"is fashion wearing out the world?"
In 1995, I was adopted into the US from Kunming, China and recently learned of a protest that drew nearly 2,000 citizens to Kunming's city center. The subject of the protest; the construction of a chemical plant commonly used in textile production. A friend in Kunming whom I met last fall tells me that the air pollution there is becoming worse. For all that my birthparents have done to ensure my survival, I owe it to them, in some abstract way, to ensure theirs. However, it should not take a personal connection for me to care about the livelihoods other humans.
In order to understand why “eco-friendly” buzzwords have emerged within the context of clothing, the current condition of the fashion industry must be addressed. While there is no way to mass-produce products without generating some form of waste, there are viable ways to minimize the damage. I've created this page as a way to share a few insights about the industry I study and a system that almost every person, in some way or another, contributes to. The majority of this research is taken from “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World” by journalist Lucy Siegle, “Future Fashion White Papers” introduced by Leslie Hoffman, "Where Am I Wearing by Kelsey Timmerman" and “Style Naturally” by philanthropist Summer Rayne Oakes. These authors are my personal heroes and do tremendous work to push public discussion surrounding the urgency for responsible production and consumption practices.
Because “living sustainably” is not an economically feasible choice for many people yet, simply sharing information and pressuring companies to revise exploitative practices are realistic ways of including all types of people into the conversation. In a sustainable future, “sustainability” won’t have to be labeled as an exclusive or niche interest but as a cohesive way of life.
While trendy, environmentally-conscious slogans have popped up on everything from designer tote bags to toddler onesies, the ethical implications, namely the labor behind these products are largely ignored. Increasingly, I hear news about Western heritage companies moving their production overseas to countries with little to no labor protection and ineffective policy enforcement. When retail buyers demand factory suppliers to complete massive orders at nearly impossible turn-around times and for lesser pay, suppliers are forced to accommodate to the buyer's demands. As a result, the production workers in factories are subject to unsafe labor conditions and wage exploitation.
Since the introduction of this cheap, “fast fashion” model, consumer behavior has shifted. Rather than examining the quality of the fiber content or construction, marketing tactics have diverted consumer attention solely towards the price tag. In order for the future of sustainable fashion to thrive, consumers must be convinced that the value of buying one or two quality products per year outweighs armloads of cheap clothing. Ultimately, the power to revise a company's practice rests with the consumer as every purchase a consumer makes (or refuses to) is a vote for or against the continued success of the brand.
Because of fast fashion's demand, textile production has doubled since the 1990’s. It is often easy to forget that many of the clothes we wear are extracted from plants and animals, each with their own unique environment and characteristics.
Cashmere comes from nomadic herdsman in Asia. The goats are rare and harvesting is a difficult process. The Alashan Plateau in Mongolia, where 20% of the world’s cashmere comes from, is also home to the world’s largest sand dunes. These enormous sand dunes are held in place by the plants that grow there. In small herds, the cashmere goats live in harmony with the ecosystem. However, to satisfy the desire for cheap cashmere, the number of goats have multiplied from 2.4 million in 1990 to 26 million in 2004. Due to overgrazing, sections of the desert are now expanding by 400 square miles per year. China suffers from many dust storms from the displaced sand, which continues to travel over the Pacific Ocean and contributes to pollution in major cities along the West Coast in the US. Because of mass-market pressure for cashmere, some herders crossbreed their goats to produce cashmere faster but results in poorer quality fiber.
Brands that strive to make a difference for the lives of these Mongolian herders use pure cashmere from suppliers who support sustainable cashmere trade. For example, the knitwear brand Stewart and Brown works with selected farmers in Mongolia, guaranteeing a fair price for cashmere from a limited number of goats processed through an ethical chain. Sustainable cashmere is expensive, but it will last from 20 to 40 years. Many traditional cashmere brands will repair and reshape their customer’s product for if it starts to look a bit worn. In the future, I hope to see fashion brands adopt personal connections with their customers in order to stress the importance of treating clothing as a long-term investment.
Cotton is essential to fashion as the industry uses 80-90% of all the cotton produced. The production for cotton alone employs 300 million people, and 99% of them work in developing countries. There are numerous problems with cotton, one of which being its heavy dependency on water, but the most important issue is its pesticide use. It takes 1/3 a pound of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to produce a single t-shirt. Aldicarb is the second most prevalent pesticide in the cotton industry and just one drop absorbed through the skin is enough to kill an adult human. Because of the deaths associated with these chemicals, many Western countries have banned their use, causing the agrichemical companies to advertise their products to developing countries. For many farmers, the low prices for cotton and high prices for the chemicals have caused thousands of farmers to go bankrupt and in India, which uses 50% of all global pesticides, there have been more than 20,0000 cotton farmer suicides since 1995. Before 2008, the US was the #1 exporter of cotton since 1834. Because US cotton is the second most subsidized agricultural product, it is sold below the cost of production. Therefore, suppliers from developing countries cannot compete on the international market and are condemned to poverty. Siegle claims that a removal of subsidies would increase sub-Saharan cotton growers’ income by 30%.
Another ecological setback with relying on cotton is that it requires more water than almost any other textile crop. The Aral Sea, a freshwater lake in Central Asia, supported an enormous fishing industry and tourist destination. Then in the 1960’s water had been diverted to feed giant cotton plantations and within three decades, over 70% of the lake had completely vanished, leaving an unrecognizable, barren landscape in its wake. The local economy was effectively destroyed and many residents who relied on the lake for their source of food, water, and income developed serious respiratory problems due to the pesticide residue combined with the dry atmosphere.
Because disasters like the Aral Sea are attributed to manufacturers that capitalize on cheap cotton, organic cotton has been introduced as an alternative for designers to work with. Organic cotton is free of pesticides and often planted in crop rotation which increases soil fertility. Environmentally conscious brands like People Tree have used cotton without pesticides from their inception, and in 2007 the idea of organic cotton was pushed mainstream when Levi’s introduced a new line of 100% organic jeans. Organic cotton still only accounts for less than 1% cotton production worldwide, but the global retail sales have increased from $1 billion to 7 billion just in the last few years and it is expected that number will keep growing as more people realize its importance. The rise of other sustainable fibers like hemp, soy silk and lyocell and 21st century innovations like digital printing, water-free washing, and air dye technology are also paving the way for exciting new sustainable prospects.
DISPOSAL OF THE WORN
Every year, over 300,000 tons of garments are donated to thrift shop. However, only 52% are a high enough grade to be marketable as the fast fashion model has degraded the overall quality of clothing. Clothes that are deemed unsellable are then packed up and shipped to developing countries to be resold. This system is an enormous billion dollar business for Western countries and works in their favor as a useful, cost-efficient dumping ground for unwanted goods
Mass exports of unwanted goods began in the 1990s, concurrent with the emerging success of the fast fashion's model. Bales filled with worn, damaged, or unsanitary clothing are resold - the most likely recipients are stallholders in sub-Sahara Africa- who then resell the products to local people. Because Western imports are sold at a lower price than locally made clothing, domestic clothing and textile industries in many of these regions have collapsed. In order to preserve and elevate traditional, time-honored textile techniques, companies like AFIA, Fortress of Inca, and VOZ work with artists in developing regions to produce contemporary clothing and footwear that showcases cultural craft.
THE FUTURE OF A SUSTAINABLE WORLD
In summary, the future of sustainable fashion is comprised of the following elements: a responsible supply chain, environmental stewardship, social justice, and a mission for educating consumers. Fashion is an industry we all take part in. Questioning consumption habits is absolutely necessary and changing the way we consume extends far beyond clothing. Consumption is tangled around systems of food, transportation, and infrastructure– ecological complexities that pose an even greater slew of variables to challenge. Major news sources like Ethicalconsumer.org, Ecoterre.com, Time.com/tag/sustainability/, Environment.nationalgeographic.com, and Treehugger.com/design/ have a plethora of articles on subjects related to technology/environment/design and can be a neat way of learning about new developments in sustainable research. For a list of ethical clothing brands, check out a few places here. I enjoy reading the "about us/what we do" on each brand's site because it provides ideas on how to speak about and incorporate ethical material in my own work.