Sustainability is en vogue in the fashion industry, but it often raises more questions than it answers. What we need is a change in the system.
For years, the number of fashion companies that manufacture their products sustainably has been increasing, as have the sales of fast fashion suppliers and the amount of textiles purchased - a paradoxical development that may now be changing course. The lockdown gives fashion brands a lot of time to reflect. The influential trend researcher Li Edelkoort has spoken of a “quarantine for consumption” - one that has a devastating effect on our economy and culture, but ultimately offers “an empty page for a new beginning”.
While parts of the fashion industry already knew that they would not be able to continue their business as before, it was unimaginable that brands could be forced to slow down, let alone stop production completely. But that’s exactly what is happening now - Prada, Zara, Trigema, Olymp and many others have already switched their lines of production to the manufacturing of medical gowns and masks; Luxury houses like LVMH have shifted their production of perfume to fabricating hand sanitizer. It is an unprecedented change in the industry, one which has relied on continuous growth each season.
Let’s take a look back. As claimed by the federal statistical office, German households spent around 64.4 billion euros on clothing in 2019. Yearly, according to a study conducted by environmental organization Greenpeace, every German bought on average 60 pieces of clothing - this adds up to about five garments a month or one to two pieces each week. It is surprising, and frightening at the same time, that the majority of these purchases are never worn (87 percent, as stated by the Institute for Consumer Research). Greenpeace estimated that more than one million tons of textiles were discarded each year and often thrown into dumpsters. In addition to that, there is the unknown amount of clothing that is disposed of in household trash.
On the other hand, fair and sustainably produced fashion is currently en vogue: The French groups Kering and LVMH both employ sustainability representatives. LVMH has looked to improve its carbon footprint by hiring environmentally conscious designer Stella McCartney as a consultant. At the end of last year, the Italian brand Prada became the first luxury company to sign a loan agreement with the French bank Crédit Agricole Group, under which the annual interest rate was to be adjusted in line with the achieved sustainability goals.
Sportswear giant Adidas is pumping out recycled sneakers. Each year, Swedish fast fashion chain H&M offers a so-called Conscious Collection - in addition to its less sustainable supply of polyester garments for less than 10 euros.
Just marketing or true substance
Admittedly, sneakers and evening gowns made out of recycled plastic look sexy. Big brands, from fast fashion to luxury manufacturers, want to reassure consumers that they care about the environment. But producing and distributing truly “green” fashion is not that easy. At the heart of the problem is an old and proven growth formula of the industry on which everything depends: more and more, more often. With or without the production of fair and reusable sneakers, this causes additional damage to the environment, for example through increasing greenhouse gas emissions during transportation to the consumer and the return-trip when goods are unwanted.
The major players, above all the fast fashion suppliers, have so far concentrated on their role as retailers, outsourcing production and sharing responsibility. After receiving pressure from Greenpeace, Tchibo, Aldi, Lidl, Rewe and other German retail companies committed to only using textiles free from chemicals harmful to health or the environment by 2025. Though when looking at the complex value chain, this will hardly make a difference.
Let’s take organic cotton, the fiber that is produced organically without pesticides. According to a study commissioned by UNESCO in 2019, about 84 percent of the ‘water footprint’ of cotton consumption in the EU25 region is located outside of Europe. Given the general lack of adequate water pricing mechanisms or other means of communicating production information outside of the EU, cotton consumers have little incentive to take responsibility for the impact on remote water systems.
Two countries are known for this kind of production: India and Uzbekistan, where working conditions are not necessarily fair and kids, rather than going to school, spend their time working in fields to provide for their families. Although the rules for growing organic cotton such as GOTS are regularly being checked, a ‘Conscious Collection’ is a contradiction in itself, as it is not always possible to assume that cotton parts were really produced with 100 percent fairness. Even if many brands commit to policies that protect workers and their factory salaries, these claims are made by the companies themselves, rather than the raw material suppliers or local manufacturers. Added to this is also the threat to the environment: According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, growing the cotton needed for a single t-shirt consumes up to 2,000 liters of water - a consequence of inefficient irrigation techniques in many countries. This statistic is alarming, but barely known to the public.
Start with tackling waste
After founding his fashion brand Ecoalf, the Spaniard Javier Goyeneche opened shop in the center of Madrid in 2012. One of the most important projects of the Ecoalf Foundation, a social umbrella brand of the company, is cleaning the oceans: In the initiative “upcycling the oceans”, Ecoalf works, among other things, with Spanish fishermen to collect waste from the sea. The garbage that ends up in the nets of fishermen is given to Ecoalf, where it is then separated by a processing company. PET bottles are used to make completely “made in Spain” clothing. The majority, however, is other waste products that Ecoalf claims to dispose of in a sustainable way.
There are already good approaches and solutions; nevertheless a system change seems necessary in today’s linear economy, where most products get little use and are then thrown away. The position of Kirsten Brodde of Greenpeace is clear: “The current concept is not a future-proof business model. Fashion and design were valued in the past. Today, there is a lack of respect for the materials and resources that are used to make our clothing.” The Greenpeace-activist calls for no less than the restructuring of the entire industry. “It’s about the ethical concept behind disposable fashion,” she emphasized.
Every year in Berlin, the consulting firm McKinsey presents its “State of Fashion 2020” study in mid-January. Ecoalf-founder Javier Goyeneche was part of the round table discussion. However, when the list of top performing brands was announced, his company was not part of it. Goyeneche smiled and said: “I’m not surprised, because I’m failing the success matrix in question.” He believed that his success could not be measured by the constant increase of sales.
But introducing a change under which the fashion industry considers environmental balance and social responsibility as priorities for economic success is a long and complicated process. What is needed is a thought process shift in companies and a reorganization of the entire value chain. For most brands, a completely sustainable, transparent production, which is also fit for the market requirements, remains a challenge.
“Once we realize that the current system will always be restricted because of limited resources, the only option is to put the environment and our planet first,” said British journalist Kate Fletcher, who coined the term ‘slow fashion’ back in 2008 and now teaches at the London College of Fashion. “It’s not about tinkering with the current ways of working, creating ‘sustainable’ collections or generating recycling systems.”
It is also primarily about questioning the entire economic model and reviewing the existing overproduction and the need to release a new collection each month - and thus the amount of resources used for it. It means moving from globalized, confused and uncertain supply chains to small production centres that respond to the needs and wishes of local markets and communities. Sounds like a new beginning.
Written by Natasha Binar. The business economy and sociology graduate, with a tech-background, worked as a project manager at Sky Interactive and the British Fashion Council. Today, Natasha Binar is a marketing expert who advises companies and designers, writes for various trade media and teaches at the AMD Akademie Mode & Design in Munich.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.DE, translated and edited.
Photo credit: Greenpeace Detox-Campaign