Fashion manufacturing has more than doubled during the 2000s, and it is expected to quadruple by 2050, according to the American Chemical Society. Polyester manufacture, which is utilized for a lot of inexpensive quick fashion as well as athletic and leisure wear, has expanded ninefold in the previous 50 years. The reason for this is that clothing has become so inexpensive that it is readily thrown away after only a few uses. Online shopping, which is available 24 hours a day, has made impulse purchases and returns more convenient. According to McKinsey, the average customer buys 60% more than in 2000 and keeps it for half as long. It was projected in 2017 that 41% of young women felt the urge to wear something new every time they left the house.
Impacts of Fashion:
Fashion accounts for 10% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of global wastewater, and it consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined.
Water: Every year, global fashion consumes 93 billion metric tons of pure water. Cotton is a rather thirsty crop. 1kg of cotton needed to make a pair of pants, for example, can require 7,500 to 10,000 liters of water, the amount a person would drink in ten years.
The textile dyeing process, which employs harmful chemicals, is responsible for 17 to 20% of global industrial water pollution. In the water used in textile dyeing, 72 hazardous compounds were discovered.
Climate: Every year, 70 million metric tons of trees get cut down to meet the fashion industry’s demand for wood pulp to create rayon, viscose, and other materials. The figure is anticipated to treble by 2034, hastening deforestation in some of the world’s most threatened forests.
MacArthur Foundation research found that the fashion business emits 1.2 million metric tons of CO2 each year. In 2018, it created more greenhouse gas emissions than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. Polyester, which is derived from fossil fuels, is used in 65% of all apparel. Furthermore, the fashion business utilizes a lot of plastic made from fossil fuels for packaging and hangers.
Waste: Textile-to-textile recycling processes are challenging due to the presence of colors, pollutants, and mixed yarns such as polyester and cottons. As a result, every year, 53 million metric tons of waste clothes are burnt or disposed of in landfills. Burberry torched $37 million in unsold bags, garments, and perfume in 2017. Clothes made of natural fibers, such as cotton and linen, can decompose in weeks to months in a landfill, but synthetic fabrics can take up to 200 years to decay. They also emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Microplastic pollution: Outerwear constructed from synthetic plastic fibers such as polyester, nylon, acrylic spandex, and others. When synthetic clothing is laundered, microplastics from the fibers are released into the wastewater. It is believed that the fashion sector contributes 35% of microplastics in the water. While some manufacturers employ “recycled polyester” from PET bottles, which emits 50 to 25% less emissions than virgin polyester, effective polyester recycling is restricted, therefore these clothing frequently wind up in the trash, where microfibers can be shed.
Labor rights: The foundation of cheap, fast fashion often relies on the exploitation of labor in developing countries where regulatory oversight is limited. Among the approximately 75 million factory workers worldwide, it is estimated that merely 2% earn a wage that allows for a decent living. To prevent brands from relocating to regions with even lower production costs, factories frequently suppress wages and are hesitant to invest in improving working conditions.
Furthermore, many of these workers reside in areas where water bodies are contaminated by the chemicals used in textile dyeing, further highlighting the environmental and social challenges associated with the fast fashion industry.
What is fashion sustainability? Why does it matter?
In stark contrast to the prevailing linear model of fashion production, which generates environmental impacts at every stage from resource extraction to product disposal, sustainable fashion seeks to minimize its environmental footprint and, in an ideal scenario, contribute positively to the environment. The ultimate objective is to transition to a circular fashion industry where waste and pollution are eradicated, and materials are utilized for extended periods, followed by efficient recycling and repurposing to reduce the reliance on virgin resources.
Furthermore, fashion sustainability is synonymous with improved working conditions for textile laborers. It entails providing workers with a living wage, legally binding contracts, regular breaks, and benefits such as bonuses, overtime pay, insurance coverage, and paid leave for sickness and holidays. Notable brands like Mayamiko, which is 100% PETA-certified vegan, actively champion labor rights and have established initiatives such as the Mayamiko Trust to empower disadvantaged women through training and employment opportunities.
The truth behind sustainable fashion claims
An article authored by Kirtana Raja and published on March 16, 2023, in the IBM blog highlights a disconcerting gap between the claims of sustainability made by fashion brands and the reality of their products. The article points out that there is often insufficient evidence to substantiate claims of sustainable sourcing, fair labor practices, and minimal waste production in the fashion industry.
The article also sheds light on the fashion industry’s problematic environmental practices, including the annual generation of over 92 million tons of landfill waste, contributing to 10% of global emissions and accounting for 20% of global water waste. It introduces the term “fabric fraud” as a significant concern, exemplified by the fact that certified organic cotton apparel often surpasses the availability of raw materials, implying that many garments labeled as “organic” are, in fact, made from regular cotton. Additionally, investigations have revealed that 60% of recycled polyester products actually contain virgin plastic.
Another article from bbc.com provides a vivid account of why fabric fraud remains easily concealed. For instance, in 2016, the Cotton Egypt Association estimated that 90% of global supplies of Egyptian cotton were counterfeit. In 2020, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) reported that 20,000 tonnes of Indian cotton had been erroneously certified as organic, which constituted approximately one-sixth of the country’s total production. In 2017, a Vietnamese silk brand confessed that half of its silk products were sourced from China, highlighting the complexity of tracing the origins of materials in the fashion industry.
Being sustainable has been complicated
Up to this point, the sustainable movement hasn’t been monitored sufficiently by individual business or governments. Some companies have been caught greenwashing in various ways, like with misleading product labels. However, following goods in a globalized mass production is an extremely challenging technical problem, so products and materials can be unintentionally mixed up or mislabeled. Then a lack of legal guidelines makes it more difficult for companies to navigate the already supply chain management issues.
The European Green Deal states, “Companies making ‘green claims’ should substantiate these against a standard methodology to assess their impact on the environment.” Similarly, the U.K. and some U.S. states, like New York, are moving to regulate sustainability claims and the disclosure of information. In this climate, it’s crucial that product claims and information are reliable and verifiable.
The significance of transparency
To ensure the sustainability of the fashion industry and promote a circular approach, it’s essential to establish comprehensive tracking mechanisms for every aspect of a product’s lifecycle. This includes monitoring materials, chemicals, production methods, product usage, and the journey to end-of-life. Equally critical is transparency, as it empowers consumers to detect instances of greenwashing, where companies may exaggerate their sustainability efforts intentionally.
The significance of transparency was underscored during the global health crisis of 2020, when prominent fashion brands abruptly canceled orders, leaving suppliers and vulnerable workers in difficult situations. Brands should voluntarily report such actions to be held accountable.
Consumers have the right to make informed decisions that align with their values, both for themselves and the planet. However, informed choices become challenging when essential information is not readily available. Transparency not only aids consumers in making better decisions but also holds brands accountable for their actions.
Transparency is instrumental in ensuring the safety and rights of workers, protecting the environment, and fostering collaboration among unions and civil society organizations. By holding brands accountable, the entire industry is motivated to improve and progress.
Transparency serves as a stepping stone towards a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry. It facilitates understanding and knowledge, paving the way for transformative improvements, innovations, and changes in business models that will significantly impact how brands operate and their global influence.
“Good On You” presents key points for fashion brands to enhance transparency by disclosing information about their impact:
- The Planet: This includes details about materials used, their proportions, waste generation, waste management practices, and water usage and treatment.
- People at All Stages of the Supply Chain: Brands should provide information about their workforce, the factories involved, working conditions, safety measures, wages, working hours, and workers’ rights.
- Animals: If animal-derived materials are used, brands should disclose sourcing methods and the measures in place to ensure humane treatment of animals.
The importance of traceability
Traceability is a cornerstone of the circular fashion economy, enabling informed decision-making, sustainability, and trust in supply chains. Initiating traceability early on is paramount for seamless integration into the evolving circular model and for staying ahead in a competitive landscape.
One critical aspect of the circular economy is traceability, which involves the ability to track materials throughout their entire lifecycle. This capability is essential for companies aiming to substantiate their recycling claims in a circular supply chain.
Traceability brings numerous advantages to supply chains, such as:
- Efficiency Gains: Identifying inefficiencies and bottlenecks in the supply chain allows for improvements, enhancing overall operational efficiency.
- Waste Management: Traceability helps in sorting production waste and post-consumer waste more effectively, reducing waste and improving resource utilization.
- Risk Mitigation: It enables companies to identify and mitigate financial and reputational risks, enhancing resilience in a competitive market.
- Credibility and Compliance: Ensuring that recycling claims are credible and compliant with regulations builds trust among consumers and stakeholders.
Starting Early in Circular Supply Chains: Circular fashion supply chains are still in the process of scaling up. Therefore, establishing traceability early in the process is crucial. It avoids the need for retro-engineering solutions, allowing traceability to grow in tandem with the circular model and associated operations. This ensures a smooth and successful implementation right from the beginning.
Competitive Advantage and Compliance: Companies that swiftly implement traceability in fast-moving recycling clothing businesses, suppliers, and brands gain a unique selling point. Moreover, it positions them favorably to meet stricter supply chain practices and regulatory requirements, further strengthening their credibility and sustainability efforts.
A Fusion of Physical and Digital Traceability in the Fashion industry
Physical Traceability: In an age where product authenticity and sustainability matter, understanding the origin of materials has never been more crucial. Here’s how physical traceability is making a difference:
- Forensic Tracing Methods: Techniques such as isotope analysis delve into the soil-based origins of natural materials. This means materials like cotton, silk, and wool can be traced right back to where they grew, guaranteeing authenticity.
- Additive Tracers: These are substances or markers added to materials to help track them. Examples include artificial DNA or pigments. They are versatile and can be applied to various fabrics, including synthetics. This allows these fabrics to be monitored throughout the supply chain, ensuring they haven’t been tampered with or replaced.
Digital Traceability: While physical methods offer direct insight into materials, digital solutions provide an overarching framework:
- Blockchain-based Tracing: Blockchain is revolutionizing traceability. By combining data from physical tracers with supplier-based data inputs, blockchain provides an unchangeable record of product traceability. This ledger charts a product’s journey from its source to the customer.
- Fashion Circularity and Blockchain: As the fashion industry grapples with its environmental footprint, concepts like fashion circularity are taking center stage. Brands are promising initiatives like garment repair, take-back schemes, resale platforms, and upcycling. Blockchain-based traceability can verify these claims. For instance, if a garment is earmarked for upcycling, blockchain can verify if it genuinely gets transformed into new fashion.
In 2023, the most transparent clothing brands in the world
The environmental and social impact of fashion companies is facing growing scrutiny, with consumers and stakeholders demanding transparency and accountability. However, not all companies readily disclose the necessary information and metrics needed to assess their sustainability efforts.
In a recently compiled list from 2023, ranking the world’s most transparent fashion companies, OVS emerged as the top-performing fashion brand in terms of transparency. The Italian retailer achieved an impressive transparency index score of 83 percent. Notably, this score was twelve percent higher than H&M, which achieved a score of 71 percent.
This recognition highlights the increasing importance of transparency in the fashion industry and signals a positive shift towards greater openness and accountability among brands.
To make informed choices in supporting sustainable fashion, consumers need to research and critically evaluate brands, their practices, and their transparency. Additionally, industry-wide efforts to establish clear standards, improve supply chain transparency, and reduce the environmental footprint of fashion are essential for creating a more genuinely sustainable fashion landscape.
- Why Fashion Needs to Be More Sustainable – Sustainable Living (columbia.edu)
- Why fabric fraud is so easy to hide – BBC Future
- Traceability Can Enable Circularity In The Fashion Industry (forbes.com)
- The future of fashion is fashionably transparent and sustainable – IBM Blog
- The Importance of Transparency in the Fashion Industry – Good On You
- Most Transparent Fashion Companies Worldwide 2023 | Statista
- Green claims (europa.eu)
- The polluted Turag River | Untreated effluent discharge from… | Flickr