Fashion sustainability is defined as when clothing, shoes, and accessories are manufactured and marketed to minimize any environmental impacts that they would typically have. Throughout an item’s lifecycle, fashion manufacturers efficiently use natural resources such as water and energy to attempt to incorporate renewable resources such as wind and solar power. A sustainable product can also maximize its lifecycle by being repaired, remade, reused, and recycled.
Unfortunately, being sustainable and environmentally friendly has not been a priority for the fashion and clothing industry. Fashion sustainability is a problem that extends past the textile industry, as industries including labor, transportation, recycling and “fast fashion” industries are negatively impacted.
Fast Fashion, Fast Destruction
Fast fashion, more notably known as disposable fashion, has become a huge problem for the environment. As the name connotes, fast fashion is designed to fall apart and be replaced quickly and frequently. Instead of the normal 4 seasons, fast fashion has created up to 52 “micro seasons” of clothing collections per year. This has forced people to cycle through clothing much faster, leading them to either donate or toss items. Only 10% of clothing that gets donated is actually resold while 90% is thrown out into the landfill, defeating the purpose of donation and adding to the world's textile waste.
Brands have slowly shifted away from fast fashion and towards slow fashion, a movement to combat the destructive phenomenon. Slow fashion focuses on producing quality, staple clothing pieces with concern for the environment, combining the excitement of fashion with awareness of producing ethically. Often identified with fair trade and responsibly-made, slow fashion brands are quickly emerging such as Eileen Fisher, Reformation, and Everlane. Consumers are switching to slow fashion in hopes of reducing the number of clothing items, frequency of shopping, and money spent on fashion within their lifetime.
Sustainable Brand Initiatives
On a similar note, brands like Patagonia and Everlane have joined the initiative to be more sustainable, integrating such principles into their core missions as industry leaders. Patagonia has been very transparent with their Corporate Responsibility, which focuses on taking responsibility for the impact of their activities on customers, employees, communities and the environment. For over 25 years, People Tree has followed fair trade practices and used organic fabrics for their clothing, all while using natural resources throughout production. Everlane also participates in sustainable production by maintaining transparency throughout its clothing creation, resulting in ethically made products.
Lacking Labor Practices
The fashion industry is infamous for unfair labor practices within their supply chain. Labor is often outsourced out to factories in developing countries where employees work for extremely low wages and unusually long working hours. Although prohibited, there are roughly 170 million children who work in these factories, enduring harsh and unfavorable working conditions while being underpaid. Many employees must also face racism, sexual harassment and discrimination from sweatshop management on a daily basis.
Moreover, fast fashion and the industry as a whole is said to disempower women. Of the 75 million who work in the clothing industry, about 80% of them are women. These women are usually between 18-24 years old and often paid less than $3 a day. It doesn’t only affect workers, but customers as well, causing poverty amongst young women.
Fortunately, many efforts have been made to ensure that clothing is made ethically. The Fair Wear Foundation works with over 120 brands to regulate labor law compliance of participating brands. On the other hand, SoftWear has created sewing robots to relieve people from being exploited as cheap labor, offering technological solutions to change corrupt labor practices.
Impacts of Transportation
Within the fashion supply chain, transportation has often been overlooked. Yet, it hides a significant amount of labor abuse and environmental degradation.
Often times, large retail companies ignore key signs of the labor abuse that truck drivers receive such as working an upwards of 20 hours a day and being paid very little. As a result, many truck drivers have been faced with debt and poverty. To alleviate this issue, retailers are looking into unmanned transport, hoping that driverless trucks and drones can eliminate labor abuse entirely.
Transportation within the fashion industry also contributes to smog pollution, specifically since production facilities typically located in distant regions away from the public eye. Retailers aim to make shipments more sustainable by sharing freight space with other companies. In addition, many companies have adopted more modernized trucks which feature more fuel options. Overall, these efforts not only reduce shipping costs for the company but also decrease the volume of emissions.
The Waste of Textiles
As the second largest polluting industry, the textile industry produces 21 billion tons of garbage every year. It also uses a notably large amount of chemicals and electricity, very inefficiently in fact. Holistically, the textile industry is responsible for consuming and polluting around 20% of the world’s water supply. For example, cotton requires about 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton.
To alleviate this issue, many companies have searched for alternative materials, including hemp, banana fiber, citrus byproduct and even coffee grounds, as well as investigated their production methods. In addition, dying cotton involves an excess of water, chemicals, and energy, but innovative businesses like ColorZen have figured out a way to make the process more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Biodegradation Leads to Recycling
It takes a banana a few days to biodegrade, but a rubber boot sole takes about 80 years. When such clothing and shoes are dumped into landfills, these items release methane that deeply contaminates nearby soil and groundwater. Thus, recycling clothing and shoes have become more important than ever, especially since Americans throw out 14 million tons per year.
Luckily, new innovations are emerging to create solutions for sustainability. Such technologies include a microbe that eats polyester and a textile that is difficult to recycle and creates raw material that can be resold to polyester manufacturers. Cotton can also be transformed through a process that involves dissolve it and turning it into cotton-like material to be reused, eliminating the need to grow more cotton. Retailers such as North Face, Nike, and H&M have joined the recycling cause by accepting clothing and shoes in any condition, ensuring their reuse. Even more conveniently, USAgain currently has drop boxes in 16 states where you can easily drop off clothing, shoes or household textiles as well.
Overall, there are many areas of concern to be cured to achieve retail sustainability. The retail and fashion industry has yet to be ethical and sustainable. Fortunately, companies worldwide have made numerous efforts including adopting slow fashion, holding themselves to sustainable principles, engaging in fair labor practices, reducing textile waste, and implementing recycling programs. With more sustainability plans and programs, fashion producers and consumers can only improve their efforts of being sustainable environmentally, ethically, and socially through their clothing.