The global fashion industry is expanding at a rapid pace. It's estimated that one in every six people works in the global fashion industry, making it the most labor dependent industry on earth. The demand for clothes is at an all time high, the supply of clothes is at an all time high, and big-box fashion retailers like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 are on track to profit more in 2018 than ever before. In other words, we are consuming an absurd amount of clothes. The problem with this is that we as consumers are unaware of exactly how much we are consuming and how it is effecting our planet. How we purchase, what we purchase, and why we purchase says more about us today than ever before. And as a result, our generation has been plagued by materialism and vanity while the rate of environmental degradation is at an all time high.
This essay will analyze the overall damages generated from mass-production in the clothing and textile industry. Outlining the environmental impact of excess textile waste, water stress and global water pollution, and hazardous conditions for factory workers in the production sector of the industry. This essay will also detail what the brand's responsibility is in fighting against these issues by highlighting the importance of natural fibers, local action, supply chain transparency, and micro-production.
The excess amount of leftover materials from textile production is staggering and it doesn't look the pile is going to be shrinking anytime soon. We, as fashion consumers, have developed a habit of frequently discarding our un-wanted clothes. The average American discards approximately 68 items (82 lbs) of clothing a year. The cycle is simple. We buy things when we want them and trash them when we don't, rarely stopping to think about the repercussions that over-consumption is having on the world around us. Fast fashion corporations have taken note of our fallible nature to spend, over-consume, and to shift the burden for managing the negative effects of our own consumption practices to others. Fast fashion producers benefit from our lack of awareness, and have only increased the speed at which they produce clothes. As a result, the number of fashion seasons per year is only growing larger. What used to be a traditional two season a year portfolio - spring/summer & fall/winter - may now reach as high as 52 micro-seasons per year in order to meet extreme consumer demands.
Fast fashion corporations do not fully account for the negative impact that excess production has on the environment. According to a study conducted by Reverse Resources, the quantity of leftover textile waste is roughly 40 billion square meters per year. Enough waste to cover the entire Republic of Estonia if laid flat on the ground. If that 40 billion square meters of waste was taken and factored back into an efficient production system it could produce another 6 billion clothing items: enough to sufficiently dress the entire every citizen living on the continent of Africa. Instead, that 40 billion square meters of waste is contributing to global water pollution, flooded landfills, and climate change in extreme scenarios.
In additional to excess textile waste, the clothing industry is responsible for a variety of other environmental hazards, including severe stress on water pollution and the global fresh water supply. Cotton, one of the most common fibers used in textile production, requires more than 2,500 liters of water in order to produce a single cotton t-shirt. That’s enough water for a single person to survive on for nearly two and a half years. In areas already facing severe water stress, recurring drought, and food insecurity, cotton production contributes to extensive environmental damage.
In Central Asia for example, cotton production devastated the Aral Sea. What was once the fourth largest lake in the world, has been reduced to a puddle due to the excess amount of water that cotton farmers draw from the sea in order to meet production standards. With cotton being such a water-reliant crop and accounting for nearly 80% of the global textile economy, the stress on water continues to climb while global water levels continue to fall. Conventional cotton is one of the most unsustainable fibers in the world.
Global leather production is also unsustainable and contributes to global water insecurity. Everyday in Kanpur, India (the leather export capital of India) over 50 million liters of toxic waste water pour out of local leather tanneries. Heavy chemicals used to treat the leather like Chromium Six flow directly into the banks of India's holiest river, The Ganges River, and pollute both local farming and drinking water. Western clothing brands profit from low cost leather production, while avoiding all accountability of the environmental and health costs that its production creates.
Punjab, India, India's largest exporter of genetically modified cotton, is the largest pesticide user. Pesticides increase both the volume and speed at which cotton grows. Cotton has been a major commodity in Punjab since the cities early history and the high demand for cotton worldwide has made genetically modifying the crop a rational alternative to failing to meet demand. Both chemicals and genetically modified seeds used to alter crops have been pushed by western civilization to third world countries since the 1950's. Western corporations like Monsanto (The largest chemical seed corporation in the world), have essentially monopolized the economy on agriculture so that genetically modified seeds and toxic chemicals are the only means to producing cotton in Punjab and areas alike. Genetically modified agriculture is forcing farmers to dive deeper and deeper into the threshold of pesticides that are primarily acting as ecological narcotics. As a result, the residual effect of spraying crop fields with these chemicals has sparked a dramatic rise in birth defects, cancers, and mental illnesses. In addition, over 250,000 recorded farmer suicides have taken place over the past 16 years in India alone. That’s approximately 1 farmer every 30 minutes and is the largest recorded wave of suicide in world history.
The textile and fashion industries have a history of endangering the lives of factory workers in addition to endangering the life of the planet. The issue of poor factory conditions has risen dramatically due to the increasing demand of cheaper overseas production. As early as just the 1960's, 97% of our clothing was made in the US. Today that number is just 3% and the rest is out-sourced to cheaper overseas production factories. Overseas production methods, while cheaper and able to yield a higher quantity, come at the cost of hazardous working conditions and high exposure to toxic chemicals for workers. The incident most commonly known for plaguing the garment industry is the collapse of the Rana Plaza Building on April 24th of 2013. The collapse of the factory, which was built on a swamp outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed 1,135 factory workers in the countries worst industrial disaster to date. Equally as disturbing as the number of fallen victims in the Rana Plaza collapse is the wage rate that factory workers are expected to maintain. According to an article conducted by The Guardian, the average garment factory worker in Bangladesh makes as little as $68 per month. Breaking that number down further amounts to a labor wage of less than a quarter per hour. Outsourcing clothing production provides consumers in the Global North access to lower cost clothing, but it does not clearly lead to better lives for workers in the Global South.
Coupled with poor factory conditions and low wage rates, mass textile production exposes factory workers to a variety of chemical hazards. Workers in the dyeing, printing or finishing sector of textiles face risk of extreme exposure to toxic chemicals. These sections of work often require working closely with solvents and fixates that help alter the original state of the garment, exposing workers to the carcinogen formaldehyde. Exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to numerous types of cancers including thyroid, nasal, stomach and esophageal cancers.
What are the responsibilities of clothing brands in managing, resolving, and preventing the negative effects that occur within the global production process? The first step is for brands to measure the impact their textiles have on the environment, and to analyze where they can make sustainable substitutions. For example, organic cotton is more sustainable alternative than regular cotton. The next step is for brands to produce locally. Local production is an antidote to un-sustainability. The majority of the problems described above can be avoided by simply producing locally.
Developing transparent supply chains is the next step. Supply chain transparency acts as a blueprint against un-sustainable production methods. Brands can call attention to the true cost of each individual garment under the brands catalogue, which provides conscious consumers with clear information about the impact of the garments they consume. The final step for brands committed to preventing harm, must develop strategies of micro-production. Micro-production is essential for decreasing the overall global output of clothing. This may seem like a detrimental strategy for a business at the surface, but micro-production actually creates a stronger producer-consumer relationship, and yields a higher quality garment throughout each individual step of the production process. More importantly, it reduces the environmental footprint of the industry.
Natural & recycled fibers dominated trade shows in the early 1990's, and they still dominate trade shows in other countries. However, the appearance of fast fashion in the twentieth century hindered the use for natural fibers and sustainable textiles in the United States. Because spinning natural fibers into textiles is time consuming and labor intensive, it clashes with the fast fashion ideal of producing as much as possible as soon as possible. Fast fashion brands aren't accounting for the positive impact of natural fibers on the environment. Energy is conserved, less water is used, chemicals are bypassed completely, and the land in which these fibers are grown is continuously being replenished.
Organic cotton is a more sustainable fabric than regular cotton. Regular cotton, which consumes nearly 8,000 liters of water per kilogram, is the most commonly used fiber in the entire textile industry. Substituting regular cotton for organic cotton requires 71% less water, 62% less energy, and requires the use of zero synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, growth regulators, or defoliates. None of these chemicals are used in the growing process of organic cotton, making the final product is 100% biodegradable and hypo-allergenic. Organic wool is produced in a similar way. Organic wool comes from sheep reared on organically grown lands which have not been treated with pesticides or fertilizers. The sheep are also not dipped in any synthetic baths or sprayed with any regulators in order to produce a higher quantity of wool.
Peace silk, also known as wild silk or tussah silk, is a sustainable alternative to the conventional silk. Both conventional and peace silk come form the chrysalis of the silk worm. The difference is the cultivation in how the worm and the chrysalis are treated. Silk quality is directly related to the diet of the silk worm, therefore they're fed pesticides and other chemicals to increase the overall quality. These chemicals leak into the worms chrysalis creating a low-level ground water pollutant that is discharged during the degumming process. Peace silk cultivates silkworms in open forests, and the chrysalis is collected and prepared for degumming only after the moth has naturally emerged. Because this is a natural process and no fertilizers or chemicals are fed to the silkworm, the water discharged from the degumming process is clean and free of any contaminating pollutants.
Hemp fiber has been in use for thousands of years. Materials made from hemp were discovered in tombs dating back to 8,000 BC. Christopher Columbus even sailed to America on ships rigged with hemp in the 1400's. It has been used in variety of other applications since, including paper, rope, canvas and sailcloth. The hemp plant is a high fiber yielding crop that can produce 250% more fiber than cotton with the same amount of land. Hemp plants add rich organic matter to the soil, helping retain moisture, protect soil from runoff, and retain organic material necessary for successful crop rotation. Fabrics made from hemp are also hypo-allergenic and have even been tested to kill staph and other bacteria that comes in contact with the skin.
Moving as many components of the global supply chain to local infrastructures is a fundamental component of sustainability. Moving production to local facilities can help a brand avoid social challenges brought on by overseas production. Social challenges like protecting workers rights, providing secure employment, and standard living wages can all be maintained much easier through local production. Local action also develops human creativity. The result is a less homogenous society that reflects the ideas, skills, and resources of the local environment, history, and culture. Small businesses begin funding other small businesses and local values become grounded in collaboration, craftsmanship, and environmental protection, rather than manipulation, advertisement, and environmental degradation.
Localism allows citizens to look at their community with fresh eyes and visualize ways in which they too can add to the local agenda. The local agenda is value based and not set by the convenience of big business. It is concerned with products that enhance diversity, celebrate tradition, create meaningful employment, and respect local environmental conditions. The local agenda is essentially a combination of product, skill, and emotional investment and the most prominent element in limiting the negative social and environmental effects of fast fashion.
Supply chain transparency is one of the primary ways brands are working to remove themselves from the label of unethically produced clothing. It is a policy that ensures brands are not in fear of being held accountable for unjust methods of production, and it shows the consumer that the brand is working directly to manage and prevent these issues. Publicizing information about the true cost of the garment is vital in communicating the importance of ethically made clothing. The need to publicize information regarding the production process has been made painfully obviously through incidents like the collapse of the Rana Plaza Building. Prior to the tragedy, virtually no information discussing the brands production process had ever been leaked to the public. Today, large apparel corporations like Nike, Adidas, Levi's and Patagonia publish insider information about their production process on an annual basis.
Micro-production is the limitation placed on the number of garments produced in a fashion season. Despite yielding a lower quantity of product, micro-production effectively generates social awareness. By limiting production quantities, the brand communicates that it believes in sustainable values like waste management, environmental protection, product quality, and long-term consumer relationships. Because product quantities are manageable under the micro-production principles, the perspective on waste becomes a manageable focal point for the brand rather than a byproduct of design. We live in a global era where waste is viewed as an unfortunate subsidiary to the production process. Micro-production helps us move one step closer to a new perspective where waste itself is eradicated entirely.
Quality control is more easily maintained through limited production. With dozens of features present on every garment, it can be difficult to effectively communicate each individual design feature to pattern makers and sample sewers. Multiply that by dozens of designs and then hundreds of products per design and garment quality erodes. Micro-production focuses on perfecting each individual feature of the garment opposed to treating design like it is just another task on the production agenda.
Micro-production, lastly, strengthens the producer-consumer relationship by allowing for a more personalized customer experience. Intimate features like personal branding, tailored fits, and genuine conversations about the production process and the final product are possible through the scope of micro-production. Micro-production functions on the idea that the brand is never too big to listen to its most supportive customers. Features like these enhance the customer experience while also assisting in retaining customer loyalty for the brand.
As a brand owner, it is my responsibility to adhere to the principles and philosophies outlined in this essay. Considering the potential I have to either continue to contribute to garment production and consumer behaviors that are harmful, it is my responsibility to work to generate as much awareness as possible surrounding these issues. Cautioning consumers of the negative effects of both over-consumption and over-production provides consumers with accurate information and opportunities to make an informed choice: A choice to spend less but more frequently, and contribute to the interdependent problems slowly destroying our planet. Or, a choice to spend more but less frequently, and substitute the fast fashion mentality for a consumption process founded on sustainability.
In recognition of the strength of the pressures that can push even the most well-meaning brands toward unsustainable production practices, it is also important for ethical clothing brands to commit to a code of ethics that holds the brand’s core values supreme.
Our code of ethics at Easton K. is as follows:
In conclusion, the global output of fast fashion brands and high volume textile producers is creating more problems than solutions. The environment is decaying, lakes are disappearing and human rights are sacrificed at the expense of rapid production speeds. All to do one simple thing, provide us with more clothes. In order to strengthen the argument against high volume production, we must first be willing to accept the fact that it is us, the consumer, who is the primary contributor to this global issue. The awareness and social responsibility of the brand is only the first step. After that comes applying actual change to the way we produce and consume clothing. Whether it's producing locally, implementing transparency throughout the brand, or adopting the principles of micro-production, a change has to occur. The second dirtiest industry in the world mays soon become the first, and become the main contributor in slowly destroying our planet.