By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.
The day-to-day operations of the fashion industry raise major sustainability concerns, especially the huge amounts of waste generated by the buoyant fast fashion segment, a topic I’ve posted previously about in Faster Fashion Cycle Accelerates, Fast Fashion: A Few Thoughts Sparked by Recent News, and The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion. In addition to these and other environmental concerns that they generate, many textile and garment producers subject their workers to appalling working conditions– often exacerbated by foreseeable factors such as heatwaves, as we were reminded in this article from last week, ‘Panic’ in Bangladesh factories as workers collapse in heatwave:
Bangladesh has more than 4,500 garment factories, many of which lack basic ventilation and air coolers, and which employ four million women workers at minimum monthly wages of $68.
The industry is notorious for poor workplace safety measures that have lead to a series of disasters in recent years, including the collapse in April 2013 of a nine-storey factory complex in which more than 1,130 people were killed.
In this short post, I’d like to discuss two sustainability issues raised in this Business of Fashion (BOF) article, 5 Sustainability Threats Facing Fashion.
There is No Panacea
The first of these concerns is the failure to consider the finite supply of raw materials– especially, fresh water. Allow me to quote from the BOF article here:
The fashion industry has evolved using a linear model when it comes to raw materials, often expressed as “take, make, and waste.” However, as is becoming emphatically clear, some of the resources fashion relies upon to create its goods are finite, most critically — fresh water. Dyeing and treatment processes use vast amounts of water; to make a pair of jeans and a t-shirt takes 20,000 litres according to the WWF. Over 70 percent of that water usage is in the agriculture of cotton, which is among the fabrics with the highest environmental impact along with silk, wool and leather.
A McKinsey & Company report titled “Charting our Water Future” predicts that water consumption needs will outstrip supply by 40 percent in 2030. In addition to the cost implications of water becoming increasingly scarce, and its use becoming more regulated, a business model that operates on the single use of raw materials is now believed to be untenable long term. Products used and discarded by consumers are too valuable to lose to landfill or incineration. Unless technology can more efficiently recycle used garments, and collect enough material, current consumption rates are not sustainable.
As I’ve discussed in this post, Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States, via its circular economy initiative, which incorporates long- term targets to reduce landfilling and increase recycling and reuse, the EU has taken steps to shift away from a take, make, and waste model. Yet despite this limited– and I must emphasize, regional effort– there is no easy solution to the water problem– which is only expected to worsen as population continues to grow and climate change proceeds. So, we shouldn’t expect the innovation fairy to appear, wave her magic wand, and make the beasties disappear.
I want to point readers’ attention to the following Quartz article, Your organic cotton t-shirt might be worse for the environment than regular cotton. The piece begins with a useful reminder– how the term “organic”– malleable and ill-defined as it is– has been appropriated to steer consumers into making certain choices that are not as all desirable as on first glance they may appear to be:
The word “organic” is a powerful marketing tool. In clothing—just as in food—brands love to tout their use of organic agricultural products to show they’re doing their part to fight the industry’s outsized environmental footprint. They know consumers want products they believe are better for them and the planet. “Organic,” which generally means something was grown without synthetic additives or pesticides and wasn’t genetically modified, seems to promise as much.
I should point out that the conclusions this piece reaches– that the water needs of traditional varieties of organic cotton should make consumers reconsider their opposition to genetically-modified varieties– should be taken with a fistful of salt, since they were presented at a textile industry conference, the sponsors of which have a huge interest in trashing organic cotton and thus not weaning consumers away from industrially-produced cotton. Notably, no efforts to produce cotton sustainably– using traditional varieties such as the Kachchh kala cotton promoted by the Khamir NGO— were discussed, and the benefits of organic cotton in reducing pesticide use underplayed.
Nonetheless, the article does serve as a useful reminder of the way organic branding has been appropriated by entities that are otherwise not sustainable– and that there’s no single slogan or simple pathway to guide consumers faultlessly to sustainable consumption choices.
(As an aside, in India, where the world’s finest cottons have been produced for more than two millennia– organic cotton is not considered to mark the cutting edge of sustainability concerns. India is the world’s largest producer of organic cotton, yet its most sophisticated domestic consumers are more concerned that cotton is colored by using natural dyes, and is handwoven-which stimulates employment for skilled weavers– than they are concerned with how the fiber itself is grown. I do concede that characteristics treasured in India are neither well known, nor well-appreciated, by international consumers.)
Yet it’s clear to even the most superficial observer that fashion is a major contributor to environmental problems, and that the issues related to excessive water consumption flagged in the BOF piece are not going to disappear, but can only expect to worsen.
Millenials Lead the Way?
Moving along from that depressing conclusion, I want to note that the second interesting point raised in the BOF piece is the positive role that millennials might play in redirecting mass consumption patterns to a more sustainable future. According to that piece:
By 2020, millennials will be the most numerous demographic in the global workforce, which means fashion businesses must now cater to their preferences, rather than those of Generation X. Millennials consistently identify sustainability as a factor that influences their purchasing habits. But while a third of millennials say they are more likely to buy from companies that are mindful of social responsibilities (just a quarter of those over 51 say the same, according to BCG) only “a tiny proportion of all consumers are willing to pay more for a sustainable product.”
Of course, there’s an obvious disconnect here, between what even these consumers say they’re worried about– sustainability– and what they’re willing to pay for. Nonetheless, some companies have already latched onto such concerns, by building communities that cater to these customers– seemingly successfully, at least in the short-term– as discussed further in this piece, Community Is Core to Next-Gen Brands. Other designers have explicitly developed eco-friendly alternatives to the prevalent fast fashion model, as discussed further in this South China Morning Post piece, Sustainable K-fashion finds fans in Korea as Seoul designers adopt eco-friendly strategies.
The record of the fashion industry on both environmental and labor measures continues, on balance, to be atrocious. One small glimmer of hope comes from the announced preferences of millennials, who appear to be alive to sustainability concerns, and seem to be consuming goods less frenetically than their predecessors– preferring instead to devote their consumption to experiences. It’s a long way from this observation, however, to anything that resembles any long-term, sustainable future for the fashion industry– especially given the apparent unwillingness even of millennials to pay more for sustainable fashion.