A lot of time is spent shopping for the right look and for fashion that will flatter or get attention, but are we spending our dollars wisely to make sure that the clothes we wear today will not damage the environment in other parts of the world or in our own backyards tomorrow?
A Bee in your Bonnet?
Last month, the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development for the United Nations Economic Commission (UNECE) was held in Geneva. This Regional Forum included an event called, “Fashion and the SDGs: What Role for the UN?” You might wonder what an “SDG” is or even why the United Nations would be concerned about fashion, but it turns out there is a lot to be concerned about.
First of all, SDG stands for sustainable development goals, something the entire world has a vested interest in.
Why would the United Nations be concerned? Well, the fashion industry is the second highest user of water worldwide, responsible for an astounding 20 percent of global water waste. (UNECE, Regional Forum 2018) Did you know that the production of one cotton shirt can require the use of thousands of litres of water? How is this possible? In some cases, a single mill may use up to 200 tons of fresh water just to create one ton of dyed fabric. (Good on You, “Fashion and Water: The Thirsty Industry”) This is not only a waste of water, but the chemicals used in the dyeing process wreak environmental havoc and cause health problems in developing communities.
The majority of fashion production takes place in the developing world, where apparel mills and factories are typically located next to rivers, streams and other waterways. The output of these factories is often discharged, unfiltered, into nearby waterways, creating major challenges for the people living nearby, who rely on these sources of water. Wastewater pollution is not only a problem during the processing of fabric, but also in the raw material stages due to the use of nutrients and fertilizers. (Global Fashion Agenda, “Pulse of the Fashion Industry, 2017”)
One of the reasons why cotton, in particular, has such an enormous water footprint is that it is well known as a thirsty crop to grow. It takes 20,000 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of cotton, and when you pile on the fact that much of it is grown in areas suffering from high levels of water stress, you have a problem. (Refinery29, “It Takes 2,720 Liters Of Water To Make Just One T-Shirt”) Not to mention the pesticides often used by some growers of cotton, which also pose an eco risk.
Synthetic fabrics have their own environmental complications that occur when consumers wash the garments. Microscopic fibres go out into the water stream, polluting oceans, rivers and lakes. Traditional synthetics like polyester, acrylic, and nylon are all products of the fossil fuel industry. Did you know that polyester is made by liquefying chemicals from petroleum under high pressure, forced through tiny holes? As the liquid is squeezed out of the holes, it solidifies into fibres, which are drawn out to become longer and thinner and are then spun into a yarn. (Radio Australia, “Clothing and textile manufacturing's environmental impact and how to shop more ethically”)
Premature disposal of fast fashion is another environmental issue currently being tackled by the apparel industry. The average U.S. consumer throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. (Council for Textile Recycling) It is estimated that American consumers donate or recycle 15 percent of their clothing, footwear, accessories, towels and bedding, with about 85 percent, or 21 billion pounds, winding up in landfills. (Bizwomen, “Fashion gets serious about sustainability”)
Green is the New Black
Is it possible that we have reached what I think of as “peak fashion?” Most people are familiar with the term “peak oil,” as being the theoretical point in time when the extraction of petroleum will only decline, as it has reached its peak. When I refer to “peak fashion,” I see that as being the turning point where we no longer look for a quantity of clothes (think “fast fashion”) and start to focus on quality (think creative ways to make what we have go farther and last longer), allowing our sustainability goals to be in harmony with our clothing choices.
The general public seems to be aware of human rights issues when it comes to the production of clothes. Production often occurs in a far-off place, but consumers are becoming more concerned with the safety and social impact of workers labouring with hazardous chemicals as they work on garments. It is interesting to note that 80 percent of the labour force throughout the fashion supply chain are women. (Model Alliance, “How Can Women Stand In Solidarity Across Fashion’s Global Supply Chain?”)
A Stitch in Time Saves the Environment
With the amount of black worn to fashion shows, combined with what I have detailed above, you might be thinking the fashion industry is all doom and gloom, but it isn’t. There are some great, creative minds out there, working to ensure that fashion moves forward sustainably and with the environment in mind.
Not-for-profit organisations, such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), have popped up to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future, by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.
Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) are now recognized as the world's leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibres. It defines high-level environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and requires compliance with social criteria as well.
Leading the advance towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the textile, leather and footwear value chain to improve the environment and human well-being is the Roadmap to Zero Programme (ZDHC). On May 22, 2018, at the Sheraton Wall Centre in Vancouver, Frank Michel, the CEO of ZDHC, will be speaking on the topic of water and chemical management at Planet Textiles: The Sustainable Textile Summit. The existence of a conference like Planet Textiles, tackling sustainability issues in the global textile industry, is a positive sign that change is coming and that the industry cares.
Work It, Girl!
So, where can you find sustainable fashion? Well, I recently worked with Vancouver Fashion Week and discovered some fantastic and innovative, local designers. Working backstage with the ladies of Blara Organic House, I was happy to find out that they require that all of their garments are made without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically engineered seeds and are certified by GOTS. In order for cotton to be considered “organic,” it must be handled using eco-friendly dyes, inks and cleaning agents, as it is being transformed into a textile for production.
While working with Vancouver Kids Fashion Week, I found out about a company called Haven Kids. Haven Kids only use bamboo fabrics. It sounds rough, but it’s actually one of the softest fabrics on the planet. Using bamboo is a great, sustainable move since it is the fastest growing plant in the world, yields the same volume as cotton using 10 percent of the land area, requires just rain water with very little additional water (if at all) and it thrives without the use of pesticides or fertilizers.
Putting Your Best Foot Forward
When it comes to fashion, there are so many places to spend your money, but it only seems right to back the fashion houses that are showing they care about sustainability and the environment. Look for brands like Triarchy, that use Tencel (a cotton blend that uses eucalyptus wood fibre and 85 percent less water than other fabrics) to make sustainable denim, or Miik that focuses on creating clothes that will last you for years. Support your local designers, ask questions about fabrics and get behind the companies that deserve your fashion dollars.
Jane Dunne is a Senior Editor for Specialty Technical Publishers. She works on a diverse catalogue of environmental publications that are recognized across North America as effective tools to ensure regulatory compliance with complex requirements.