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.
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
A Note On Fashion Fashion
There is no such thing as “conscious fast fashion.” Fast fashion encourages buying frequently and discarding quickly. The current mainstream fashion industry relies on globalised, mass production methods where items are designed, produced, sold, and then discarded at a rapid pace – usually within a few weeks. The production methods used to create these garments – sold on the high street through big name brands – threaten natural resources and damage the social and ecological environment; contributing to the depletion of fossil fuels; damaging water reservoirs and cotton crop irrigation; introducing pesticides into the environment; placing forests and ecosystems in jeopardy, and using unethical manufacturing methods that threaten human rights and the safety of its workforce.
The main reason our relationship with fast fashion is unsustainable is because we buy too much. When items are so cheap, we justify to ourselves the reasons for buying them. We buy them because they are cheap not because we love them. We end up with too many things.
What Is “Slow Fashion”?
Slow fashion is the rejection of trend-led seasons; it’s about fewer purchases of higher quality, designed and created to last. It encourages us to consider our environment by valuing ethical production methods, creating quality products in a sustainable manner.
Slow fashion is about buying less; it’s about placing quality over quantity; it’s about caring for the environment; it’s about conscious buying and thoughtful purchases. It’s not about not buying anything at all. We need clothes to wear, shoes to put on our feet, and it’s OK to lust after (and buy) little extras that we don’t necessarily need but rather want. So long as we make those purchases in a respectful, conscious manner, taking into account how something was made, whether it was designed to last, and if it will enrich our lives rather than just add another thing to our pile of things only to be discarded later.
Slow fashion values our environment; places importance on diversity, quality, beauty, and sustainability; acknowledges the needs of our environment and our community; encourages us to slow down our consumption and practice conscious buying.
How We Can Play Our Part
Consumption, in any form, is powerful. Slow fashion is about voting with our money; it’s about making a conscious choice to buy sustainable items, and that choice says: “I care. I care about our community. I care about our environment. I care about the part I play in it.” But also: “I place value in the things I buy.”
If you feel this “movement” is exclusive or are daunted by the issues it deals with, remember slow fashion is not about living by a certain set of rules. It’s about introducing an awareness of sustainability into our lives and that means something different to everyone and can be achieved in so many different ways. It’s about aspiring to do better in any small way we can.
Slow fashion is simply the decision to be conscious with our choices and make only thoughtful purchases that enrich our lives both mentally and physically.
*This story first appeared on The Private Life of a Girl
Packing for a fortnight trip I carefully edited to what was essential. I calculated the number of days and the luggage allowance permitted by the airline. But, what would I carry if I had to go for a journey that could last a few months? And what if it this journey was on foot!
The Rabaris of the semi desert region of Kutch, West India, believing they are divinely designated to take care of the camel, migrate seasonally, looking for green pasture. The men of the Rabari community wear an upper garment kediyun (pl. kediya), always white. Regional garments including the kediyun were traditionally made by the women of the family. “Where would you find a tailor in the jungle?” commented Harkuben Rabari. So, it was essential to carry the knowledge and the skills, while making distant journeys. The women learnt the art of making the garments by observing the elders.
With my background in fashion, the dramatic cut of the kediyun had fascinated me. So for my masters research I found apprenticeships under three different makers of kediyun. I learned that long ago men of many ethnic communities of Kutch wore kediya. A few decades ago almost all the women in the local Rabari and Ahir communities could stitch the garment, however only a few could cut it. Cutting involved the understanding of body proportions, taking measurements and cutting the actual fabric. The approach in cutting was zero wastage. Everything was economically used. Understanding the fabric quality in relation to body and stitching is also integral to the process. When regional hand weaving became unaffordable and mill cloth replaced it, the women adapted the cut to fit the width of the mill cloth.
Religious and spiritual beliefs too are central to the making of the kediyun. According to a local tailor, hand stitching is not the same as machine. “With hand stitching your thoughts get stitched with the cloth too.” One day during my apprenticeship, I was told that in honour of Shetla mata, a goddess who has the power to cure or bring small-pox, activities which involved knotting, such as combing of hair or knotting the thread end for stitching, could not take place. It is believed that the Goddess could get stuck in the knot, bringing disease to a child in the family.
Even wearing a kediyun has cultural implications. The first time I wore a kediyun that I had stitched, I didn’t know how to wear it, particularly how to tie the garment. So I discovered how the garment brings two people together in an intimate way. The wearer is brought close to the person who ties the strings, as they stand close, facing each other. This relation is “equal”, as opposed to the feeling of hierarchy when a person stands behind a wearer, assisting him to wear a (Western) jacket.
After the earthquake of 2001 in Kutch, communities’ lifestyles and relationships with the environment saw a drastic shift, at a faster pace than ever before. Industries were introduced in the rural region with the dream of economic growth, often ignoring the local culture. According to Lakhabhai Rabari, “men from our village used to leave for work wearing a kediyun. On reaching the gate of the factory, they would change to pants and shirt as they were told that traditional clothes were not practical. This continued for a few months, after which the most of the men stopped wearing the kediyun altogether.” Kediya for special purposes such as weddings were adorned with embroidery in traditional styles that were distinctive of communities, as were the specific cuts of the garment. Traditionally one style of kediyun worn by the groom was made by his first cousin: the garment became a way of introducing her to the community. Among the young generation, the kediyun is now reduced to ritual wear.
One Rabari women complained that she used to stitch all her family’s clothes—juldi, kediyun, ghaghari. But her daughter in-law does not even know how to stitch a basic ghaghari (skirt); she purchases a readymade version. Machine made ready to wear kediya manufactured in Ahmedabad are available at selected local shops. A few tailors too make copies of the kediyun. However, the approach does not combine the traditional wisdom of the material culture.
Jamanben Ahir, one of the last makers of the kediyun who still continues making and even repairing, was proud to have me as a pupil. Although Jamanaben’s husband wears a kediyun, her son has never worn one. Her daughter, who uses a sewing machine, had previously never recognised her mother’s knowledge. She became curious and started to observe her mother teaching me.
Most of the Rabaris don’t have camels anymore; there are only a few exceptions of families who still migrate with their herds. What these communities do carry is the knowledge, skills and most important concepts of sustainability, slow fashion, well made objects and of style—an approach that could open new ways of thinking if applied in mainstream fashion design education.
Based in Ahmedabad, India, LOkesh Ghai is a textile artist, researcher and academician working with traditional craft practice. His work has featured at the V&A Museum of Childhood, London; Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire; Gallery of Costume, Manchester and Ahmedabad International Art Festival. He has been visiting lecturer at numerous institutions both in India and the UK including the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Gandhinagar, Royal College of Art, London and Somaiya Kala Vidya, Kutch, India’s premier design institute for traditional craft communities. Recently LOkesh showcased his work as part of India Street in Scotland; the show was a runner up for the most sustainable design practice award in the Edinburgh International Art festival. Currently he is working with the Warli tribes of folk artists as part of Re:imagine India, towards the 70th year of Indian independence.
*This story first appeared on Garland
The fashion industry isn’t known for its climate sense. Depending on who you ask, textiles and apparel account for something on the order of 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Producing a single ton of fabric can require up to 200 tons of water — water that’s often contaminated with untreated dyes and pumped back into rivers. The first ingredient in polyester is petroleum. Any way you spin it, apparel’s impact on the planet is less than ideal.
Which makes sense. Just about everyone out there wears clothing. An industry whose consumers number in the billions is bound to have a significant environmental impact.
In the run-up to last December’s U.N. Climate Conference, seven top fashion brands released a joint statement detailing their concerns for a warming world. Not only was climate change grave news for the planet, it was potentially awful for the bottom line. (You can imagine how, say, an increased frequency of drought might affect cotton yields.) While not offering up any new pledges per se, the declaration did momentarily swivel a media eyeball in the direction of the industry’s previous commitments to — and awareness of — the problem at hand. Levi Strauss & Co., for example, a signatory to the declaration, reaffirmed its 2012 pledge to cut emissions by 25 percent by 2020. And the company is indeed on target to meet its goal.
But should we care? Should we be encouraged, or even satisfied, by a 25 percent emissions cut? Or is something like the reaffirmation of a pledge in the face of the Paris Climate Conference a case of greenwashing at its most transparent? Given the sheer scale of the apparel industry’s supply chains, the tensions among greenwashing, true climate action, and the “better-than-nothing” argument demand more than a thread’s width of attention.
Patagonia, the outdoor clothing brand long recognized as a leader of sustainability initiatives in the field, is a staunch proponent of private sector climate action. Sitting on a panel in Paris in December, Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario argued, “We’re moving faster than a lot of governments.”
Of course, the company still makes huge amounts of clothing — clothing that’s sold around the world — and is far from carbon neutral. The winking “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign predictably resulted in the purchase of more than a few jackets. And while the company is more or less openly anti-growth, “anti-consumerism is clearly helping to build the Patagonia brand,” wrote J. B. Mackinnon in The New Yorker last year. “Indeed, the company is seeing double-digit annual growth.” Under its “1 Percent For the Planet” initiative, the company donates 1 percent of net sales to non-profit environmental organizations each fiscal year. In 2013, itdonated $5,602,433. Multiply that number by a hundred and you get a sense of Patagonia’s size.
Does the company necessarily counter itself? “In some ways, we’d do a lot more to help the environment if we just went away,” reads Patagonia’s website. But a passing glance up and down any given street in Seattle, for example, confirms that the brand’s not going anywhere.
When I sat down with Marcario after her panel discussion in Paris, she told me that one of the most promising recent developments in the apparel industry is that companies are now vilified if they don’t have a sustainability strategy. “If you don’t, you’re probably not going to be a brand of choice — or you’re going to be marginalized,” she said. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
Shaming, though, only goes so far. A company has to have a sustainability strategy that actually works.
You’d be hard-pressed indeed to argue that anything Patagonia is doing is worse than what, say, fast fashion brand Zara is doing. The question is whether or not there’s a way to truly produce clothing right. Maybe that means carbon neutrality, or perhaps the elimination of commodity-driven deforestation. Or maybe there’s just a central contradiction in trying to fix the problem of there being too much stuff by making more stuff. You can see how this quickly devolves into an argument for nudity.
Patagonia does think critically about the agricultural practices it supports and the production standards it employs. Several of Patagonia’s sustainability-minded trends — a plant-based (as opposed to petroleum-based) wetsuit, for example — have gone on to be adopted by bigger players in the industry. But what if Big Wetsuit simply offers another, premium (read: green) option for the sake of satisfying demand and then simply continues to pump out the synthetic suits at the same rate? We have more self-described green clothing than ever before in industrialized history, but the quantity of clothing we buy is still massive: Americans purchase around 20 billion new items of clothing a year. Try that number on for size.
Tom Cridland, founder of an eponymous fashion brand, told me that most of the solutions to the industry’s environmental problems boil down to longevity. The brand’s flagship product, the 30 Year Sweatshirt, is billed as, well, exactly what the name implies. “Wardrobe staples shouldn’t be made systematically to fall apart,” said Cridland. But is it too late for 30 Year Sweatshirts? If there’s anything that changes more slowly than the climate, it’s probably entrenched industrial practices.
Marcario is a case study in optimism: “If you’re not out there raising the bar, everyone accepts the entrenched status quo.”
Of course, there are some fairly obvious things you can do as a maker of apparel to improve the environmental impact of your supply chains, and several of them encompass more than the concept of longevity. You can recognize that the supply chain extends further back than the factory. You can opt for non-petroleum based, organic fibers, such that soil can sequester carbon. If you’re going to use pesticides, use the right ones. Reward countries with strong forestry policies. Be conscious of the energy mix of the country in which your mills and factories are based, and power your factories with renewable energy wherever you can. Partner with shipping companies that use eco-friendly fuels. Avoid air transport. Become aBenefit Corporation. Reuse your cooling water, recover heat from your hot water, and improve the boiler efficiency of your mills. Build your clothing to last.
And companies like Patagonia are doing many of these things. But Marcario’s sentiment — the one that hints at the importance of platform over product — might be the actual answer to the question of whether or not the company should just go away. Don’t leave, the logic goes. If we’re not here, who else will lead the charge?
It’s a sentiment echoed by another recent entrant to the sustainable fashion space. Zady, an online fashion brand dedicated to greening its supply chains, argues for the same existential justification. “If we were just an advocacy group, we might just be speaking to the same people,” said Zady CEO Maxine Bédat — the same people, as in environmentalists who already care about making green choices. Bédat argues that the fashion angle allows the message to reach consumers that might not already be thinking about these issues.
And often they’re not. Fashion, especially trend-centric fashion, has been relatively slow to embrace real sustainability initiatives. As Bédat explained to me: “The reason that it has taken a long time for the apparel industry to understand the connection between itself and climate change — and other issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals more generally — is that it’s complicated. It’s not as simple as how much fuel you’re using in your cars or airplanes.” As a consequence, consumers simply haven’t been exposed to the same simple messaging as, say, that which comes with remembering to turn off the lights when you leave a room.
For Bédat, the most relevant metric in the space is cost-per-wear. “Especially in an industry in which the consumer has been led to believe that clothing is disposable, that’s the first umbrella,” she said. According to Zady’s The New Standard, a set of guidelines for a more sustainable garment industry, 150 billion new pieces of clothing are produced every year.
“That is a replaceable wardrobe, every year, for every single man, woman, and child on the planet,” said Bédat. Shifting the narrative from one of disposability to one of durability shifts the question away from the price tag, she says. Tom Cridland, too, argues for a cost-per-wear understanding of fashion.
The product of this framework is, however, a relatively niche market. There are relatively few, globally speaking, who can afford an article of clothing that’s produced by a company that supports sustainable agriculture and pays fair wages. Referring to upstarts like Zady and Tom Cridland, Marcario said, “The capital markets aren’t really set up to reward those guys.” The primary concern, then, isn’t so much one of greening supply chains as it is creating a growing set of consumers who expect these kinds of supply chains. Increased competition in the space should foster affordable clothing that’s still sustainable.
For these companies, that transition starts with simply informing consumers that there are better options out there. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if they’re the ones selling those options.
“When I look to the Benefit Corporation movement, that, to me, is the grassroots saying, ‘We want businesses to mean more than profit, and as consumers, we want to vote with our dollars for those companies,’” said Marcario.
“I’m not that arrogant to imagine that I’m going to be playing a major part,” said Cridland. But that’s not the point, he argued. Shifting the tides of fashion will take time and major buy-in — and he is, in some capacity, helping to nudge consumers toward more sustainable fashion choices.
Will it work? Cridland, ever on-message, responded: “We’ll have to see 30 years down the line.”
*This story first appeared on Grist
By Lewis Perkins | Re-posted from Lewis’s personal blog. This morning, I opened up my email and saw I was tagged by a friend on a post about the article “Slow Fashion Shows Consumers What It’s Made Of” from NPR. The article was good and gave a high level view of the issues that exists due to the lack of transparency in the global supply chain and the low price we are paying for our clothes. I work in this field and was familiar with the subject, so the article is not what caught my attention; it was the responses from the dozens of people commenting below the article. The comments ranged from disdain for the pretense in the fashion industry; “I am already being forced to worry about what I am eating and now you are making me focus on what I am wearing” to the disconnected; “this does not apply to me because I don’t buy $5.99 t-shirts at Walgreen’s.” The rest seemed to think the article was telling them to stop buying affordable clothing and focus on luxury goods because they are better made and have a more transparent supply chain.” Why fashion? Several months ago a good friend of mine chided me for taking my talents into the Fashion Industry instead of a more “worthwhile” or “substantial” industry. She viewed fashion as frivolous and unimportant in the scheme of global issues. The reality is folks, unless you and your children are walking around naked, don’t sleep in beds or sit on upholstered sofas, or work in buildings with carpet, have curtains in your home; you are part of the global textile supply chain, and regardless if you shop at Walmart, J-Crew or Prada, you are part of this equation for supply and demand of all levels and uses of textiles on the planet. Textiles are one of the oldest industries, carry the most cultural significance and have one of the largest footprints on human and ecological systems. The disdain for the Fashion Industry is actually short-sighted, because we are all using materials to reflect our personal statement whether it is intentional or not. Yes, perhaps apparel “fashion” still feels like it’s direction resides in the hands of brands, designers, stylists, celebrities and other tastemakers. But it’s not just about our clothing, it’s in the phones we use and the bikes or cars we drive. It does not always mean high style. We all use clothing and other products to tell a story about ourselves, whether we realize it or not. So let’s place judgement aside, because this is really not about fashion. This is about the future of all species on this planet. So we better stop judging and get interested. What I am talking about is the billions of human lives who touch this industry every day whether they work in it or not. And also remember that hundreds of millions (if not billions) of humans, animals and acres of land that make up the supply chain that creates our textiles. It keeps world economies going and people fed and warm at night. The solution is not less bad. The solution is more good. Can I afford sustainable apparel? When we talk about increasing the price of apparel, we are not talking about the difference between $5.99 and $599 (or even $59 for that matter) . It’s price increases relative to the product (perhaps the difference between $5.99 and $6.99) in order to ensure better practices along the way to the consumer’s hands. Incremental increases in labor, sustainable materials, better (e.g. healthy and safe for people and ecological systems) chemistry for synthetic fibers and for the dyes and processing chemicals (which may include a price increase due to the cost of innovation). Traceable packaging, tags and labels also means we apply the same standards to the auxiliary materials as we do to the main materials in the products (fibers, yarns, trims, threads, zippers, buttons, etc..). I’ll just buy second-hand clothing. Another point the comment feed folks were making is around the need to increase our use of vintage, consignment and second hand apparel. There is no doubt that keeping a garment as a garment (or any product in it’s original design) for as long as we can will have the least possible impact spread across that product’s years of useful life. And yes, owning things better made and being able to enjoy them longer or pass them along to a second owner is a worthy pursuit. However, eventually everything comes to the end of life #1. It could be 6 months, 6 years or 60 years, but one day that dress is no longer a dress. This is why we must advocate for the creation of a circular economy of materials. So, one day when that garment can no longer be a garment, or even used as a rag, we will know what to do with the fibers and other materials? Have they been designed with toxic dyes and other chemicals that prevent their safe return to the biological system (think composting) or even a useful stream for upcycling? Many dyes and other chemicals can actually serve to prevent that material from being capable of recycling ad upcycling (either chemically or mechanically). So the first step is to employ the use of clean chemistry in a way that looks at what that material can become after it’s been used in apparel. That could mean we upcycle yarns or fibers back into yarns for the apparel industry or it could mean we take them back to the fiber or polymer level (depending if natural or synthetic fibers) and sell them to another industry. This requires take-back systems and the innovation for upcycling of fibers. Today, we are just embarking on the technology and the systems which will allow this to happen. But just like everything in the world of economics, we need supply and demand. That means, someone (some industry) must want those materials and someone else (along the chain from consumer to retailer to brand) must be engaged in a process for textile recovery. With the demand comes the investment and the innovation. Did you know it takes some brands more than 5 years to collect enough supply of their “Take-back” fleece pullovers, to be able to send that feed to a fiber recycler and put it back into a new product. That’s way too slow. We need more volume to create speed of moving materials. If more brands advocated for material reuse in their products (and at the same time advocate for collection and distribution of material for sale to other industries) we could begin to see the amount of volume needed to make the system work. Companies like I:CO (http://www.ico-spirit.com/en/homepage/) have been established to collect and process textiles. They already work with retailers like American Eagle, H&M, Levi’s and Puma, but they need more supply and demand than this. They are ready to grow exponentially. And we can help. Why less is not better! Finally another point I hear often (and read in the comment feed) is about buying less and using less. There is no doubt that consumption is an issue in the USA (if not the entire world). But why? Is consumption really the issue or is it the way in which we consume or use products and packaging that have not been optimized for material reuse, so therefore everything eventually ends up in a landfill. Making the choice to have less in your life is a personal call, but I don’t believe we should live in a world where we are forced to take shorter showers and eat less of certain types of food and feel guilty about our love for certain things. Wanting and having your creature comforts is a personal choice, and many could argue a great gift of the experience of being human and living in the material world. What we need is to design the materials and processes for products with new methods which ensure the use of safe materials; chosen for an intended use and end of use; powered by renewable energy with clean water stewardship and a high level of mindful uses of human, animal and land capital. If production on the planet was a positive force, we could all feel good about our individual footprint on the planet and our choices to have things. Keep in mind that even if we all cut our product use in half, or by more, we are living on a planet with diminishing resources and a growing world population. So we really have to go upstream and solve the problems at the origin of design and into the supply chain and not expect the solution to reside downstream with ourselves. Yes, we are a big part of the equation. Our greatest impact is with our purchasing power. We can drive this change by helping to create the demand for higher quality materials and production and making sure we get them back to a system that wants and needs them. Even with that t-shirt from Walgreens.