By Turban Thinker
I have been championing social and ethical responsibility for almost 20 years and have continually been frustrated with the fact that it has always been the least priority on most fashion brands agendas. For the past 15 years the entire focus of the industry was profits, profits and more profits, driven by fast fashion. Then came social media which propelled the desire to continuously showcase new outfits, sometimes four or five a day to ensure that you were seen as relevant and socially viable.
I have been fortunate to have worked with some of the worlds most amazing artisans in India, designing beautiful bespoke handmade products and let me tell you something, there is nothing more incredible that seeing these skilled individuals creating the most beautiful treasures. I tried desperately to educate the consumer and industry that there were a number of things at stake, with over consumption leading to pollution of the environment, potential unethical trading, the demise of these micro economies that were sustaining small villages and their people, and that the actual artisanal art and craft itself was dying because there were few champions protecting it.
Simply, if there was no demand for slow handmade products as they are rapidly replaced by mass made machine made products, craft stood no chance.
Now fast forward, and the pandemic has propelled sustainability to the forefront. This you might say is good, if not great news, and it is. Finally, sustainability is having its voice, but is it actually being heard. Thankfully we have heroines like Greta Thunberg representing the next generation, steering and forcing climate change and environmental issues to be heard, but fashion has a long, long way to go.
The global pandemic has shaken the fashion industry and bankrupted hundreds of businesses, grounding it to a halt, and as a consequence global fashion sales have crashed, media has reported billions of dollars’ worth of orders cancelled, and because of fast fashion that means millions of tons of garments have gone to waste and will end up in landfills.
Further articles on the e-commerce boom during this time, and online retailers encouraging consumers to purchase multiple items to try and return, means that even more than ever, these will contrary to your thinking, not end up back on the shelf but again, but in a landfill.
The plus side is that millions of people are stuck at home, rethinking their priorities, restructuring their financials and with so many furloughed and without a job, spend has been curbed and shoppers are questioning what they actually need and what they can actually afford to spend. Thankfully we see social media focus on things like up-cycling from your own wardrobe and an increase in secondhand goods as social media pushes acceptance and environmental efforts.
So, what are the challenges facing conscious fashion?
Communication, communication, communication, without having transparent processes and entire supply chains shared with the consumer, educating them on the environmental and social impacts, then it will certainly take a while before we see any real impact. If online retail is set to increase by at least 25% in 2020, then it is the responsibility of brands and the fashion industry to use technology such as AI, to recognize the shoppers habits, purchases, sizing, returns and discourage them from purchasing multiple items but focus on the size, fit and style that appeals to them from the data intelligence that they have gathered.
Governments need to make it a priority and force it on their agendas and build incentive programs to suppliers and manufacturers to move into recycled and upcycled materials instead of growing cotton. They need to instill advertising standards that must educate and show the consumer the entire process and the damage caused by over consumption. If they don’t, then again, it’s a long way away from making real change.
I want to share with you some of the shocking figures on the returns, the tons that go to landfill, water consumption and environmental impact
Every year 3.5 billion products are returned in the US alone generating tonnes of CO2 in the process. Over 1 million packages will be returned by unhappy buyers to e-commerce stores each day, this is a 26% increase from last year with over 2 billion kilograms of this ending up in landfill. This leads to 13 tonnes of CO2 being released into the environment and a vast majority of brands rely on single use “polybags”.
Retailers send over 5 billion pounds of waste from returns to landfill each year in the US alone? And that’s not counting the returns that are incinerated. Their transportation overall goes on to contribute a staggering 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Less than half of returns go back on sale, as it’s cheaper and less hassle for retailers to send them to an incinerator or landfill. Shockingly, even selling them at a discount to secondary vendors or liquidation services is more expensive.
That includes fabric being made out of fossil fuels, clothes dyed with toxic chemicals and created in factories that pump large amounts of noxious pollutants into the air by process.
Let’s talk about consumption:
To produce just one cotton shirt requires approximately three thousand litres of water, that’s 900 days of the average household usage of water. Textiles production (including cotton farming) uses around 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, representing 4% of global freshwater withdrawal.
It’s estimated that around 20% of industrial water pollution in the world comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles, and about 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles.
- 85 percent – The percentage of water used in textile processing that goes into dying the fabrics, which, in many cases, leads to run off, thereby polluting nearby water sources. (Cotton, Inc.)
- 3250 liters – How much water it takes to produce the cotton needed for one t-shirt – that is almost three years’ worth of drinking water. (WWF).
- 8183 liters – The gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce just one pair jeans. (Tree Hugger).
- 113 billion liters –The water required for one year’s worth of global textile production (including cotton farming). (Elle MacArthur Foundation).
- 5.9 trillion liters – The amount of water used each year for fabric dyeing alone. (World Resources Institute).
I hope that by reading this you truly get the picture and understand the overall impact that consumption is having on our planet, our future generations and ethics. Whilst we are moving ahead and sustainability now seems to be on the fashion industries agenda, it needs to be a permanent fixture.
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