The fashion industry is huge generating billions (£40 billion in the UK alone) a year worldwide and involving a large proportion of the workforce in all stages from the design of the products right through the person takes your money at the till. Sustainable fashion is also known as eco-fashion and the idea behind is to move towards a process that can continue indefinitely in terms of environmentalism and social responsibility right from the beginning of the clothing design and manufacture process through to the disposal and breakdown of the product after use.
Unsustainable and unethical fashion
Currently, the manufacture of materials and the clothing products themselves has a large carbon footprint (the total greenhouse emissions from a product, directly or indirectly. This has a very negative impact on the environment due to the effects of greenhouse gases on global warming and climate change. 2/3 of the carbon footprint is produced after the clothes have been bought mainly due to the 1.5 million tonnes of clothing that end up in a landfill. A further problem with the industry is it’s use of water. It uses more water than any other industry except for agriculture and this is often in areas of the world where there is a shortage of water and this can contribute to many local problems in societies.
The manufacture of textiles from raw materials, used to make clothes, uses more than 8,000 chemicals all of which can be damaging directly and indirectly to both the environment and people. As we live in a consumer society where the demand for clothes is so high, the growth of cotton cannot keep up unless farmers use pesticides on the cotton crops. 25% of all the pesticides in the world are used on cotton and these are extremely damaging for several reasons. Firstly, the pesticides destroy ecosystems, reduce biodiversity and contaminate water sources. Furthermore, pests exposed to these develop resistance so that each year farmers have to buy greater amounts and different types of pesticides which further increase this destruction. This leads to the second problem which is a spiral of debt. As the pests build up resistance the farmers have to spend more of their income and they also get a smaller crop yield, this continues in a cycle often until the farmer is destitute. The third problem with the use of pesticides is the effect on the farmers and harvesters own health. Many of the chemicals used in the pesticides are toxic, and the World Trade Organisation estimates that there are 20,000 deaths and 3 million chronic health problems as a direct consequence of the use of pesticides.
Due to the ever expanding number of clothes produced by this industry every year and the low cost in many budget shops the fashion industy has had to find ways to produce more, at a lower cost. This has inevitably hit the producers hardest. Many of the world’s clothes are produced in developing countries where there are huge problems such as child labour, inadequate wages, gender inequality, poor working conditions and unfair prices.
When considering sustainable materials there are many factors to be taken into account. These include the renewability and source of the fibre, the process of turning the raw material into the textile, the working conditions of the workers themselves and the overall carbon footprint.
Organic cotton is one of the most important materials that can be used for a sustainable future. Organic cotton farming uses natural pesticides including mainly chili, garlic and soap which keep the pests away but not the predators which help control their levels. Secondary crops can also be grown inbetween as a barrier to certain pests. These methods have been shown to actually increase biodiversity. The organic cotton is not damaging to those who work with it and is usually charged at a higher price so that the farmers can earn enough money to support their families and form a sustainable future. Organic cotton is not as insatiable as non-organic cotton and so can be largely rain fed which also addresses the problem of huge amounts of water usage.
Other materials which can be produced sustainably are wool, silk, cashmere, mohair, hemp, banana and even some manufactured fibres from natural materials such as PLA (corn polymer).
It is nearly impossible to produce a product with zero carbon footprint and so a way to create sustainability is to offset this. There are many ways this can be done, one of the most common is in the planting of trees to absorb the carbon dioxide produced. Other methods include the investment in sustainable methods and renewable energy sources.
The main thrust behind the Fair Trade movement is to promote sustainability for developing world producers. A large way this is achieved is by having fewer middle men and in doing so preventing price cuts and allowing producers direct market access. The aim is to provide workers with higher wages so that they can improve their lifestyle and also to help producers increase their knowledge, resources and skills so that they are more effective at what they do which will also lead to an increase in their income.
There have also been moves to introduce global price regulations to prevent competition driven price reductions. Previously, producers lived in uncertainty as to what price they would receive for their products or if they would be able to sell them at all leading to massive instability.
In the news
Sheena Matheiken has taken on a challenge called the Uniform Project to wear the same little black dress every day for a year (although she has several replicas!) She is raising money for charity by doing this and also trying to promote sustainable fashion. Every day she wears the dress in a alternative way and mixes it up with different accessories. By showing how creative she can be in creative completely different outfits with one simple dress she is showing an alternative to the the very unsustainable ‘fast fashion’ culture where we buy a new outfit at least once a week.
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