Looking sustainable is chic!
The clothing and textile industry comes in disgraceful second place as the world’s pollutant. Only the oil industry pollutes more. Due to long supply chains and energy-demanding production, garments account for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Producing apparel requires enormous amounts of water, often involves harmful pesticides, and, most outrageously, a big chunk of this effort goes to waste. Clothing industry accounts for 20% of global waste, and most of it is never recycled.
Sustainability in fashion is closely related to mindfulness. Fast fashion is currently the norm, with big fashion houses over-producing items, and consumers treating shopping as a remedy for bad mood. Many of the purchases end up in a bin without being worn once. To stop negative trends, we need to change the way we think about clothes.
Fashion plays a big role in how we express ourselves and what social signals we send to others. At Choiceful, we believe that each consumer has a choice to make while shopping for clothes. We advocate for connecting with ourselves and understanding what we need, and shopping according to our needs and values. Loving your planet means loving your clothes: carefully selecting each new purchase and treating it with care.
Sustainable choices in fashion
The supply chain of our most ordinary clothing items is long and complex. It includes design, sourcing materials, production, packing, distribution, sale, and disposal. Fashion industry workers need to make choices at every production step, deciding whether they will focus on the planet and its people or quick profit.
Design is where sustainability starts. Today, most of the clothing items include several different materials. For example, although a pair of jeans is predominantly made of denim, it also includes a metal zip and a synthetic label. Creating single-source designs makes it easier to recycle or repurpose clothes after they are no longer wearable. The design is also decisive on the quality of the item, as well as on how trend-sensitive the item will be. A timeless design allows its users to enjoy an item for years.
Materials used to produce a piece of clothing play a big role in the environmental impact the piece will have. Textiles can be animal or plant-based, organic versus non-organic, natural or synthetic. Each of these choices requires a different procedure of growing and preparing the textile, which has consequences for how much water will be used and what kind of plant health products will be applied.
Growing cotton, one of the most widespread clothing textiles, is an extremely resource-draining venture. One kilogram of cotton, which can be used to produce one T-shirt and a pair of jeans, needs 20,000 litres of water. Although cotton farming uses only 3% of the world’s arable land, it is responsible for the use of 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides. It takes the soil up to 7 years to clean itself from the effects of harmful chemicals!
Synthetic materials are no better: instead of draining the water resources, their production pollutes the air and causes significant emissions of greenhouse gases. Such materials – including polyester, nylon, elastane – are impossible to biodegrade. Besides, they pollute the planet’s waters with microplastics, contributing to marine pollution that finally makes its way back to human bodies.
We will go into more detail with specific materials in our upcoming Label Lurking article.
“Traceability” refers to the transparency of companies’ production chain and product sourcing. In 2019, only 8% of 480 brands researched by The 2019 Ethical Fashion Report were able to trace the origin of their textiles. The predominant difference between sustainable fashion brands and “regular” ones is that sustainable brands usually take traceability as their founding principle.
Clothes can be produced in a myriad of ways: spinning, dyeing, weaving, knitting, sowing, trimming, can be applied all at once while working on a single clothing item. Each requires a different amount of resources such as energy, time, water, and labour. Of these production methods, dyeing is the most sustainability-sensitive. Often, chemical dyes go down drains and contaminate surface waters, effectively polluting every living organism, humans included. While many brands experiment with natural dyes, they may not be the answer, either: natural dyeing may create strange chemical reactions not much different from the synthetic ones (for our definition of natural and synthetic, check this article). It may be environmentally safest to only dye certain spots with carefully selected chemicals.
Packing clothes is another issue with big environmental impact, especially in the case of online retail. Single-use plastics used to ship the clothes increase the tremendous amounts of plastic waste, polluting the oceans and contributing to marine life dying out. One solution to plastic packaging is RePack, a unique design packaging for e-commerce that can be reused at least 20 times.
Often a textile is produced in one country, transported to another for production, and then shipped around the world for sale. Sometimes, packaging and distribution happen in yet another country. Transportation of clothing creates an immense carbon footprint. The answer to this problem is local production. Yet currently, it is very hard to produce fashion items on the spot due to high labour costs and the necessary scaling.
An average person throws away 31.75 kilograms of clothing items yearly. This means 13 million tons of waste on a global scale yearly. Consumption is predominantly to blame for such a wasteful state of affairs. Contemporary consumers buy 60% more clothes than at the beginning of the millennium but keep them for only half as long. Collections in the biggest fashion brands are designed to favour waste: they change four times a year, and each collection contains a certain amount of items whose primary role is to complement the collection. Designers do not expect these items to be bought, so they often produce lower-quality materials. Such practices further increase the items’ chances to end up as unused waste. It is also a tolerated practice in the industry to waste around 15% of the fabric in the production stage.
Although we could save up to 95% of the textiles laying around in landfills, we do not. It is more profitable for big companies to keep on producing. Recycling cotton could save energy and water, as well as spare pesticide and insecticide use.
Who made your clothes?
Sustainability means creating structures that endure without draining Earth’s resources. This definition includes both the social and environmental aspect of sustainability. Workers’ rights are an inherent part of the debate around sustainable fashion.
Early stages of the clothing supply chain are often outsourced to developing countries to lower production costs. As a result, those employed in textile or garment production are chronically underpaid. Their employers make them work long hours with little to no breaks. In Bangladesh, where half of the population survives on less than a dollar per day, the regular pay for a junior sewing officer is 20 cents per hour. Child labour is commonplace, too, with girls as young as 9 years old working to sew our clothes.
The notorious precarity of garment workers was acutely visible with the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in March, which brought textile factories to a standstill. Not only did fashion giants fire their workers but they also did not pay them for pending orders. Following immense pressure from social media activists as well as online petitions, the brands – including H&M, Zara, Ralph Lauren, Gap – eventually fulfilled their commitments.
The safety of the textile factories is compromised by cutting costs on safety regulations. In 2013, the Rana Plaza disaster opened the public’s eyes. An eight-story building collapsed, killing around 100 people and injuring more than 2,000. Despite a short-term outrage, not much has changed for the garment workers ever since. Garment factories tend to be overcrowded, with too few toilets, a single exit and no fire extinguishers. Cutting the human costs of production results in slavery imprinted on our T-shirts.
Caring for a fairer fashion should, and often does, include both care for the environmental impact of clothing production but also for the people that make clothes. Many sustainable brands choose to introduce their garment workers to their customers. “I made your clothes” was an international campaign conducted this year in April by the Fashion Revolution. Posting workers’ pictures aimed at highlighting the people behind the clothes. It is not only a very transparent and honest way of exposing the production chain. It also makes the customers aware that actual people are working on these items, creating a more personal connection between the buyer and the product.
The world of sustainable fashion
The new generation of fashion designers is increasingly occupied with sustainability, resulting in a proliferation of original solutions to multiple challenges to planet-friendly fashion. Rotterdam is a good place to hunt for green options, and so is the internet. We are proud to use our platform to highlight fashion innovations that care.
This issue is dedicated to highlighting sustainable fashion initiatives, explaining how to care for your clothes, and inspiring you to discover more on how to remain fashionable while becoming sustainable. We will share our tricks for removing stains and odours without washing, tell you how to turn your washing machine into a shield from microplastics, and explain how to hunt for second-hand treasures. The world of sustainable fashion is filled with soft textiles, original prints, and dedicated designers, and is, as always with us, Choiceful.
EDGE Expo provided us with statistics on waste and emissions generated by the fashion industry: https://edgexpo.com/fashion-industry-waste-statistics/#
We learned about the time needed for soil’s “rehab” from The Biggest Little farm: https://thebiggestlittlefarm.nl
Borgen Project monitors the situation of garment workers in Cambodia and Bangladesh: https://borgenproject.org/conditions-garment-workers-bangladesh/
The 2019 Ethical Fashion Guide gives insights into sustainable brands: https://good.net.nz/Ethical-fashion-report-2019/
Fashion Revolution aims at bringing about systemic change in fashion: https://www.fashionrevolution.org/