The 6 pressing issues we have to tackle for fashion to love the planet

Living
pebbles make ripples

If 2017 was the turning point against single use plastic, will 2018 be the turn of the sustainable fashion revolution and the beginning of the end of fast fashion? Sarah Richards from Olive Road attended the Sustainable Living Festival earlier this year and tracks the conversation around our 'Wardrobe Crisis' and focuses on what you can do about it.

Sarah Richards 21 April 2018

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Did you know that the global fashion industry produces more greenhouse emissions than the aviation and maritime shipping industries combined?  

Clothing is vital for warmth, protection and for many it is a form of expression but the trend for ‘fast fashion’ not only pollutes through its manufacture but it has resulted in an annual global waste value of US$460 billion dollars. 

Put another way, that means 87% of all textiles end up in landfill.

At the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne earlier this year, a ‘Wardrobe Crisis’ discussion panel, facilitated by journalist Clare Press, took on the task to break down the environmental concerns of the fashion industry from fibre to finished garment. Sarah Richards from Olive Road was there to take it all in.

Ethical Fashion Issues2

Growing non organic cotton utilises 20,000 litres of water per kilo of raw fibre

Natural doesn't mean organic

A staggering 43 million tonnes of chemicals are used to produce textiles each year, from the pesticides needed to grow cotton to the heavy metals found in dyes.

“The World Bank claim 20% of water pollution in Asia is attributed to fashion production, particularly in China, India and Pakistan,” reported Michael Spencer, chair and CEO of the Alliance for Water Stewardship (Asia-Pacific), at the discussion.

“A lot of consumers think because cotton is natural then it is sustainable,” added Courtney Sanders, co-founder of Well Made Clothes.

Growing cotton utilises 20,000 litres of water per kilo of raw fibre and requires numerous pesticides.

“Organic certified cotton guarantees the farmer gets paid a premium price. 70-80% of organic cotton uses rainwater alone and no pesticides,” Courtney Holm, founder of A.BCH added.

"The number of times a garment is worn before it is thrown away has decreased by nearly 30% in the past five years"

Trims and threads

Although more expensive, organic, natural fibres such as hemp or cotton can be thrown into a garden compost heap at the end of their life cycle. However, if polyester threads have stitched the garment together and plastic buttons or metal zips are used, these will not biodegrade and only add to the waste problem.

More and more ethical fashion brands are going to great lengths to source fastenings and fittings that will break down.

Courtney Holm uses biodegradable elastic and buttons in her A.BCH range, “We look at every component that comes into the garment, even the things you don’t see have to meet our guidelines. After they are sold, worn, repaired, reused, [they are] biodegradable or recycled. We look at the whole lifecycle of the garment.”

Fabric waste

Textile waste isn’t just a problem at the end of the lifecycle of a piece of clothing. It’s also an issue right at the start. During most manufacturing processes, around 20% of fabric is discarded onto the cutting room floor after garment patterns are cut from fabric.

John Condilis, managing director of Nobody Denim has addressed that in his factories, “Our [fabric] waste in our cutting was 19%, we brought it down to 8%, saving the company money and reducing textile waste.”  

The company also works with dead stock (i.e.garments and fabric that hasn’t been sold). Usually this would end up in landfill or be incinerated if it was printed with a pattern in order to protect a brand’s intellectual property. Nobody Denim works with design students to remodel these clothes into new garments, selling them at high street department stores.   

Ethical Fashion Issues1

20% of fabric is discarded on the cutting room floor before production even starts

Manufacturing is a human rights issue

The increasing customer demand for cheaper, faster fashion over the past 20 years has created pressure on manufacturers, often resulting in employees being paid less wages for working longer hours and in some instances suffering from slavery and child labour abuses.

Fashion Revolution has been campaigning to the fashion industry to call for transparency in their supply chains and encourage us as customers to ask ‘#whomademyclothes’. (Fashion Revolution was set up in response to the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh when 1,138 people (mostly clothing manufacturer workers), were tragically crushed by the building collapsing.)

“The fashion industry supply chain is so complex, it is impossible to be perfect,” Courtney Sanders advises. “We ask consumers to decide what values are most important to them.”

(Click here for 10 values you want to find in an ethical fashion brand).

The Fashion Revolution Fashion Transparency Index is available for download on their website and includes ‘sustainable livelihoods’ and ‘good working conditions’ in their list of values. However, out of the 100 clothing brands they have investigated, the average transparency score is 20% and none of the brands achieve over 50%.

Utilisation of clothes

We are all guilty of buying something and only wearing it a few times but the number of times a garment is worn before it is thrown away has decreased by nearly 30% in the past five years.

Skirts and dresses are the most popular discarded item simply because we no longer like them.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation report A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future recommends by just wearing clothes for longer is the ‘most powerful way to capture value, reduce pressure on resources and decrease negative impact’. 

"Sustainable fashion has to become a more mainstream discussion. Sustainability only works in a close loop system and we have to promote a circular design in fashion," Courtney Sanders summarised at the end of a fascinating and thought provoking discussion. "We are the customer and we have the power to create this change by shifting the perception of clothing from being disposable to being a durable product."

Ellen Macarthur Stella Mccartney2

Ellen Macarthur and Stella McCartney are both fighting for fast fashion to be more responsible for its supply chains

Quality vs quantity

It’s not all on the fashion industry. We have to take responsibility as well as the consumers of fast fashion. While we can pressure fast fashion brands with our pockets, we can also look to change our own buying behaviour. Buying less but better is something more fashion designers are embracing.

For example, taped seams at the shoulder seam of a top and double stitched side seams are a couple of examples to signify a well made garment. Not only will better made garments last you longer, they’re also easier to pass on to someone else when you’re done or to upcycle.  

Livia Firth at Ecochic recommends the 30 Wear Test. (Don’t buy something unless you’re going to get at least 30 wears out of it).

5 quick ways to help reduce fast fashion and textile waste

  • Identify which values are most important to you when buying clothes and research the stores that match your values e.g. fair rights for workers, recycled fabrics, chemical free dyes, organic fibres, a recycled clothes campaign.
  • Can you find what you are looking for second hand in online market places or charity shops, swishing events and vintage fairs? (See here for our guide to shopping second hand like a pro).
  • Buy clothes made from organic and recycled fibres where possible.
  • Buy quality garments that will last longer and are easier to resell when you are finished with them. 
  • Repair damaged clothes rather than replace them or remodel them to keep up with new trends. 

Join the community for sustainable living, ethical fashion and eco travel


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