There’s an expiry date to everything—trends, that expensive bar of chocolate you tell yourself to savour one bite at a time, your favourite white shirt, a relationship—and our planet is no exception. It’s a morbid opening statement, especially for a story on sustainability in an issue about hope, but it’s the inescapable truth.
And we’re only slowly grasping at the realisation that our habits could hasten Earth’s expiry date; thanks, in part, to a sea turtle.
Sustainability is a rather broad and complicated term that involves a wide gamut of factors and influences. It’s a practice that ensures resources are carefully invested at a rate that doesn’t negatively affect any environmental, economic or social factors. Sustainable fashion businesses should aim, at every stage of their business, to minimise any negative impact their operations might have on the environment, as well as ensuring that good ethics are practised at the human resource level. One would think that the latter is a given, but as many incidences in the Third World have shown—one landmark example is the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013—that is not always the case.
It’s easy to immediately point fingers to fast-fashion brands, such as H&M, Zara and ASOS, as the main culprits. Companies that produce huge volumes of clothing (by huge, we mean at least 600 million pieces each year) at incredibly low prices would naturally raise questions about manufacturing and labour costs.
There’s also the nature of the fast-fashion business. In an effort to quickly produce style-fleeting clothes, new designs are introduced to the shop floor every alternate week, sometimes more frequently. They’re cheap and of-the-moment so they tend to become rather disposable. Let’s face it: you wouldn’t think twice about throwing away a cheap overstretched jumper and getting a new one from the same brand.
Like sending off a barrage of golf swings with the hope of scoring a few hole-in-ones on par three holes, not every trend-driven design will be snapped up by consumers. In a perfect world, dead stocks should ideally be set at 15 percent of items produced. For fast-fashion brands, that’s an estimated 90 million pieces of unsold clothes each. In late March this year, H&M reported a staggering USD4.3 billion worth of clothes that they weren’t able to sell.
Yet, at the same time, these are the same brands that have committed to sustainability focused strategies. As of June 2018, 94 fashion companies—including H&M, Zara, ASOS and brands under luxury conglomerate Kering—have signed the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment. This initiative, by non-profit organisation Global Fashion Agenda, introduces the concept of circularity to fashion businesses, where the lifespan of a product doesn’t end after it is disposed of.
A sceptic would say that fast fashion’s adoption of more ‘sustainable’ methods is a farce. That a business model that has been under fire for unethical manufacturing processes couldn’t be taking on the green movement for anything other than good publicity.
To be fair, H&M and Zara have doubled up on their efforts to be more sustainable.
In a sustainability report released for the year 2017, H&M Group detailed several key milestones that it has achieved thus far. They include reducing factory emissions by 21 percent from the year before, using 100 percent recycled or other sustainably sourced materials for 35 percent of its products, and collecting 17,771 tonnes of textiles for reuse and recycling.
Zara’s parent company Inditex pulled out of the Dhaka Apparel Summit after multiple ongoing reports of poor treatment of workers and labour issues in Bangladesh. The brand also launched a sustainable collection called Join Life. The collection makes use of recycled fabrics (either from Zara’s own production scraps or created from recycled plastic bottles) to help reduce the dependence on resources needed to create new fabrics.
That’s all well and good. But when the volume of production is equivalent to the GDP of a small African country, how sustainable are these brands really?
While you ponder on that, let’s not forget that luxury fashion brands are not in the clear too. As exemplified by Kering’s aforementioned commitment, sustainability is an industry-wide issue.
For luxury fashion brands, the problem is not so much socio-economic or volume. Fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Hermès are dependent on the skills of their artisans, who are usually groomed and trained in-house in the respective countries that they are based in. The complexity of the craft applied holds as much value as the material that a luxury item is made from, when pricing an item. And because artisanal skills are often in demand, there is great value in being a skilled craftsman.
It’s the manufacturing practices that cause problems.
Animal skins and furs are an ethical challenge that luxury fashion has been facing. The use of animal-derived materials is so closely tied to the luxury business that the move to less harm-causing substitutes has been slow. It wasn’t until October 2017, when Gucci announced that it would stop the use of fur in its designs, that the fur conversation sparked up again. Gucci’s chief executive officer Marco Bizzarri was even quoted as saying: “It’s not modern… It’s a little bit out-dated.”
The Italian fashion house is by no means an originator in going fur-free. Calvin Klein banned the use of fur in 1994, Ralph Lauren in 2006, renowned activist Vivienne Westwood did the same for her brand in 2007, and the entire Armani house stopped using fur from the autumn/winter 2016 collections onwards. The latest to join the movement is Burberry, with new creative director Riccardo Tisci leading the charge.
It’s also important to note that some of these luxury fashion houses make considerable amounts of profit from their fur products. Gucci, for example, adopted a maximalist fashion vocabulary in 2015, which included the luxurious use of fur in everything from coats to shoes. Armani too has extensively used fur throughout all of its different brands, coming up with diverse treatments and applications. The shift shows that brands are becoming more attuned to the social mindedness of a whole new generation of consumers. Sounds wonderful, right? Well, not quite. In place of biodegradable (but unethical) furs, most fashion houses are making use of non-biodegradable substitutes such as polyester and nylon—plastics. The same culprit that found itself lodged in the nostril of a sea turtle in 2015. The same material that’s forming its own inhabitable island between California and Hawaii; just one of many such artificial islands. And also why a plastic straw protest has been quickly spreading like wildfire.
It does seem like we are doomed to fail. Before we know it, we’ll be walking in polyester biker jackets, next to a hill made out of cheap synthetic fibre socks.
Yet, as bafflingly oxymoronic as the sustainable objectives of fast fashion seem to be, or how some ethical solutions are double-edged swords, the industry is doing something. There is hope. And significant change can only be made, and can potentially amount to something substantial, when everyone—brands and consumers alike—does their part.
Across the board, cotton is the most environmentally exhaustive material to produce. Some experts believe that the production of cotton uses the most amount of water among all agricultural commodities, even more than crops grown for nutritious consumption. While cotton is biodegradable and recyclable, the latter is not always the best or easy fix.
As it stands, recycled cotton yarns have to be mixed with other long-strand fibres. That’s because in order to turn cotton fabrics into yarns, they first have to be chopped up and broken down, which inevitably shortens the strands of the cotton fibres. Adding secondary fibres, such as new cotton or other synthetic fibres, is the only way to give recycled cotton fibres enough strength to be woven into clothes. This means that recycled cotton clothes have yet to be made of fully recycled cotton.
But it could soon be a reality. In 2015, H&M founded the Global Change Award, an initiative to speed up the process of finding an innovation that can help make the fashion industry circular, or what insiders refer to as ‘closing the loop’. Each year, five winners are selected to share a EUR1 million grant and be part of a year- long Innovator Accelerator Program.
Past winners have included an innovation that makes sustainable bio-textiles using leftovers from food crop harvests, leather created from leftovers of winemaking (called ‘grape leather’), as well as a process that can recycle polyester at a molecular level in order to create a new polyester textile.
It’s now fashionable to be a little bit geeky. Global Change Award is one of many tech-based initiatives that have sprouted to help solve fashion’s sustainability conundrum. In 2017, Fashion Tech Lab (FTL) was founded by fashion media entrepreneur Miroslava Duma. FTL seeks to support companies with new technologies that could potentially redefine the way we make clothes or the types of materials used. The company has helped to discover 100 new technologies with some in the pipeline.
As we wait for these technologies to evolve to a scale that’s economical and highly desirable for manufacturers, it is up to us as consumers to be smart with our buying habits.
There is absolutely no harm in buying into faux animal products, but they have to be seen as lifelong investments. The generally non- biodegradable nature of commercial faux fur, faux leather and other synthetic materials that mimic animal-based fibres means that they have to be carefully considered purchases. Stella McCartney—a staunch believer in sustainable and cruelty-free fashion—echoes this sentiment.
Stella McCartney consumers are encouraged “to care for their items and be responsible with their garments, never throwing them away. Luxury does not mean landfill—it means forever”.
There is also the option of buying pre-owned fashion; an easy way to take part in closing the loop. For the uninitiated, the act of thrift-shopping and vintage-hunting has moved into the 21st century. Digital marketplaces stocking pre-owned authentic luxury fashion clothes, shoes and accessories have grown ever more popular. Vestiaire Collective, one of the most internationally recognised of the lot, stocks everything from vintage Chanel and Helmut Lang, to the latest Louis Vuitton threads. The concept has even made its way to Singapore with The Fifth Collection and StyleTribute as the two key players in the local scene.
They’re all pre-owned fashion but in good enough condition that no one would be any wiser. Make it a habitual purchase instead of it being a retaliation to the creative direction of a new figure at a beloved fashion house. Or take it a step further and put up that leather coat you no longer see a use for, or that silk fashion pyjama set you bought on impulse, for sale. Someone, somewhere would probably take a liking to them.
We live in an age of great access to information. And there is an abundance of information out there. Newer fashion brands are increasingly more transparent with where their products are made, how their products are made and even the costs involved in making them. Look to brands such as Everlane and Oliver Cabell, where the cost of every material and labour is broken down so you know what you’re paying for, and can feel good about buying into a business that is ethical.
The best thing about having access to information is to use it and be informed.
Can the fashion industry be sustainable? Yes. But like all things worth fighting for, it will take time and dedication. As much as there are fashion brands—both fast and luxury—that are taking steps to close the loop, it is still up to us to shift the conversation towards more sustainable practices. It’s by changing our buying habits, being more aware of the brands we purchase from and understanding the fashion system that we can help to pressure brands to look deeper into positive solutions.
Fashion and sustainability is a conundrum indeed; one that has to be solved and can be solved as a collective. There is hope yet, my friend.
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