Fashion is infamously known to be the second most polluting industry in the world, just a step behind oil. Long, complicated supply chains that tend to stem from impoverished regions provide ample opportunity for exploitation and unsustainable practices, whether that be in sourcing raw materials, manufacturing textiles, making the clothes, shipping and transport, retail, or disposal of the end product. It’s important to understand the true impact of the industry so that we have a “why” to help us change the taste for “new” that we’re become so accustomed to.
Environmental issues in the fashion industry are big, varied, and daunting. There’s the huge quantities of natural resources and land used for farming and processing, the runoff of pesticides used to farm crops that pollute soils and rivers, and the enormous amounts of water required to irrigate crops such as cotton. As Stephen Leahy from the Guardian said:
“85% of the daily needs in water of the entire population of India would be covered by the water used to grow cotton in the country.
100 million people in India do not have access to drinking water.”
Then there are the toxic dyes used in manufacturing that pollute waterways (the vibrant colours we’re fond of are responsible for birth defects in some textile-based cities), the tremendous carbon footprint from shipping clothing around the world (these ships consume fuel in tonnes per hour), and the vast amount of waste created when garments are discarded. Add to that a growing trend for quick, cheap, mass-produced clothes that can be delivered to your door, and we’ve got a big mess on our hands.
The recent phenomenon that is 'fast fashion' ramps up the whole process faster than ever before, whilst cutting corners to keep prices low. Globalisation means we can get whatever we want, pretty much whenever we want it; therefore, the cycle of waste picks up speed. Modern marketing is, in some ways, too efficient. We’ve become conditioned to an intensive consumerist market so strong we feel we ‘need’ to buy, buy, buy. Yet, the evidence is growing to show the link between materialism and unhappiness. At the end of the day, the fast fashion shift only really benefits Big Business.
Environmental sustainability is still just one part of the picture: extremely low wages, hazardous working conditions, and outright exploitation form the human rights concerns we don’t see in the day to day picture from a cheerful-looking online store. No one seems to realise that today, at this very minute, there are more slaves than ever before in history; an estimated 27 million people. These supply chains are responsible for it; your shirt may even be made from the cotton picked by Uzbekistani children forced to swap their education for working in a field. That’s why it’s critical that we - the consumers, the Westerners and ultimately the people with the power in these circumstances - refuse to endorse clothes produced by slavery and environmental degradation.
The Tearfund Ethical Fashion Guide is the best reference we have at present for assessing the ethics of fashion companies. The guide denotes fashion companies an A-F grade based on their policies, transparency, supply chain traceability, worker empowerment (for example, receiving fair wages), and environmental management (a new standard to this year’s report) with the aim of discouraging exploitation and informing both consumers and businesses alike. While it may not provide all the answers, it’s a great starting point to hold companies accountable. This project began after the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh in 2013, where 1,134 garment factory workers died in the collapse of the building they worked in, despite begging their managers not to enter on the very same morning due to visible cracks in the walls.
To get some more information, we spoke to Tearfund Education and Advocacy Manager Claire Hart. She informed us that people working in factories with low ethical standards will be exposed to toxic chemicals, fire hazards and unsafe buildings; conditions which would violate the most basic health and safety regulations. Workers often have to endure 12-14 hour days, sometimes even longer, for drastically low pay.
“...in Dhaka which is the main textile producing city in the country [Bangladesh], the minimum wage per day is about NZD$4.50. A living wage, so what they actually need to be able to survive, is $7.80. So far in 2019, there’s been heaps and heaps of protests by garment factory workers, protesting the low wages. That $4.50 has actually only just hit that level, not that many months ago it was even lower than that.”
Tearfund’s assessment covers many of the international brands that have a strong presence in the Australian/New Zealand market, as well as brands specifically requested by people like us. In a 4 month consultative process, companies will fill out a survey which requires them to trace their supply chain, with evidence required for each answer. Companies may not know as much about where their materials are coming from as it seems they should.
“...a company that’s only just starting out tracing its supply chain, it’s going to be a number of years before they can actually say with assurance that they know that there’s no part of the supply chain that has exploitation in it, because fashion supply chains are very large and they’re very complicated”.
So, what about our beloved go-to cheapie buys; stores like Cotton On, Kmart, etc? Can cheap clothes be ethical? Well, yes and no.
“A company like a Cotton On or Kmart has the scale that they can actually put really good systems in place to protect workers, and they can still keep that low price point up to a point, but...none of those companies are paying workers a living wage...it depends on what your standard of ethical is.
“...[the clothing] is often a low quality so we’re buying higher volumes of it, discarding it quicker. It’s often made with cheaper production processes which are worse for the environment...You can still buy from a company that you know doesn’t have slave labour, but if you’re buying really cheap clothing, you’re still buying clothing from a system that’s unsustainable.”
If you’ve ever watched The True Cost on Netflix, you’ll know that in the Punjab region of India (which is the main cotton-growing region in the country), the toxic effects of broadly sprayed pesticides is visible not only in ecological consequences, but also in the children. The number of mentally retarded children born in every village has drastically increased, meaning parents have to essentially wait for their children to die as they can’t afford to care for them. Pair that with an increase in physical handicaps, cancer, and mental illness (all shown in studies, by the way) and the fact that an Indian farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes, and we can see that it is them, not us, paying the price for our cheap clothing - except they aren’t paying with their wallet, they’re paying with their health, or in some cases, their life.
It’s crucial that we grasp the magnitude of the problem. We’re buying 400% more than we did two decades ago. The mountains of waste in landfill are growing, species and forests are being degraded, and garment factory workers are being beaten if they protest their hazardous, inhumane working conditions. All of this is justified because ‘it provides jobs.’ Do you think that explanation cuts it?
If you’re not sure about the ethos of a brand you like, ask them. If you’ve seen their Tearfund grade and think they’ve done pretty poorly, there may be another alternative to completely boycotting them. It’s a great idea to email them directly and ask them, for example, where are their clothes made? What do they do to ensure safe conditions and fair pay for their workers? How are dyes disposed of? What steps is the company taking to be more sustainable? If you do decide to stop shopping there, email them to let them know why. As Claire Hart said, “that gives companies motivation to actually change and that’s when we’re going to see some of those companies that are stubbornly sitting in the D and the F categories actually feeling enough pressure from customers to make a change, because ultimately some of these companies are only going to change when it starts to hit them financially.”
Nexus is going to email a few popular companies and get back to you on how they respond. If you have specific brands you would like us to question, let us know.
Things that we as consumers can do to help:
- Work on changing your mindset. You don’t need something new to wear every weekend. The best thing we can do is consume less.
- When you do purchase clothes, buy fewer items of higher quality. These may require a little more saving up, but they’ll last longer.
- Shop second hand and send clothes you don’t want any more to second-hand stores to extend their lifetime. See Issue 5 for inspiration on Hamilton’s op-shops.
- Buy local and support small businesses where you can.
- Choose natural fibers which don’t use plastic, organic fibers that don’t required heavy chemical use, or fibers that use less water to produce (see the section on fabrics on the next page)
- Repair or alter your clothes instead of chucking them out.
Each time we wash synthetic fibres (i.e. anything that isn’t produced in nature, such as acrylic, nylon, or polyester), hundreds and thousands of miniscule plastic pieces wash down the drain. They can’t all be caught in conventional water treatment due to their small size, so they end up polluting waterways, where they absorb other pollutants such as industrial chemicals and pesticides. Fish eat them, then - you guessed it - we eat all those tiny plastics. It’s estimated there are 1.4 million trillion microfibres in the oceans.
We can make individual efforts such as washing our clothes less, wearing only natural fibres (more than 60% of clothing is made of synthetic fabrics, and growing) and supporting innovations like the German non-profit engineered mesh bag, the Guppy Friend, which captures microfibres in your washing (just remember to chuck the fibres that collect in the rubbish, don’t wash it out or it does nothing!). However, consumers alone can’t solve the problem. We need innovation from companies to engineer solutions such as non-polluting fabrics, washing machine filters, and better wastewater treatment barriers to prevent microfibre pollution. Postgraduate research, anybody?GROW THE FUCK UP: FABRICS
Here’s a handy guide showing some of the best fabric options to look for when buying new threads to some of the worst culprits.
Hemp - an incredibly versatile plant which can be used in a variety of different products (and no, we’re not talking about *that* use). It’s totally biodegradable, produces 2-3x the fibre per acre than cotton while using less water, and it actually provides nutrients to the soil while it grows rather than stripping them away.
Linen - it's a biodegradable fabric sourced from flax that doesn’t need fertilisers, pesticides, or excessive water use. Not only that, the fabric is super durable, and it even cools or warms according to your body temperature. Avoid white linen which requires bleaching; shades of ivory, grey, or tan are the best options.
Lyocell/Tencell® - this is the Beyoncé of eco-friendly fabrics, made from sustainably sourced wood which can grow super quickly, such as bamboo or eucalyptus. Wood sources can be grown on marginal land that won’t compete with space for food crops. The whole process uses less energy, less water and fewer chemicals than conventional fabrics, and petrochemicals used in production are recycled over and over to minimise waste accumulation in a closed-loop system.
Wool - the biggest problem with wool is methane emissions that come from farming sheep (a.k.a. sheep burps). There are also concerns about animal welfare and chemicals used in wool treatment. Apart from that, the benefits are that wool can be produced from farming sheep on non-arable land, grazing is great for encouraging grass growth, and wool is both renewable and biodegradable.
Organic cotton - a better alternative to conventional cotton as it doesn’t use the polluting chemicals. However, remember that cotton is cotton; it still requires vast amounts of water to grow, plus it can be expensive.
Rayon, viscose, modal - these are wood-based fibres, so while they will biodegrade, they require hazardous chemicals to be transformed into fabric. Unfortunately they also contribute to rainforest deforestation.
Leather - animal rights ethics are just one side of the coin; the leather tanning process is also incredibly toxic. However, new initiatives using recycled leather, sustainably sourced leather and natural vegetable dyes (such as Piñatex, made from pineapple leaf waste, or even mushroom leather) could make this fabric a better choice in the future.
Cotton - while it is a glorified as a natural source, this crop requires 10% of the world’s pesticides and 25% of the world’s insecticides, directly linking the spraying to miscarriages, cancer and various other health concerns, while also contributing to the decline of insect species and soil degradation. While cotton is biodegradable, bear in mind it requires around 2600L of water to produce just one cotton T-shirt.
Nylon - not biodegradable, and made from petrochemicals. Nylon produces a potent greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide, which has a climate change impact 300x that of carbon dioxide.
Polyester - made from oil, polyester is a dominant player in the clothing industry, and definitely not biodegradable. 70 million barrels of oil are used to produce raw polyester every year, and considering we may have more microfibres in the ocean than sea life by 2050, this is probably one to avoid. Recycled polyester (rPET) made from plastic bottles could be a promising option, except some companies are actually buying unused bottles from manufacturers to do the job.