"I’m making masks, I’m doing typical iso shit, and I think to myself - yikes I’ve been doing this fashion thing for basically ten years. Given the current pandemic/restrictions/etc. I’ve been reflecting on my practice and how I might adjust and adapt to the current circumstances.
I had a wave of feeling tired and frustrated at how little has changed in the fashion industry in the past decade, despite the fact that trends come and go every season. There hasn’t been a great deal of systematic progress towards a sustainable industry, even though we are facing a world that is urgently demanding a radical embrace of environmental sustainability.
I’ve been studying how to make fashion better for people and the environment since 2013, so I know a thing or two. In fact, I know quite a lot, yet weirdly I only just realised that maybe there hasn’t been bigger shifts in the fashion system because the problems are so large and complex, and the answers are so unclear, it’s likely that consumers and designers don’t even know where to start. Or maybe it feels helpless, like the corruption in fashion may never be cured. I beg to differ. I would like to share with you some info that I think you will find helpful and enlightening, and may open a floodgate to imagining possibilities of a world where fashion is as clean as The Saddle Club - in 10 digestible nuggets."
1: Slow Fashion VS Fast Fashion
Slow Fashion is a relatively recent movement that encourages people to buy less clothes, buy better quality clothes and buy from brands that are actively engaged in sustainable and ethical practices. Developing a slow fashion wardrobe counteracts some of the environmental destruction caused by brands that mass-manufacture clothing and encourages major companies to invest in sustainability as they lose market share to environmentally friendly labels. Consumer demand drives the way that big companies operate, so the more people who wear sustainable and ethically produced clothing, the more brands are likely to incorporate these principals into their boardrooms and products.
The opposite of Slow Fashion is Fast Fashion. Fast Fashion brands mass-manufacture cheap, poor quality and trend-driven garments that are replenished in-store weekly. The garments are purposely designed to only last one or two seasons before they literally fall apart. They haven’t been designed for longevity and it doesn’t take very long for these items to end up in the bin. The downside to slow fashion is that items that are sustainably and ethically produced tend to cost more, kind of like how buying organic groceries is more expenno, but the benefits hugely outweigh the extra cost.
2: Garment factory worker wages
Fast fashion brands usually mass manufacture their clothing in factories in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Minimum wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh is 2,700Tk per month (roughly $45.50 AUD), yet the cost of living in Bangladesh is approximately 16,000Tk per month ($269 AUD). Clothing brands can choose to invest in ensuring that their factory workers are paid a living wage, but often claim they have no control over how much factories pay their employees. As you can imagine with these large companies, profit is more important than human rights, and they have enough money to be able to hide their injustices. Irritatingly, fast fashion companies also make more than enough money to be able to provide living wages for their garment manufacturing workers without it affecting the cost of their final products in-store.
3: Cancelled orders due to COVID = fast fashion is the ultimate villain
A lot of big brands have cancelled mass-manufacturing orders in offshore factories due to the pandemic. Factory owners are using this as an opportunity to fire employees en masse, and are targeting employees who are members of a union. One report stated that of the 571 workers that were fired from a clothing factory in Vietnam, 520 of those were members of a union. Workers that unionised and protested the sackings were met with police brutality and imprisonment.
4: Textile waste and donating to opshops
It is estimated that around 501,000,000 kg of textile waste goes to landfill in Australia every year. To put this number into perspective, a standard cotton t-shirt weights around 103 grams. I have four or five t-shirts in my wardrobe. If all the textile waste in Australia was made up of just t-shirts, there would be 3,853,846,154 t-shirts in landfill. That would be roughly the equivalent of every single person in this country throwing out 100 t-shirts each. Around 600,000 kg of this waste is unsalable clothing that has been donated to charity stores. The Salvation Army alone spends six million dollars a year disposing of damaged items that people have tried to donate. Anything that is stained, ripped, smelly, has a button missing, a broken zip or any item in general disrepair cannot be sold by op shops. Instead, the op shops have to chuck these things in the bin after you donate them. Just some food for thought for next time you’re cleaning out your wardrobe.
5: You shouldn’t have to stop buying brands you like!
There are some simple steps you can take to show the brands you like that it's important to you that their products are made ethically and sustainably. Send an email to your favourite brands to let them know you care about garment factory workers, sustainable fabric sourcing and garment life-cycle (but also you should try buying from brands that are committed to sustainability). Ask the brands you like to be accountable and responsible for their products. When you have finished with a garment, message the brand you bought it from and ask them to buy it back off you. I’m not sure if this would work, but it’s worth a shot? It shows companies that you care about what happens to the garment when you are finished with it. Brands need to start stepping up to better sustainability and ethical standards but will only do so with pressure from their consumers. Tag brands on social media in posts about sustainability, ask them about steps that they are taking to create a transparent supply chain and demand fair wages for garment workers. Inundate brands with information about the importance of a sustainable and ethical fashion industry.
6: What really is fashion sustainability though?
The word ‘Sustainable’ means "causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time” (Cambridge dictionary)
A Sustainable product does not negatively impact the natural environment and therefore also does not compromise human health throughout the creation, distribution and eventual disposal of the product. People who create Sustainable products ensure that the environment is not depleted due to the farming/production of raw materials, everyone in the supply chain is paid a fair and living wage and the product will not become ‘waste’ landfill at the end of its lifecycle. Imagine a T-shirt made from organic cotton grown using reclaimed water and harvested with electronically powered machinery on a solar powered farm. If the farmers are not being paid a living wage and/or are exposed to dangerous working conditions, the product is still not Sustainable. People need to be paid enough to survive in order to continue safely creating products.
Saying a product or brand is ‘sustainable’ is actually a very big claim to make. If a brand claims to be Sustainable, I suggest you follow up with them or send them an email or DM about which parts of their business or product is actually Sustainable. If they are unable to provide an answer, or do not fulfil the requirements mentioned above - then they are simply not Sustainable.
Upcycling is essentially redeveloping waste materials and products into something new, useful and valuable. The difference between ‘recycling’ and ‘upcycling’ is that ‘recycling breaks products down into their raw material to be made into totally new things, while upcycling creatively repurposes old materials while maintaining some of their original characteristics’ (Earth Hero). The obvious benefits of Upcycling include diverting waste textiles from landfill, extending material life by giving old products a new life cycle and therefore hypothetically reducing CO2 emissions by counteracting the production of new ‘virgin’ materials.
Next time you clear out your wardrobe and don’t have a use for damaged items that can’t be donated to charity, keep in mind that these types of items are PERFECT and IDEAL for Upcycling. Any clothes you have that are damaged… maybe you could chop it up and turn them into something else… a mask perhaps?
Try contacting your local op shop and ask if you can have or buy their waste/landfill clothing! There are often some cool things lying about that can’t be sold just because of a stain or tear. Upcycling is not the key to sustainability in the fashion industry, but it is definitely a method for reducing textile waste going to landfill and extending the life cycle of otherwise derelict materials and items of clothing.
Greenwashing means: ‘to make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is’ (Cambridge dictionary). The term is a play on ‘whitewashing’ which means providing false and misleading information to disguise misconduct/wrongdoing. Commonly used to describe companies in the fashion industry, Greenwashing strategies use deceptive branding and wording to make consumers believe that a brand’s products are eco-friendly and/or sustainable.
I recently saw a brand advertise that their products were made from ‘ethical leather’. This is a prime example of Greenwashing - using the term ‘ethical’ to entice buyers and build trust with consumers, when in reality the leather industry is a notoriously unsustainable and unethical industry (but not for the reason you’d think). The process of tanning leather is a chemical-heavy process that negatively affects both workers and the natural environment. Most leather is tanned in countries where we cannot ensure slavery-free manufacturing or adequate occupational health and safety standards. Advertising ‘ethical leather’ in this case was false advertising - just because the leather itself was sourced as a byproduct of the meat industry, this is not the only factor that ensures it is ‘ethical’. Greenwashing!
I saw another brand just the other day advertise that their product was ‘sustainable’. I liked the look of the product and was interested in buying one but needed a bit more info. I searched on their website about how their product was ‘sustainable’ but couldn’t find anything to back up the claim. I sent them a DM asking in what way the product was sustainable. They saw the message but didn’t reply. Needless to say, since I sent them a DM, their product is no longer advertised as being ‘sustainable’. Classic Greenwashing bullshit. It just goes to show that something as easy as sending a DM can startle brands into being more accountable for the way they advertise/Greenwash their products.
(TW death and human rights abuse)
A sweatshop is a factory where the workers are not paid a living wage, forced to work overtime usually without pay and are subject to unsafe working conditions.
The term usually applies to garment manufacturing factories, where products are man-made, or woman-made in this case (as fashion manufacturing is made up of a predominantly female workforce). The most notorious case of a sweatshop disaster was the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh. In 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed killing over 1000 people, injuring 2,500 more. The day before the collapse, the building was found to have structural cracks. Shops on the bottom of the floor of the building promptly closed… but the garment workers were ordered to return to work the next day by the factory management, and ultimately lost their lives. The owner of the factory, Sohel Rana, in 2017 was sentenced to three years jail for ‘unaccounted income‘ that he had acquired through ‘corrupt practices’ (gained wealth via enslaved workers and without various operational permits). He is yet to face charges of manslaughter, and perhaps he never will.
Very little has changed for major brands since the factory collapse. You would think that huge companies would have seen the error in their ways and changed their supply chains accordingly to be more transparent and to ensure the occupational health and safety of their workers both locally and abroad… but no. Practically no brands even acknowledged the incident. Many designers and consumers are blissfully unaware that such a travesty ever occurred. There is no reason for us to believe this won’t happen again. Brands continue to use sweatshops overseas. Even many of our beloved local designers order their stock from factories where they cannot ensure the health and safety of the factory workers. Ask your favourite brands about their factories. Tell them you care about garment factory workers and their safety. It’s as simple as a DM or email.
10: ‘Where can I find more info about making sustainable fashion purchases?’
One resource I find really helpful is the Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Report. I do not condone the religious or political views of Baptist World Aid, but their Ethical Fashion Guide is a handy tool. They’ve developed a range of standards and put in the work to audit 130 popular
clothing companies on their supply chains and material sourcing. In 2019, some companies that received an ‘A’ rating - indicating they are actively establishing fair pay and safe working conditions in their supply chain - include Adidas, Reebok, Bonds, Patagonia and Zara.
A few companies that received an ‘F’ rating - meaning they were either unresponsive or have no traceability whatsoever in their supply chain and/or actively operate using slave labour and sweatshops - include P.E. Nation, Camilla and Marc, Forever 21, Bec and Bridge, Decjuba and... you guessed it… Wish.
You can download the very detailed and informative Ethical Fashion Report, or the simple and to-the-point Ethical Fashion Guide from the Baptist World Aid website - baptistworldaid.org.au (Note that they ask for a donation but you can select ‘$0’ and you don’t need to provide your card details or anything)
Just because the above companies received an ‘A’ rating does not mean they’re saintly prophets and we should all go and spend our schmoney. Mass manufacturing of any kind is totally unsustainable at this time. It’s still important to be conscious about your buying habits
even when buying from ‘A’ rated folk. Avoid buying ‘F’ rated brands at all costs. Message/email/call brands and ask about what measures they are taking to have a more ethical and sustainable supply chain. Encourage the ‘F’ rated brands to step up and be good!
Go forth and conquer!
I understand it can seem daunting that so many things are awry in the fashion industry, but I hope that this information has been helpful in updating you on the fashion industry shtick. Now we’re all on the same page, we can collectively spend a bit more energy making educated and sensitive decisions about our clothing purchases. A cultural shift in respecting and appreciating clothing manufacturing will hugely affect the industry at large, and force big brands to be accountable and take responsibility for their current negligence. Just like being vegan or being allergic to a niche thing, reading the small print on product labels and contacting brands to ask for information is the most effective way to communicate that you care about garment worker safety and product sustainability.
Peace and Love! Fashion Chelsea xo