Although there is no official definition of sustainable fashion, it is generally agreed upon that sustainable fashion stands for considerate and ethical manufacturing, for fair treatment of people and animals, and for compassion and respect for the earth and everyone on it.
Seems entirely logical, right? But why is there even a need for such a term?
The current fashion industry is, unfortunately, based on values spearheaded by the fast fashion movement. Started by Amancio Ortega, owner of ZARA, in the 80s, fast fashion aspires to create, produce and sell “the next big trend” in a matter of days. It’s all about speed, affordability, and a constant cycle of production, use and disposal.
But this process is only made possible through exploitation, damaging practices and extreme pollution.
Here’s a quick summary of a fast fashion supply chain:
Step 1. Growing the fibre
Cotton is the most popular fibre worldwide. In theory, it’s an excellent crop, with moisture-wicking properties and a soft texture. But its production involves pesticides which harm the health of farmers and leech into waterways and pollute them. Cotton picking is also one of the most common stages at which child labour is used.
Step 2. Treating and dyeing
Harmful chemicals are used, from bleach, to whiten fibres, to formaldehyde, which makes the final product less likely to wrinkle. These not only harm the health of workers, but often remain in our clothing, even after it’s been washed. Once used, these chemicals are dumped into the immediate area around the factory and left to pollute the surrounding environment.
Step 3. Cutting and sewing
Garment workers work in factories with no health and safety, under abusive and dangerous conditions. In fact, garments are the second highest at-risk product category for forced labour, and 80% of garment workers are women. Garment workers are commonly paid the “piece rate”, which pays a small amount for every piece or garment they complete. The total is pitiful; in LA, it often comes to about $6, less than half of LA’s minimum wage!
Step 4. Sale and use
Clothes have extremely short life cycles because trends come and go so quickly, and fast fashion brands convince us that we need to be wearing “the next big thing”, and not last season’s cast-offs. Clothing designers work with this in mind; planned obsolescence isn’t limited to smartphones! Fast fashion clothing often warps, rips or loses its colour after only a few wears.
This is how the vast majority of fashion items are manufactured today – even those sold by high end, luxury brands. Giant corporations hold all the power in the industry, and change seems impossible. But this isn’t how things have to be!
The sustainable fashion movement has been gaining traction, and it’s here to stay. Citizens, activists and designers are uniting behind the common goal of changing the fashion industry and repairing our relationship with our clothes.
Sustainable and ethical brands know their supply chains and treat their workers well. They use fabrics that have a smaller environmental impact, requiring less water and often no chemicals at all. Designs are timeless and seasonless, and clothes are built to last. Many sustainable brands take the entire lifecycle of the garment into account, sometimes instituting take-back and recycling systems. In a sustainable fashion industry, customers shop small, supporting local business, make considered purchases and look after their items.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us, more than ever, what is most important. There is no room for fast fashion, overconsumption or exploitation. More than ever, we must take responsibility for our impact and choose to shop sustainably.