Michael Shank & Maxine Bédat
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank and Maxine Bédat. Shank, of Brandon, is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. Maxine Bédat co-founded the sustainable apparel company Zady and is a leader in sustainability within the industry.
There are few industries fickler than fashion, changing annually and swapping seasonally. Fashion can, in theory, change more quickly than the energy or agricultural industries, which is helpful when it comes to tackling climate change. Agility and the ability to rapidly retool practices will be essential attributes of the most resilient and sustainable industries.
At current pace, however, the fashion industry is completely unsustainable. Clothes have become like plastic bottles or plastic bags. We use them and throw them away. They are no longer owned, they are just consumed. We produce a throwaway wardrobe for every man, woman and child on the planet. Every single year.
Most clothes are worn, on average, only seven times before they’re discarded, forcing an astonishing 150 billion new clothing items to be made annually. Thank “fast fashion” for that, a business model that spends $500 billion annually on consumer marketing and fabricates hyper trends and clothes that don’t last. But given limited natural resources and the need to protect what remains from further apparel-driven pollution, fashion will soon need to tack towards something more people- and planet-friendly.
Getting clothing to be cheap enough for the fashion industry’s disposable model has required massive amounts of cheap material and cheap labor — both of which came with devastatingly high and unaccounted-for costs.
First, the push for low prices led to cheap material. Polyester is the worst: It’s a plastic made from fossil fuels and found in 50 percent of all clothing. It’s enormously energy intensive and doesn’t biodegrade, making for a catastrophic carbon and environmental footprint. In outsourcing production, a process greased by decades of free trade deals, we simultaneously outsourced pollution to countries with even dirtier power grids.
Clothing companies in the rich world, from the U.S. to the European Union, conveniently outsourced the work (and the carbon footprint) to places with low labor standards and low environmental regulations and areas of the world using the cheapest, dirtiest form of power: coal. Putting up solar panels on our homes does little good if we are filling the closets of those homes with fashions made from coal-based power.
Now, 8 percent of the world’s total carbon footprint comes from the apparel industry, and apparel is the second largest polluter of fresh water globally (we already know how water-intensive a simple cotton T-shirt is – using thousands of gallons of precious potable water).
In fact, when we speak of gas-guzzling cars, we should also talk of gas-guzzling clothes, because that’s the level of fossil fuel use we’re talking about. We’ve now moved from natural fibers to predominantly synthetics (made from oil) and we’re shipping clothes further, adding millions of miles to the total fashion carbon footprint. Oil-based polyester clothing has now replaced cotton as the number one fiber in our clothing. And when we wash those clothes, those plastic fibers are ending up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. At this rate, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. These are devastating stats, and we’re wearing them on our sleeves.
Second, the push for low prices also led to cheap labor. The apparel industry’s race for the cheapest inputs relied on laborers at the very lowest end of the wage spectrum in countries with few protections for workers. Low wages, forced labor, unhealthy and dangerous working conditions, and child labor are now rampant throughout apparel supply chains. Children are working in appalling conditions that amount to modern day slavery.
Apparel’s impact is ever apparent to anyone laboring in the factories or cleaning up the filthy byproduct. And while the apparel industry may be the largest employer of women globally, less than 2 percent of these women are actually receiving a living wage. Any fashionista who cares about gender equality, then – like Beyoncé, who got in trouble for exploiting women workers in South Asia for her fashion line – should be equally mindful of their gender footprint. To ignore any of this is to remain regressively retro.
All of this is adding up to an industry with massive impact, and because it’s entirely consumer driven, it’s an industry that we control. Thankfully, we do have a consumer base that is hungry for change. They don’t want what they wear to worsen the planet or people’s lives.
That will require some new patterns by non-apparel types. Journalists exposing the adverse social-environmental impacts of apparel production, guiding readers towards possible solutions and avoiding “greenwashing.” Brands adopting sustainable practices, from design through production, within their own businesses. Influencers, some of today’s best storytellers, showcasing the beauty and benefits of living simply. Educational institutions teaching the next generation the skills needed to identify industry-specific problems in fashion and improve its sustainability.
This is all doable. We can do this. But we have to put this in place now if we want to fix fashion in time, before we’ve wrecked the planet beyond repair. It’s time we start wearing a different world.