Arts and Entertainment

Slow and Steady: Sustainability in the Fashion Industry

What sustainability means in the fashion industry, and the impact it has on our society today.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Did you know that Bermuda shorts are going to be one of the biggest trends of spring 2020?

I didn’t. I mean, are they in the most flattering cut? No. And do they, when created in any non-neutral color, obnoxiously remind whoever’s looking at them of the beach? Perhaps. Yet “The runways have spoken” captions an article. And after seeing a series of images of Zendaya and Kylie Jenner wearing them, I couldn’t help but want a pair too.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that we are all, to some extent, influenced by our society’s trends and standards. And fashion is no exception to that. Whether you’re a fashion aficionado or someone who just read the term “Bermuda shorts” for the first time, we all share the need to have clothes on our backs. We’ve all walked past the large “BOGO” and “SALE! STARTING FROM $5” signs plastered on the brightly lit department store windows and thought, “I might as well check it out,” not really in the need for anything in particular. Yet we always seem to walk out of said store, new bag in hand, thinking “Wow, that was only $5.99!” regardless.

Something that doesn’t cross many people’s minds, however, is where their clothing comes from. Who made it? What is it made of? How is it made? And the most pressing question of all—is it sustainable?

Sustainable fashion is a movement that has gained momentum over the last couple of decades. It addresses the current state of the textile production system and advocates for a shift toward more ethical and environmentally friendly practices. The issue in sustainability, or rather the lack thereof, lies mainly in the popularity of fast fashion, a common business strategy where major retailers bring runway trends (i.e. leather Bahama shorts) into stores quickly and affordably for the average consumer. This is what brands like Zara, Topshop, Forever 21, H&M, and Hollister do. Customers are now able to wear styles they just saw on their favorite celebrities for a fraction of the price, and that changes everything. But how are these brands able to do this? How is it possible for them to produce and sell these new pieces so quickly and at such low prices? Do they even make a profit?

What we don’t realize is that the cost goes far deeper than what’s just on the price tag. In order for a brand to be sustainable, they have to use environmentally friendly practices and employ their workers in an ethical way—easier said than done in an industry that prioritizes expediency over ethics and the environment.

Worth over $2.4 trillion, the global fashion industry is enormous. From haute couture to tennis shoes, production never stops, and the demand for new products is only increasing. Fast fashion encourages this “buy and throw” practice, in which consumers buy more pieces at lower quality. But this practice doesn’t only apply to retail stores. With the growth of technology, predominantly online retailers like FashionNova, Zaful, and AliExpress are becoming more popular now that people can shop internationally and have their purchases delivered straight to their door.

What’s often overlooked, however, is the waste produced during this process. Responsible for 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and the second-largest consumer of the global water supply, the textile industry falls just below oil as one of the largest polluters in the world.

Let’s look at the production of a pair of jeans, for example. It takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make them. They require intensive processes, from growing the pesticide heavy cotton to washing and dyeing it to creating that beloved denim texture to sewing the pieces together to then package and ship. Additionally, the water runoff is often extremely toxic and non-reusable, released into rivers and leached into agriculture and drinking supply. Microplastics from the packaging and labels get washed into the oceans, not to mention the jeans themselves, which can take years to even start to biodegrade in landfills. That is, assuming, they aren’t made with a blend of polyester—then that’s a whole other story.

Polyester, a relatively new development in textiles, is a synthetic fiber often blended with other materials in clothing for its durability, lightweight, and quick-drying properties. It’s cheap and versatile, but made through an energy-intensive process from crude oil; which means that, yes, it’s plastic. Polyester fabrics can’t biodegrade in landfills and thus make up a large portion of the microplastic fibers polluting our oceans today.

Materials are only half of the issue though. Garment workers—the majority of whom are women and children—are some of the lowest-paid employees in the world. Companies purposely choose factories in third-world countries where land and labor are abundant and cheap. They then employ millions to assemble clothing for long hours and extremely low wages—sometimes even less than what they need to survive. Not only that, but workers are also often put in unsafe conditions, vulnerable to abuse and workplace accidents. These factories are commonly referred to as sweatshops, and their prevalence is only growing with our high demands.

Fortunately, sustainability is gaining more exposure as people are becoming more aware of the unsustainability of the “easy come, easy go” mindset they apply to their wardrobes—in regards to the planet and the manufacturers behind the scenes. Now that’s not to say going sustainable is easy. But brands are starting to shift toward a more sustainable production line, and tackling the issue of transparency has been the first step to that.

The 2013 factory fire in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh was a big eye-opener. Due to a lack of inspection and maintenance, workers were in an extremely unsafe environment. When the factory collapsed, over 1,000 people lost their lives and countless others were injured. When the media got a hold of this, accusations for who was responsible for the accident were thrown left and right. What made this such a complicated situation, however, was that brands don’t usually own or manage their own production and instead hire independent factories to do so. Textiles are often created, shipped, and assembled in pieces across several factories, with different people in charge of different sectors. Until recently, companies were never pressured to improve their communication with these sectors or be fully transparent with their customers about their resources and practices.

H&M has taken a step in the right direction with its new “consumer-facing transparency layer.” Customers can now find out where and how their purchased items were made. Zara has also initiated sustainability reforms with its Join Life production line. The Join Life label informs customers that their clothing was manufactured with new technologies and materials and lowered environmental impact. More and more brands like Levi’s, Madewell, and H&M have been implementing recycling programs in an effort to keep resource-heavy textiles like denim or dyed prints out of landfills. Customers can now donate their unwanted clothing at any of their in-store locations to be sent to factories specializing in recycling to be refurbished.

But at the end of the day, the best way to encourage sustainability is simply to purchase less. We often feel powerless in situations like these, and it can be frustrating to watch as major fast fashion tycoons brush off these issues and introduce line after line of new designs. But as the consumer, we actually have more influence than we think. If we become more mindful of our purchases and invest in good quality pieces rather than the latest seasonal trend, we can limit the amount of waste produced.

Thrifting is another more sustainable (and affordable) alternative, as buying and upcycling second hand pieces gives them another life and keeps another article of clothing out of landfills. There are online thrift stores like Depop, Poshmark, and thredUp, which allow us to not only shop, but also sell second hand all from the comfort of our home. And if we want to shop retail, there are many new brands focused on sustainability and transparency that are available, a few being Reformation, Patagonia, Everlane, and Pact.

Needless to say, the cost of cheap fashion is high, and the shift toward sustainability is slow. The most we can really do is be conscious of our actions, the consequences they have, and try to minimize that indirect impact as much as we can.

I’ve decided not to get the Bermuda shorts after all. What about you?