which is figuring out what the heck is actually in our products,” said Marty Mulvihill, a founder of the Berkeley Center and its former executive director. “A lot of companies are just completing that first step.”
A comprehensive replacement for formaldehyde, for example, hasn’t been developed, Mulvihill said.
Mulvihill is now a partner at Safer Made, a new venture-capital firm he co-founded that’s seeking investments in companies that use green chemistry. It’s looked at more than 100 companies, with plans to invest in 10 to 15 firms in the next five years, he said.
Patagonia has also invested in green chemical companies. A Levi’supplier, Beyond Surface Technologies , is one of a dozen the Ventura, California-based clothing maker has seeded out of 1,400 prospects it’s looked at since 2013.
“Ultimately, some of these companies that we fund could be able to help us clean up our own supply chain,” said Phil Graves, Patagonia’s director of corporate development.
There are 20 environmentally friendly chemicals available for the company’s textile finishes, compared with 200 to 300 that contain non-green chemicals, said Matthias Foessel, Beyond Surface’s founder and chief executive officer.
Developing safer alternatives can take years, while acceptable green substitutes for some substances used in waterproofing and stain protectants, such as perfluorocarbons, don’t exist, Foessel said.
New chemicals often behave differently than expected. Beyond Surface had been trying to create a water repellent when it developed a fabric that absorbs sweat instead.
Still, Foessel’s eight-year-old firm, based near Basel, Switzerland, now has more than 100 customers, including Adidas AG.
“Ten years ago, people wouldn’t have even talked to us,” Foessel said. “People accepted that you had to use chemicals that pose a risk.”
According to The Detox Catwalk 2016 by Greenpeace, Swedish label H&M ranks among the top three retailer giants who have been making steady efforts to curb the negative impacts of mass production on the environment. H&M is rapidly expanding its foothold in India—after Delhi, Bangalore and Pune, Mumbai will have its own H&M stores to frequent. As a consumer, understanding where the brand comes from and the nature of its relationship with us becomes even more relevant to us.
H&M catapulted from its humble roots (fact: the brand originally started shop reselling clothes) to a 28-million-dollar business. Somewhere along the way, delivering the latest fashion every two weeks caused an impact that needed to be accounted for—there was the strain on natural resources, factories emissions, lack of dialogue between designers and workers and the odd bleak case of child labour. In terms of retail, India is a new market but production-wise H&M has been present in India for thirty years, with most of their wares coming out of factories located in Bengaluru.
Meanwhile in Stockholm, the brand’s headquarter is buzzing with a myriad mix of creative intelligence works in the many departments. True to Scandinavian fashion, every last inch is organised, colour-coded and archived. It’s hard not to imagine the disparity between the clean, whitewashed interiors where the designing takes place, and the actual factory space where it is created.
We traced the journey of the garment from ideation to germination and its afterlife—Vogue spoke to Pernilla Wohlfahrt, head of design, and Anna Gedda, head of sustainability, to discuss H&M’s conscious efforts to integrate sustainability.
When Wohlfahrt started at the company nearly 23 years ago, H&M had an initiative called ‘Nature Calling’. Today, the efforts made by the megalith are much more streamlined and focused. “People are always trying to find new ways to express themselves through clothing, but it needs to be done in a conscious way,” says Wohlfahrt. “It’s nothing we need to tell the design team; they love working with a challenge. It’s very unfashionable to not think sustainable.”
H&M today has a special segment called ‘H&M Conscious’. It collects collects discarded garments that are recycled, and by 2020 they plan to ensure that all cotton used in production comes from 100 per cent sustainable sources. Unfortunately, the problems that call for the need of sustainability are not unidimensional. The multi-headed hydra of the cost of production includes child labour, living wages, working conditions, emissions and wastage.
Question and answers
The primary hurdle in the way of H&M’s attempts to make changes is that the company works with suppliers and that gives them a truncated control over the operations. Meaning, H&M outsources its production in different parts of the world, and as a company it has very little say in the laws governing those factories. “So, for example, if we are talking about cotton cultivation in India, we had faced some issues regarding child labour in Tamil Nadu in the past. This is very serious to us, but we are not really buying the cotton and we don’t own the factories—meaning we don’t have a control over the operations of the supplier,” says Gedda. The company now partners with UNICEF, which liaises with governments directly to ensure suppliers follow ethical practices and human rights are not compromised.
If the skirt you love at the store is as cheap as 12 dollars, what was the cost of making it, and what fraction of it reaches the hands creating it? Anna Gedda continues to explain the complex nature of the beast. “One of the most common questions we are asked is if wages are too low, why don’t we just pay the workers more? Unfortunately, the reality is not that simple. The standard factory set up is that workers sit in rows and each of these rows are working on different brands. It can be brands that are at lower or higher price points than us and no matter, they are paid the same and work in the same living conditions. So if we are tackling fair work wages, it is not possible to pay the workers working on H&M garments more than their colleagues. So when we talk about the cost of creating a garment, we negotiate and fix the labour cost and keep that aside from the other costs of the garment production,” says Gedda.
You may have spotted garment bins in H&M stores. Customers are encouraged to drop old or discarded garments in these, which are then repurposed to do what the company calls “closing the loop on fashion”. These are sent to a sorting facilities run by the Swiss recycling company I:CO . Most of the clothes received are in good condition and they can be re-worn—these are sold to resale markets. Pieces with minor damage are repurposed as smaller utility items like dishcloths. Then there are those that can’t be reused at all; these can be recycled at a fabric level—what comes out of it is used to make fillings for car seats and other such filling and packing. One per cent is incinerated to generate electricity. “We don’t really make money out of it. We are paid a small amount by I:CO for every kilo, but that’s donated to local charities and some of it goes to our own foundation for funding different technological innovations,” says Gedda.
H&M has some minimum requirements that a supplier needs to fulfil to be able to work for them. They measure and assess the suppliers on a regular basis and score them accordingly. Factory audits take place every 18-24 months, and representatives stay there for 45 days to check everything. Gedda talks about their vacuum-tight methods of avoiding unfortunate cases of child labour, which are woven in with complexities of immigration and wage laws. “We look at the employment contracts; we look at the samples they make, the waste treatment plants, talk to the workers. Our biggest concern is child labour, so we make sure the factories have a recruitment system in place. We make sure they have ID cards that can’t be swapped—there are systems in place but we have to ensure that the 45 days we spend there are not just a snashot of the place. We also have follow up audits every six months,” says Gedda.
With every progressing day, the need to come up with more solutions to attain sustainability is a goal at H&M. The company aims to encourage more and more contributors from different backgrounds to help them come up with new ideas that can be of help not only to H&M, but to others seeking similar answers. The H&M Foundation is an outreach programme launched in 2015, where five winning ideas are chosen in the vein of technological advancement. Gedda concludes, “We will need a lot more innovations and solutions than what we have today and it’s crucial that we find them and fine tune them.”
The truth behind fast fashion doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but the efforts made to change the situation points to a better future.