Products ranging from luxurious evening gowns to small-batch cotton t-shirts are marketed as carbon-positive, organic, or vegan, while businesses tout their focus on recycling, resale, and reuse to address climate change and the overall generation of waste. But to be transparent, there has only been a slight improvement. For example, the production of shirts and shoes has more than doubled in the last 25 years, and still, the vast majority of these products end up burned or buried in landfills.
The reasons for the fashion industry’s sustainability disappointments are complicated. Consumers, led by social media obsessed fashionistas, continue to increase their voracious demand for cheap, fast fashion. AVESSA reflected on this situation in the article “The Ultra-Fast Killing Hand” in our September 2021 edition. In the meantime, Wall-street continues its incessant pressure on fashion businesses to show consistent, profitable growth. These two factors significantly contribute to the lack of progress in achieving fashion’s environmental goals. However, a lack of clear legislation and an unorganized effort from the industry also inhibit any significant advancement.
The impact of the fashion industry’s practices on the environment remains unknown, but it is sizeable. The industry’s boundaries spread globally, and its multitiered supply chain remains complex and opaque. Thanks to trade liberalization, globalization, and cost pressures, very few brands own the assets of their upstream factories, and most companies outsource final production. This complexity and lack of transparency mean estimates of the industry’s carbon impact range from 4% (McKinsey and the Global Fashion Agenda) to 10% (U.N.) of overall global carbon emissions. Put simply? Fashion is a huge factor in pollution and for as much as companies send out communiques and press releases on their positive intentions, they do not do enough to reduce the waste choking our world.
Nonetheless, AVESSA does not believe that all is gloom and doom. Amazing designers, educational institutions, stylists, and other individuals refuse to give up the fight. We spoke with a few people who sincerely believe that any step, regardless of size, is essential to the overall cause and is worth the effort. The following points of view demonstrate that there are still heroes in our industry who refuse to give up.
TAMMY APOSTLE – HAUTE COUTRE DESIGNER
Sustainability is a subject I am passionate about because I care about the well-being of our beautiful planet and because it is the home of our children and future generations. We know that the fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters; everyone knows this. The status quo cannot be changed overnight because it is a global and complex system deeply ingrained in our society for over a century. However, we are already changing our behavior, and how fashion is created is just… not fast or soon enough. The new generation is paving the way. These shifts occur from harvesting crops used for textiles that use less water and chemicals, new biodegradable materials made from pineapple or apple, or vegan leather created from cactus by a company in Mexico. New international organizations have been established to enforce transparency and accountability throughout the supply chain and implement social compliance. Also, different strategies for reducing pre-consumer waste, like zero-waste fashion design, closed-loop recycling systems, and new economies, have been developed to help solve the outrageous post-consumer waste by upcycling and repurposing into new products or reselling garments.
As a fashion designer, I am optimistic because we have more options for a sustainable path. More eco-friendly textiles are available for us to use, just as design technologies like CLO3D reduce the prototype development process stage and resources of mass-produced garments. Also, fashion universities have taken this subject seriously and implemented it into their educational programs. As a professor of “Sustainability in Fashion” at Miami International University, the interest and passion students have towards the subject signals that this positive transformation is imperative and will continue.
ABSTRACT THOUGHTS BY RAQUEL ZERBIB
JORDAN RAFN – FASHION STUDENT
There are many ways that brands can move towards sustainability. They could use deadstock, upcycled, recycled, and organic fabrics rather than producing more synthetic waste, take part in the circular economy, implement zero waste cutting, and even recommend how their consumers care for the garment to extend its life cycle.
Re/Done initially focused on upcycling old Levis and now has ready-to-wear. They conserve water throughout their processes and avoid chemicals. They are made of either upcycled or sustainably sourced fabrics. They work in limited drops as well, so there’s less excess. The brand Zero Waste Daniel takes waste from the NYC garment industry and creates garments with collages of scrap work fabric pieces. A few other brands that carry a part in zero waste include Tonle, Recrafted by Patagonia, OhSevenDays, and ARO.
Other brands participating in the circular economy, allowing customers to send back garments for either repair or to be upcycled. This makes customers think about the entire life cycle of the garment. A few brands that participate in the circular economy include The North Face, Levi Strauss & Co, MUD Jeans, and Patagonia.
Many brands advertise that they are sustainable when they aren’t. Greenwashing is a widespread marketing tactic. Using environmental terms that don’t mean anything and aren’t supported by evidence or drawing attention to a tiny aspect of a product and letting customers assume that it represents the entire product is sustainable. Examples are companies advertising their use of recyclable packaging or vegan products when the rest of the product is awful for the environment. Fast fashion company Shein appointed a head of ESG in 2021, ESG being a system for managing the degree of sustainability a brand is by specific criteria. It stands for environmental, social, and governance. This upset many people as Shien is known for throwaway fashion.
While many fast fashion brands will offer eco-friendly or sustainable parts of their packaging or manufacturing process, they don’t disclose the bulk of the product is not, and they still fail to pay their workers a livable wage. The same workers have to live in a destroyed environment. Urban Outfitters has a section of reworked, sustainably sourced vintage items for sale. Brands have also come out with sustainable collections.
CONVERSATIONS WITH NATURE, ART BASEL MIAMI 2019 BY RAQUEL ZERBIB
Many people donate their clothes to thrift stores thinking they will be reused by someone else, sometimes only wearing these garments once after a fast fashion “big haul”- a cheap shopping spree. Some of these donated items aren’t sellable and are directly sent to a landfill. Others that don’t sell are sent to outlet stores, textile recycling, or shipped overseas. About 700,000 tons of clothing are transmitted to other countries each year in hopes of creating a larger market and sparking job growth. Not everyone sees it as a positive thing; they see it as a growing reliance on these other countries and taking jobs away from local textile industries. In 2018, The East African Community (EAC) tried to implement a ban on the importation of used clothing stating they want people to stop relying on second-hand clothing and instead manufacture and buy locally by 2019. The Trump administration claimed that this would take jobs away from Americans, and a few countries a part of the EAC couldn’t follow through with the ban’s deadline due to a shortage of workers and equipment to produce enough textiles and clothing for exportation. There are landfills around the world filled with donated goods, like The Korle Lagoon in Ghana, with an estimated 60% of unwanted clothing.
There’s research that shows the neurological effects of buying fast fashion, it makes us happy. People enjoy new things, instant gratification, and being trendy. We are also creatures of habit, so we continue to buy from places we previously had. Although it’s not directly the consumer’s fault that companies don’t switch completely to sustainability, the company wouldn’t exist without the customer. Given the choice, people would rather buy a cheaper, $5 version of a garment than another made sustainably, with workers being paid a livable wage. Companies have the resources to educate their consumers, so they have the responsibility to do so. In general, society as well needs to be educated on basic facts about sustainability so we can take more conscious actions. There are so many hands that a garment goes through before its fully produced, each person creating more or less waste throughout each step. From the chemicals, the water used, the fabric waste, to miscellaneous garbage like poly bags to pack garments in.
I think it’s important to be straightforward and transparent about my clothes – the more people know the better choices they can make. I try very hard to use deadstock fabric so I’m not creating any more waste and use the scraps for smaller projects. If they are big enough, I’ll find pieces that will work together and have the same weight to make a patchwork garment. If the scraps are small, they can be sewn into smaller pieces like headbands or scrunchies, used as filling or sewn together to create a new fabric. There is so much room for innovation in fashion. There is no time left to turn a blind eye to climate change or partake in greenwashing.
RAQUEL ZERBIB – FASHION DESIGNER & WINNER OF THE UPCYCLE CHALLENGE AT PARAISO MIAMI BEACH
As a designer, I believe I have a responsibility and a mission to communicate and educate not only my future customers but also my teams on what it means (to me) to design consciously: to create a product aesthetically appealing, that fulfills my demand needs, made with high-quality materials, and technology, in a fair environment. It is a vision that will allow me to give back to our planet and society for what it has provided me.
This sounds like the ideal sustainable brand, but… the truth is that for an emerging designer, I would dare say that it is quite a utopian ideal. In my short experience with my career, I had the opportunity to encounter exciting projects where the primary purpose was to create awareness of upcycling, reusing dead-stock fabrics, and researching ecological fabric dyeing techniques. Having had these experiences and now starting to research entrepreneurship, I have concluded that wanting to achieve the goal of building a completely sustainable brand is still nowadays a challenging dream. Why? Firstly, being a sustainable designer requires commitment, investment, teamwork, education, and much honesty. Many brands promote themselves as sustainable ones for marketing reasons. Instead, I believe in an honest and humble language. I think you can create a better relationship with your consumer when you engage in a real conversation.
Second, building a fashion brand with a supply chain that is dedicated to sustainability is very expensive. It is not always easy for a small business or an entrepreneur to manage the costs. On the other hand, I have realized that even though younger generations clamor for social and environmental causes and changes, by the time they buy clothes, they usually follow fast trends and tend to go for the cheapest option. There is still work to do in terms of consumer education. But, on the other hand, I have also noticed that, as consumer gets older and has better salaries, they invest their money in quality more than in quantity. Another thought that I also wanted to bring attention to is the cultural differences that we face. Being born and raised in Latin America has also given me another perspective on consumption patterns and how we value human labor and the cost of things. Because of our countries’ constant political and socio-economic struggles, Latin American people have a culture of not taking anything for granted. We do not waste resources, we take care of material things, and we appreciate an investment… because they don’t always have it available. I feel that we grew with a sustainable mindset without even knowing it.
RAQUEL ZERBIB AT PARAISO UPCYCLE CHALLENGE 2020
When I came to the US, it was inevitable for me to notice and compare the pattern of overconsumption. It caught my attention the amount of sales/promotions that stores have, the “buy more, save more,” and it was almost inevitable not to fall into it.
This brings me to my last point of view: there are many takes on sustainability, and this is why I wouldn’t say I like to take this topic to the extremes: if, as a designer building a new brand, I want to tackle every single aspect of the chain that probably needs a change, I could get frustrated in the middle of the road.
I prefer to look at things more straightforwardly: Every effort counts, and every approach is respectable. Maybe, producing a collection with new fabrics from natural fibers from a certified mill is excessively expensive. But perhaps you could have a collection from upcycling garments and old materials. Maybe you could produce new garments but unique pieces at a very low price, with a “pre-order” business model. This way you don’t have to fill up an excessive inventory anticipating demand. Or you could produce with a local manufacturer or a family-owned business. Or even support local artisans. Depending on your brand, there are plenty of socially, ecologically, and ethically responsible ways to produce your vision. Therefore, I believe that the sum of small actions can make great changes.
Using our contributor’s input, what is next for the environment and Fashion Industry Projections from most economists and educational institutes forecast that the fashion industry will continue to grow over the next decade. The same trends that have powered its growth will continue to overwhelm gains associated with bio-based materials and new business models. Companies will continue to concentrate on lower-cost, synthetic fiber products, exacerbating other environmental challenges, including water scarcity and the development of microplastics.
WHAT, THEN, CAN BE DONE?
Perhaps, the industry needs to stop focusing on the word “Sustainability.” Being less unsustainable is not sustainable. At the same time, fashion companies need to be called out when they simultaneously profess their commitment to sustainability while opposing regulatory proposals supporting the environment. We think businesses should disclose their lobbying efforts and use their influence to effect positive change while engineering a regenerative business system. To demonstrate progress, stewardship reports should become mandatory, more quantitative, thinner, more attuned to planetary thresholds, and subject to annual external audits. We need to redefine progress and success for fashion businesses. Today Wall Street looks to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the most important measure of market value. Unfortunately, the GDP significantly limits what companies should consider as being important. For example, GDP counts the number of dresses we produce but ignores the emissions we generate in this production. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization with 38 member countries, is experimenting with a different success marker focused on “well-being” that includes social, natural, economic, and human capital. India is also considering an “Ease of Living.” Index. The bottom line is that we as an industry need a new goal to measure the financial success of our companies—a measure to balance societal progress better than what we have today.
Governments should also adopt extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation (as has been done in California for several categories, including carpets, mattresses, and paint). Such laws require manufacturers to pay upfront for their goods’ disposal costs. Additional legislation should force fashion brands to share and abide by supply-chain commitments. New York is developing a law that would mandate supply-chain mapping, carbon emissions reductions in line with a 1.5-degree Celsius scenario, and reporting wages compared to living wage payment. Brands with more than $100 million in revenue that cannot live up to these standards would be fined 2% of revenue.
Fashion is often said to reflect and lead culture — our industry has an opportunity to demonstrate that creativity and respect for boundaries can lead to authentic sustainability. We must listen to our heroes, such as our contributors, and push for legislative and financial industry changes.