The environmental costs of fashion are too high – we must consume less or it could be the death of us
It takes 7,500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans. As London Fashion Week kicks off, Lizzie Rivera looks beyond the glitz of the front row and finds a ticking time bomb
September is always show time in fashion; the month to obsess over the trends of front-row celebrities as well as the catwalk. This year, it’s also showdown time. London Fashion Week is going full steam ahead in the face of Extinction Rebellion’s planned action to bring it to a standstill – the closing show is XR’s staged funeral procession “to commemorate the loss of life due to climate and ecological breakdown”.
There’s little doubt who will win this battle. You don’t take on a £1.5 trillion industry and expect to be victorious straight away. The British Fashion Council estimates that £100m worth of orders are placed across these five days, which won’t be passed up lightly. However, if the status quo remains unchallenged we all lose the war. Fashion’s most successful coup is to distract us from the devastation and waste that lie in the wake of its beautiful designs. The statistics of environmental damage are staggering. This year, the UN reported that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world.
Despite controversy over this statistic, the impact of the industry is in little doubt. It is responsible for more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It takes around 7,500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans. This is equivalent to the amount the average person drinks over seven years, yet we keep our clothes on average for just two years.
To fulfil our insatiable demand for new garments, more than 100 billion items are produced each year, most from virgin sources. And yet, 73 per cent of the 53 million tons of fibres used to make clothes and textiles are burnt or sent to landfill annually. So-called natural materials are not as harmless as we have been led to believe. Cotton, a thirsty crop grown with huge amounts of pesticides, is one of the primary causes of central Asia’s Aral Sea – once the world’s fourth-largest sea – drying up. Leather has been accused of being one of the causes of the 41,000 fires to ravage the Amazon so far this year.
Synthetic, or vegan, materials derived from the oil industry, fare no better for reasons of production and upkeep. Washing synthetic clothes contributes to the 500,000 tons of microfibres, equivalent to 3 million barrels of oil, being dumped into the ocean every year. Then there’s our reluctance to be seen in the same outfit twice, which means a mammoth 11 million items of clothing end up in landfill each week.
“Shoppers’ high is a feeling everyone loves now and again – that thrill you get when you treat yourself to something new, even if it’s just new to you,” says Fee Gilfeather, a sustainable fashion expert from Oxfam, which is in the midst of its #SecondhandSeptember campaign. The charity is challenging people to not buy anything brand new for the month, in an attempt to divert items from landfill and profits to charity shops.
Rebranded as “vintage”, “retro” and “pre-loved”, the secondhand market’s cool credentials are fast rising and sales are, too – offering a glimmer of hope. If it continues on this upward trend, the pre-loved market is predicted to be 50 per cent bigger than fast fashion in less than 10 years, according to GlobalData analysis for thredUP. Fashion lovers and professionals are also warming up to the idea of renting their wardrobes with peer-to-peer rental platforms starting to pop up and brands in the US even creating items exclusively for rental giant Rent the Runway.
“I was in Seattle for a conference earlier this year and practically every woman I stopped to ask about her outfit had gotten it from Rent the Runway. Everyone I know in the US is using it for not just formal dresses, but workwear and maternity clothes as well. It’s about time we have the same concept here,” says founder of Not My Style fashion app, Alisha Miranda.
While the dream of having access to a constantly revolving wardrobe has great appeal, and is certainly more sustainable than only buying something and wearing it once, these platforms don’t yet take into account where these clothes were made, or how. The human cost is arguably the most scandalous thing about fashion, and one that is too often weaved out of the sustainability story.
“It’s hard to make consumers feel sympathy for the plight of the women working in garment factories when they are not always much better protected themselves. It’s much easier for us to feel outraged at other aspects linked to fashion, like waste or the burning of stock,” explains Orsola de Castro, founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution. This is one of the reasons Burberry’s burning of £28m worth of luxury clothing made front-page news last year, while reports of bosses forcing female workers to commit sex acts to secure working contracts in factories making jeans for the likes of Levi, Wrangler and Lee, barely made the headlines last month.
One testimony said: “All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor. For the women, this is about survival and nothing else. If you say no, you won’t get the job, or your contract will not be renewed.” The three factories in Lesotho, an independent country inside South Africa, are owned by the Taiwan-based global jeans manufacturer Nien Hsing Textile Co Ltd, and employ 10,000 people.
Nien Hsing stated no manager or supervisor had been disciplined for sexual harassment in the company since 2005, and attempted to deny the abuse. The Workers Right Consortium (WRC), which collected testimonials from 140 workers over 18 months, had a lot of evidence to dispute this. It also explicitly implicated other brands for their failure to detect these violations despite their supposed voluntary codes of conduct and monitoring programmes, which allowed the abuses to continue.
In the wake of Harvey Weinstein and all stories that continue to come out of the #MeToo movement, it’s no longer excusable to say “we didn’t know”. But, when the burden of proof lies squarely on the shoulders of the victims, victims who have no platform from which to speak and are at huge risk of losing their job, it’s too easy for brands to deny culpability. “It’s absolutely vital we allow all workers to be unionised to give them access to collective bargaining and support,” says De Castro.
Tellingly, the WRC recommended these brands continue to buy their jeans from the factories because the loss of employment would be economically devastating to the workers. Instead, it recommends the brands use their leverage by reducing their orders if Nien Hsing doesn’t stick to its new commitments. That’s the power brands have to bring about change.
Fashion Revolution, founded six years ago after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which killed 1,138 workers, reveals clothes are among the items most at risk of being produced through modern slavery. This assertion is supported by a recent report from the University of Sheffield that suggests shoppers are being duped by the Adidases, Zaras and Hugo Bosses of this world – proving that a higher price doesn’t mean higher wages. It concludes supplier codes of conduct are rarely worth the paper they are written on.
“Consumers are purchasing products they believe are made by workers earning a living wage, when in reality, low wages continue to be the status quo across the global garment industry,” says project leader Professor Genevieve LeBaron. In her new book, Fashionopolis, Dana Thomas says less than 2 per cent of garment workers are paid a living wage. Even buying clothes made in Britain doesn’t guarantee fair wages, with reports of garment workers being paid £4 an hour – less than half the minimum wage workers aged 25 and over are legally entitled to.
The lure of lower wages is ever-tempting, too. Ethiopia is the industry’s new frontier, according to a report by Dorothée Baumann-Pauly from NYU Stern’s Centre for Business and Human Rights. The Ethiopian government is attempting to attract the fashion industry to its up-and-coming garment production hub, which employs 25,000 workers at an industrial park 140 miles south of Addis Ababa. The basic wage of £20 a month is one of the biggest promises made to Asian suppliers and western buyers, despite this being 40 per cent less than the average income and barely enough to get by.
Complex and frequently murky supply chains enable brands to drive down prices at each step, without taking responsibility for workers. “Creating an item of clothing isn’t as simple as its low cost implies,” explains Katie Shaw, a stakeholder manager of the Open Apparel Registry (OAR), a fast-growing open-source map of names and addresses of garment facilities worldwide: 20,000 so far.
“That ‘Made in Vietnam’ label in your top is only telling a tiny part of the story; where the product was finally cut and sewn. Think of all the steps before that, then throw in buyers and you’re left with our globalised fashion system, where the process of creating one ordinary T-shirt can involve multiple shipments between different countries.” She describes the OAR as a master “source of truth” for the industry and says the data is already being used by companies working to reinstate workers who’ve been unfairly dismissed, or are owed back pay.
Provenance is also working with fashion brands that want to be part of the transparency movement. Their blockchain technology helps brands to open up the supply chain and reveal the impact of products to shoppers. “I see a huge opportunity for brands to appeal to shoppers looking to buy products that match their values,” says founder Jessi Baker. “For us, the next frontier is transparency with integrity: we’ve seen companies like Everlane show us their factories and some impact information, which is great, but with everyone opening up on information, brands will soon need to prove what they say.”
The leading business event on sustainability in fashion, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Its strategic partners include H&M, Nike and the Kering Group (which owns Gucci and YSL). It’s practically the same list of people who signed the G7 Fashion Pact in Biarritz, promising to shift to a more sustainable future, just last month. “We are taking our responsibility through collective action and common objectives,” said François-Henri Pinault (reported to be worth £28.3bn), chairman and chief executive of Kering.
“It’s nothing new, we’ve seen everything they’ve said before,” says Fashion Revolution’s De Castro. “Even the simplest thing to do, eliminating single-use plastic, is non-compulsory and the deadline for that is 2030. This should be actioned today. If the situation wasn’t so serious, reading it would make me laugh.”
Despite brands’ best intentions, the Global Fashion Agenda’s report, The Pulse, states that in terms of environmental impact, progress has slowed by a third compared with the growth of the sector. A damning analysis from the Union of Concerned Researchers into Fashion sums the situation up: “So far, the mission has been an utter failure and all small and incremental changes have been drowned by an explosive economy of extraction, consumption, waste and continuous labour abuse… it is important to stress that the industry has spent 30 years trying to fix the old system, and it is getting worse, not better.”
Without radical action, by 2050 the global textile industry will be accountable for a quarter of all carbon emissions. The radical, but very simple, first step is to produce and consume less.
Lizzie Rivera is the founder of ethical lifestyle site BICBIM