Fashion Industry Dogged By Sustainability Concerns

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.

Bottom Line

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Neil Pyper

    Thank you – great piece! I teach international business and will in my sessions on business ethics and sustainability!

  2. Susan the other

    BoF is turning away from planned obsolescence. That’s a start. Slow fashion makes good sense. I did recently see one documentary on the fashion industry in India about a company that is recycling levis and other cottons, breaking the cloth down and reweaving it I think. Looks like it pollutes almost as much as making new material, but maybe not. The best way to recycle cloth is to refashion it for other uses, like braided rugs and patchwork quilts. Maybe after it has gone through several thrift store recyclings. The Koreans have a great, simple sense of clothing. It would be nice for things to stay “in style” for the useable life of the item. No? So this new trend closes down another turbo industry and jobs – unless handwoven/handmades/handfarmed fabric and clothing can fill the void.

    1. marieann

      Perhaps we need to bring back the “rag and bone” man. He used to come around with a cart and take “any old rags” we loved him he would give us little toys for rags.
      I am a big believer in recycling/ upcycling old clothes. As a sewist I am always making something out of something else. I got into quilting to use learn to use up my leftover fabric….turns out I just started another obsession :)
      We do need to get away from fast fashion…it will never be sustainable as long as we buy throwaway clothes.
      Perhaps the millennials will lead the way on this…if you have massive student debt and no income you can’t buy clothes.
      A few years ago I started to shop the thrift stores… that is a growing business, perhaps the way of the future.
      I am also a knitter, there are many of us who look out for sustainable yarn. Grown,spun and dyed here, it is not cheap but nothing compares to a pair of hand knitted socks made from local sheep or alpaca.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    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:

    One obvious problem with that Quartz article is that growing organic cotton doesn’t ‘use’ water in an unsustainable way – its all part of the hydrological cycle, the water isn’t destroyed. Its only ‘used’ unsustainably if its contaminated permanently – with, for example, pesticides. Using more water for organic cotton is not a problem, unless some downstream user is being denied that water for another use. So it can only be seen as a bad faith argument.

    Obviously, for any product to be sustainable, you have to look at the whole cycle, so its quite possible for a product to be beneficial at one stage, and toxic at another one. An example would be bamboo, which can be grown and harvested with much less harm to soils and ecosystems than cotton but can require a lot more energy to process into cloth.

    So far as I’m aware, the only major company that takes whole life-cycle issues seriously is Patagonia, but of course it results in very expensive clothes to buy (but not necessarily expensive in the long term if they last for years). Its a very difficult issue, and one I think that can’t be fixed by consumer action alone, simply because you can’t expect everyone to become an expert of every level of growth, manufacture and supply, and so inevitably consumers can be fooled into buying faux sustainable products.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Good points. The BOF piece also mentions wool and leather as being among the most unsustainable fabrics and I would agree if the animals were raised specifically for the fabric alone, but especially with leather that is often not the case. Taking the other uses of the animals into account they are probably more sustainable.

      Similar to Patagonia, LL Bean also makes pretty durable clothes that are fairly expensive. I’ve had one of their wool sweaters for about 30 years now.

      As I mentioned in another comment, the fashion industry could become a lot more sustainable if they and other industries would pay people enough to afford higher quality, more durable products rather than cutting wages and then claiming people really want cheap disposable crapola.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Interesting that you mention that– I was discussing the creation of such a scoring system recently with a person working with an entity that seeks to develop this for cotton textiles. And in those discussions, I mentioned that organic certification should not be treated as a sine qua non for any sustainability assessment, and that other characteristics should also be privileged, e.g. natural dying, handweaving.

      1. Sawdust

        Do you have any experience or thoughts on The Better Cotton Initiative as an organization? Specifically, is a company’s membership here an appropriate first pass for consumers? Are there other resources available that aren’t linked in the article?

        Sustainability and workers rights in men’s fashion is a big passion project for me. Thanks for the great article and wealth of links to check out.

        1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

          I don’t have any thoughts on The Better Cotton Initiative, although I do want to repeat a point I made in my post– that consumers concerned about sustainability should do more than look exclusively at how the cotton fiber itself is produced, and should also consider issues such as whether textiles are naturally-dyed, and hand or machine-woven. I appreciate, however, that garments made using such processes are more expensive, and may be beyond the reach of many pocketbooks.

          1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

            Forgive me for repeating myself a bit directly above– it had been several hrs since I posted my 11:34 a.m. comment, and I’d forgotten I’d made the point about natural dying and hand weaving there as well as in my post.

  4. a different chris

    Did this paragraph get mangled (where I italicized) or am I just confused, but I’m pretty sure of the second correction at least. Great article in toto.

    the sponsors of which have a huge interest in trashing organic cotton and 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 not discussed, and the benefits of organic cotton in reducing pesticide use underplayed.

  5. PaulHarvey0swald

    The millennial “solution” wears even thinner when you consider a number of obstacles they will be facing:
    1. The amount of student load debt they are carrying
    2. Low prospect of good paying work without a degree
    3. Babies

    Of course I’m assuming sustainable clothing (like everything else) costs more money, which underpins my whole argument here: they will not be able to afford it.

  6. lyman alpha blob

    …only “a tiny proportion of all consumers are willing to pay more for a sustainable product.”

    All other things being equal that may be the case however if more people were paid a decent wage, a fair amount would be willing to be more. There a reason so many people refer to the upscale grocery store springing up in urban areas as ‘Whole Paycheck’.

  7. Art Eclectic

    I think I would propose that “sustainable” clothing is clothing that lasts for years and years of wear/washing instead of falling apart in 6 months and requiring replacement, which is exactly why I stopped buying “affordable” clothing.

    1. craazyboy

      yeah. Lately gym socks are my pet peeve. Stoopid white gym socks. They used to last almost forever.

      Lately, buying the name brands has resulting in about 5-10 wearing “episodes”. Then the heel has a gaping hole in it. I tried 4 different name brands, all the same. I do pull them on very carefully, but the heels will rip out like they are made of paper.

      I checked the ‘net and Amazon looking for something better, but nothing. Amazon comments indicate the same problem.

      This went on for months and for a while I starting wearing no socks with my gym tennies. I finally did find a solution – I saw the Aldi brand at Walmart. Never seen them before so, in desperation, I gave them a try [thought those are the no-name crappy ones) To my delight they seem fine so far.

      But the traumatic experience still lingers in my mind. I have nightmares sometimes of my toes sticking out holes in my socks and people pointing and laughing at me. It’s a dream, so I’m always paralyzed and can’t even punch the a-holes.

      So I’m in the process of writing a song about it. My shrink, Dr. Shrink, advised me I should talk about my issues, even to myself (builds self awareness, he claims) and he was ecstatic to learn of my guitar playing and song writing plans. He says I need to get these bad feelings out to heal myself, and the more people I burden with my stooped problems, the better! Then he charged me $250 for the office visit.

      Hard to say when the song will be ready. Maybe tomorrow in time for Memorial Day. “Sock Veteran”. Hahaha. That’s not the title, but not bad. I’m keeping the title secret until the song makes its debut. Right now I gotta go to the gym, with socks. Then practice guitar while charging up my airplane batteries for a flying outing tomorrow AM. Made a new rad Delta Wing to maiden, too. I’ve got wasting time down to an art form.

      1. marym

        USA made socks.

        Only limited experience with women’s colorful socks, but they seem sturdy. Check the “About Us” tab for what they say about their “green” efforts in manufacturing and sourcing. Don’t know anything about their labor practices.

        1. craazyboy

          I found them, but my interest in “buy American” wanes when the price of one pair of white gym socks exceeds $10, plus shipping!

          The Andies I picked up at Walmart were $9 a three pack, same as the self destructing Hanes, et all…

          1. marym

            I thought I saw some 6-packs, but don’t know much about socks. I’ve bought only USA made clothes for about 5 years. I have simple tastes and am lucky to be able afford shipping and to go a little to the pricier side on occasion. Mostly what I buy is moderately priced for my budget, but I wouldn’t say it’s possible as a general practice for people with less flexibility or a big family.

            1. craazyboy

              Come to think of it, they may have been 6 packs for $9. It’s all a blur.

              Yeah, I’ll usually pop extra for quality and longevity, if I’m sure that’s what’s being delivered.

              Just finished putting the final polishing touches on my angry sock song. I’ll think I’ll post it tomorrow AM. It’s a goodie. A fine addition to my body of work, so far.

              With any luck it’ll generate enough iNet buzz to shut a crappy sock factory down, somewhere. Free the slaves, I always say!

              This is just like the 60s again!

  8. Alan Tweedie

    That pinch of salt on GM cotton is really too soft a comment. Monsanto et al have their views placed, at high cost, into every forum they can reach. The deaths of thousands of Indian farmers are down to GM cotton, which is virtually the only kind they can buy in India. Bt-resistant insects have developed, demanding more expensive eradication methods. The cotton requires excessively more water, a general feature of GM crops. Only naked capitalists are benefiting from GM activity – it’s a bit like the pharmaceutical industry selling us cures we don’t need that cause health issues that we did not have before but for which they can sell another cure, it with its own side effects requiring treatment. Organic is the area of exploration for sustainable production that serves the farmer and the consumer.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Good points– but I did say fistful, not pinch, of salt. Perhaps I should have been more forceful– glad you’ve jumped in to make these points.

  9. LT

    Another industry that ties in with retail. Retailers that sell clothing have pretty much had to go the way of subprime credit to stay afloat. (Think high, variable interest rate department store credit cards).
    They will be at the bottom of the pile when people as people organize what rentier should be prioritized for payment.
    So many rentiers, so little time…

  10. Synoia

    Talk to my wife, or any other woman, about only having a few pairs of “sustainable” shoes.

    Then get back to me about the fashion industry and its customers – of which I’m male, and mostly not a customer of the industry.

    1. marieann

      My shoes are Birkenstocks, yes made of leather, but I bought them about 15 years ago and had them resoled 4 years ago, so I am working on my second decade with them.
      My winter books are about 30 years old, also made of leather.
      I had 6 pair of Birkenstock summer sandals(each about 10 years old) and a pair of wellies and runners.

      Yes I admit I have double the number of pairs of shoes my husband owns.

  11. Sawdust

    Great article. Modern garments can include synthetic materials like polyester, elastane, etc. Is there a clear answer to sustainability comparisons between fabrics? I found a useful but dated resource comparing comparing cotton and polyester here.

    Clearly, recycling and re-using are a bit part of the equation – does anyone know if/what difficulties synthetic materials face there? I assume synthetic are worse off in that respect but could be mistaken.

    * I haven’t read all of the links here YET so apologies if I missed my answer in one of them

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        Agreed– I myself rely on rules of thumb. I rarely buy anything made from synthetic fibers, for example.

        I appreciate you raising the disposal point. Our current textile consumption patterns– especially fast, disposable fashion– create huge amounts of waste, much of which is dumped into landfills. I didn’t delve into that issue much in this post, as I’d done so in previous posts on this issue (which are linked to above).

  12. Larry

    People are shocked by the issue of water limitations, literally gobsmacked when you bring it up. It was a local story that some biotech firms were looking to locate their manufacturing facilities in the metro Boston region but were struggling to find towns that could support the water demands of biologics manufacturing. Fashion, food, drinking, cleaning, high technology etc., water will be a serious limitation in all industries.

    We definitely need more sustainable practices in everything we do, but our economic rentiers won’t tolerate it. China’s attempts to control it’s population explosion for instance are now seen as a problem instead of a potentially sensible approach to managing resources.

    1. Moneta

      The first step in that direction would be to institute a planet wide minimum living wage.

      But are we ready to drop exploitation?

  13. DolleyMadison

    My 19 and 21 year old daughters rarely buy anything new. They shop at charity thrift shops and flea markets and consignment shops. They also “upcycle” – buying things for the fabric and remaking. For example, turning a plus size wool blazer into a kilt. Although I dont “get” their style which I call homeless chic (My style is early June Cleaver) they get alot of accolades and even make money selling their remakes. (They also re-donate the clothes they tire of)

Comments are closed.