According to a study by Vogue, fashion is the second most polluting industry on the planet. “It generates 3% of carbon emissions and is surpassed only by agriculture in its water usage; 25% of the world’s chemicals are used for textile production which is responsible for 20% of all water consumption.” To give an idea of the scale of this, just consider that each fabric starts out life as a plant (cotton), on an animal (silk, wool) or in a factory (polyester). Once harvested or processed, it is carried by road, air or sea to spinners, then weavers, then dyers, then finishers, then suppliers, then a factory where they will be made into clothes.
A McKinsey study shows that between 1995 and 2014 the price of clothing grew much more slowly than all other consumer goods worldwide, (with a record in the UK where the average consumer goods price grew by 49% while the price of garments fell by 53%). This has started a disastrous reaction: with people constantly looking for cheap clothes, around 100 billion garments are now made each year; the average person buys 60% more than 15 years ago keeping their purchases only half as long. A predicted 235m items of Britons’ unwanted clothing are expected to end up in landfill unnecessarily this spring, according to new research.
However there are some gleams of hope in the horizon: Kering the huge French fashion group which owns 16 luxury brands including Gucci and Stella McCartney pledges that 95 per cent of their raw materials will be traceable by 2018. Pursuing traceable, lasting materials means pursuing sustainable fashion: the technology for recycling 100% of fibres is still lagging: 1000 tonnes of clothes takes 48 hours to produce and 12 years to recycle. Fashion houses must rethink their “disposable” fashion model and start producing sustainable fashion. Urgently.
But there is another -even more disturbing- side to cheap clothes.
Safia Minney a pioneer of the Fair Trade and ethical fashion movement and one of the key business people in the Fair Trade industry says in a passage from her book “Slave to Fashion”: “Researching, interviewing for and writing Slave to Fashion, I spend 6 months meeting women men and children in India, Cambodia and Bangladesh and hearing their stories and interviewed business people and activists working on human rights and slavery issues. Girls who were 12 when they started working at a cotton mill where her friends, other children were bonded labourers, and at 15 felt too exhausted and burnt out to work in a garment factory for 6 days a week; women who were trafficked and ended up in the sex and garment trade. Women who are sexually harassed by their male supervisors and who walk a thin line daily between losing the benefits of a permanent job and ‘giving sexual favours’. The sickening violence of slavery and misused power. “
What can we do?
It is nearly impossible to regulate a production cycle which -due to the pressure to deliver cheap garments- takes places across continents, often in remote areas, involving a complex sub-contracting matrix.
What manufacturers can do is source every piece responsibly and keep production under control: this delivers quality, durability and fairness.
As manufacturers, we are doing our part: all our procurement and production process is under our control: we select the best low-impact fabrics even though this means reducing our margins. As consumers we must grow a higher awareness of what low-cost garments production involves. Awareness is everything: we can make our own choices but they must be informed choices.