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The World Needs a More Sustainable Fashion Industry

Sustainable fashion is our only option.  The future of our planet, maintaining adequate resources, and protecting human rights all depend on our toxic fashion industry evolving to a more sustainable and circular fashion industry. The fashion manufacturers, suppliers, brands and retailers must all do their part to address the changes required.

Demand for Sustainable Fashion

Fast, toxic fashion is the term for the high-turnaround, low-cost, trendy clothing and accessories created to maximize profit and meet demand. These garments are created without consideration for the environment, waste, and human labor. This has been the common practice for years without consumers blinking an eye; however, trends are shifting and consumers are demanding more ethical goods.

Rise and Impact of Toxic Fashion

Fast fashion has grown into a beast of its own that enables consumers to see a garment worn on the red carpet, social media, or runway and purchase it on their phone virtually moments later. The fashion industry is a $2.4 trillion dollar industry that employs approximately 86 million people worldwide. Between the years 1975-2018 global textile production per capita increased from 5.9 kg to 13 kg per year. Additionally, global consumption has risen to 62 million tons of apparel per year and is expected to rise to 102 million by 2030. The average U.S. consumer now purchases one item of clothing every 5.5 days and wears the item 36% less over its lifecycle, generating 82 pounds of textile waste each year. This consumption demand has driven fashion retailers to producing almost twice the amount of clothing than they did in 2000. 

Environmental Impact

Textiles are at the top, along with aluminum, as the highest greenhouse gas emitters per unit of material.The fashion industry produces an estimated 8-10% of annual, global carbon emissions (4-5 billion tons). A substantial amount of the high carbon footprint is associated with the source of energy for production. The toxic fashion industry is the second largest industry consumer of water with 79 trillion liters of water per year. To put it into picture, it requires 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons for a single pair of jeans. It is also a source of 20% of industrial water pollution from textile dyeing and treatment. 

Societal Impact

Toxic fashion also impacts the workers with the most detrimental effects on women in developing economy countries. Approximately 80% of apparel is made by women between the ages of 18-24  primarily in low income countries where women have poor access to rights.  In 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor found evidence of coerced and child labor in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Philippines, Turkey Brazil, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and more countries. Developing countries serve as an excellent host for toxic, fast fashion factories due to cheap labor, tax breaks, and lenient pollution, operation, and labor regulations. 

What is Sustainable Fashion?

Beyond simply producing more environmentally conscious goods, sustainable fashion demands a complete paradigm shift with how people view fashion and consumption. As a response to fast fashion, nonprofits, consumers, and retailers are shifting to slow fashion. Slow fashion advocates for an ethical garment manufacturing process that respects people, the environment, and animals. World Resources Institute, one of the top environmental research nonprofits, suggests that rather than emphasizing speed and profit, companies must slow down, test, and invest in closed-loop business models that reuse textiles and maximize their useful lifecycle. Additionally, governments must emphasize sustainable fashion with greater regulations and restrictions. Toxic fashion companies should not be able to outsource their operations overseas to curtail production, pollution, and labor regulations. There must be widespread, mandatory, basic labor and environmental conditions proposed by an international authority that fashion manufacturers must adhere to and otherwise be cited and shut down.

Sustainable Fashion and the SDGs

Major organizations are creating guidelines and coalitions for sustainable fashion practices. The United Nations has launched the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which is an initiative of United Nations agencies and associate organizations committed to contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals within the fashion industry. The Alliance supports coordination between UN organizations working within fashion and promoting projects and policies that ensure the fashion industry contributes to progress towards the SDG targets. The Alliance works in all aspects of the fashion industry including production of raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal. The goal is to change the path and perception of the fashion industry from one that is contributing to environmental and social destruction to one that is a model of successful, intersectional implementation of the SDGs. 

How to Be a Sustainable Fashion Brand

In order to be a truly sustainable fashion brand, you must take into consideration all aspects of the value chain. The brand must not only be low waste and limit its emissions, it must also promote greater environmental conservation and restoration, advance global gender and pay equity, and invest in research and practices that will drive a sustainable standard. 

Below are best practices to follow to build a sustainable fashion brand:

Planning

  • Begin with extensive research and planning
  • Before release, ensure your practices are well thought out, achievable, and maintainable

Environmental Considerations

  • Build factories in areas free of critical species and restore and develop on damaged land where possible
  • Hold manufacturing facilities to the highest environmental and social standards:
    • Power with renewable energy if geographically and politically available
    • Adhere to local environmental regulations, improve if they are not at the highest standard
    • Use nontoxic dyes and detergents
    • Install catchment systems to prevent microfibers from infiltrating waterways

Resource Considerations

  • Calculate resource demand including initial extraction
  • Avoid fabrics that are highly water, land, and energy intensive
  • Avoid fabrics that are made from fossil fuels
  • Seek to create quality, lasting goods

Waste Considerations 

  • Hold trainings on ways to reduce mistakes and fabric waste
    • Discover ways to repurpose fabric waste
    • Create a discounted line of “mistake garments”
  • Eliminate single use plastics across all steps of supply chain
  • Use eco-friendly packaging
  • Close the loop of the garment’s lifecycle
    • Take back garments at end of life
    • Establish a repair or upcycling program

Social Considerations

  • Ensure your manufacturing promotes SDG advancement including SDG 1: No Poverty,  SDG 5: Gender Equality, and SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
    • Incorporate into company’s mission building up local community, economy, and contributing to greater rights
    • Adhere to greatest local work regulations, improve if they are not at that highest standard
    • Pay workers livable wages with reasonable working hours
    • Provide adequate break times
    • Ensure factories have adequate lighting, windows and ventilation
    • Ensure fabric is sourced from ethical manufacturers that pay workers proper wages and provide proper working conditions
    • Provide opportunities for workers to receive trade-specific training and development and move to positions of management

Sustainable Fashion Brands

There are many fashion brands that have made a commitment to sustainability. Patagonia was one of the early adopters of sustainable fashion with organic cotton, recycled materials, fair trade, product repair, and secondhand Worn Wear collection. Though their clothing  items are incredibly popular, they create them with the intention that consumers will only need one jacket, pullover, and urge their customers not to buy more than they need. LLBean is also a long-standing adopter of product accountability with a lifetime return and repair policy.

Petite Lucette: Green Business Bureau Member

Petite Lucette is a sustainable fashion brand that launched in 2014 with the mission of creating an organic line of products and has joined Green Business Bureau to expand upon their sustainable initiatives. Sustainability was already at the core of their business model and they discovered over time that organic was the only option in order to be less water and resource intensive. They are constantly seeking ways to expand as a sustainable brand and are developing a line to be released in Summer 2022 made completely from recycled yarn. Petite Lucette also takes social accountability seriously and has a strong, personal relationship with their family owned and operated manufacturer in Portugal. They visit the facilities multiple times a year to evaluate the working conditions and level of happiness of their workers. Additionally, they recently partnered with Kids O’ Clock, a second hand children’s clothing marketplace in London, to help close the loop of a garment’s lifecycle and reduce the amount of new clothing being created.

United By Blue: Wholistic Accountability

United By Blue is another sustainable brand that has put holistic accountability for their operations and products into action and pledged to remove a pound of trash from the ocean with each item purchased. They have attempted to source each material as sustainably as possible and even reflect the source of each in product descriptions. Customers are able to not only understand what their product is composed of but also read information about the factories that produced them. They hold their factories to the highest social standards and have received multiple certifications and awards. Further, they provide a lifetime guarantee during their products’ determined lifetimes and commit to providing repairs when their products do not function as intended. They committed to zero plastic in 2020; however with the pandemic they were forced to readjust their plans and have now set their task force back on track.

Understand the Sustainable Fashion Consumer

There are numerous ways consumers can incorporate sustainable fashion into their lifestyle. These steps, as easy as other shifts eco-conscious consumers have made such as reusable bags, straws, and containers, can improve overall quality of life and set a precedent for manufacturers to abide by. 

Below are the top ways consumers can live a sustainable fashion lifestyle:

  • Buy less clothing
  • Buy higher quality items built to last
  • Buy versatile, staple clothing items 
  • Purchase clothing items from sustainable brands
  • Buy from transparent brands
  • Wash clothing with cold water to prevent release of microfibers and plastic into waterways
  • Use biodegradable, nontoxic detergent that will not pollute the waterways
  • Repair or repurpose clothing when possible
  • Buy second hand clothing

Summary

Sustainable fashion is the only option for a future with a healthy planet, adequate resources, and equal human rights. Consumers have shown that sustainable fashion is a priority for them and brands are beginning to adjust their practices to meet the demand. Fashion brands must take into account the environmental, resources, waste, and society into their practices. Consumers have the power to be sustainable fashion consumers and incorporate sustainable fashion into their everyday lives. 

About the Author

Leah Mowery

GBB Green Ambassador

Leah Mowery is a content writer for the Green Business Bureau who is passionate about using creativity and storytelling to relay the importance of sustainability. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal where she discovered a love for sustainable development. She fostered this interest in her Master’s in Global Sustainability program with a concentration in Climate Change at the University of South Florida. She enjoys painting, reading and all forms of outdoor recreation.

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