Historical events have brought us to where we are now, but where is fashion going? An insight into the industry’s future.
Is fashion in trouble?
The fashion industry is far from perfect. Arguably the biggest problems facing fashion now are the environmental and social issues and the new demands of the modern and mindful consumer. The environmentally-conscious generation is questioning everything. According to a Genomatica survey, one third of US consumers would purchase all of their clothing from a sustainable store, if they were able to find one. So, with the rise of interest in sustainable and ethical practices, it’s no wonder the industry is under fire.
Behind the glamor is a dark side that is destroying the industry’s reputation. Waste, pollution, and exploitation are just a few of the problems that threaten the future of fashion. While the industry has managed to get away with certain troubles in the past, it’s time for a change. It creates too many problems to continue operating as it is right now.
Is fashion in trouble? Yes. However, these pressing challenges provide an opportunity for the business to implement positive changes once and for all. With sustainability high on the agenda, there is hope for the fashion industry’s future.
The textile and fashion industries are highly polluting. Air and water pollution has significantly increased since the rise of faster manufacturing processes and the expansion of the fashion audience. Non-renewable resources are under pressure, and waste is at an all-time high.
Certain materials require the use of fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. In fact, the global fashion industry produces double the amount of CO2 emissions than the aviation and maritime sectors combined.
Furthermore, many methods in the production process, such as dying fabrics, use toxic chemicals that cause harm to people and nature. Coloring processes also result in a vast amount of water waste and pollute rivers and streams.
A large number of the world’s microplastics come from synthetic textiles. Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic produced from the breakdown of larger plastics. Others are designed intentionally for commercial products, such as clothing and cosmetics. Microplastic pollution harms our oceans and kills marine life.
Numerous concerns arise in the fashion industry, with damaging effects on people, animals, and the environment. A primary problem with cheap clothes is the consequences on the lives of garment workers. The instant gratification of purchasing garments for one night’s outfit is only possible because of the drastic reduction in production costs, which unfortunately leads to inhumane working conditions.
In many developing countries where workers’ rights are limited, millions face poor workplace conditions. Many poor populations are exploited and forced to work for unlivable salaries in unsafe environments. Furthermore, many workers are made to work unacceptable hours to meet deadlines, especially during peak seasons. A typical day in an inhumane garment factory may be up to 16 hours long. Employees are often pressured to work 96-hour weeks without overtime wages.
Case study: The Rana Plaza tragedy
On 24 April 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building in the Dhaka district of Bangladesh collapsed to the ground. The commercial complex housed five garment factories making clothes for worldwide fashion brands. The day before, deep structural cracks were discovered in the Rana Plaza building. Despite safety warnings, garment workers were ordered to return to work the following day as normal. As a result, 1,134 people were killed and thousands more injured. Many people lost their limbs to survive the event.
The media covered the disaster, with the entire world watching as reports of the death toll flooded in. The Rana Plaza disaster was the worst industrial event to hit the fashion industry. It brought worldwide attention to the highly unethical practices in garment production. Following the tragedy, hundreds of brands, retailers, and trade unions signed the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh—a legally binding, five-year agreement created to ensure workplace safety for garment factory workers.
Case study: #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign
The following year, the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy sparked a new movement. In 2014, Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers created the #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign as part of Fashion Revolution, their not-for-profit fashion activist movement. The manifesto aims to make multiple changes in the fashion industry, including ending human and environmental exploitation, creating safe working conditions and living wages, and promoting a culture of transparency.
The concept behind the #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign was to encourage consumers to ask the question of who made their clothes. It spread awareness of the problems created by the industry and the issues faced by garment factory workers on a global scale. It also pushed fashion brands to share more information about their supply chains and workers.
It took place mainly on social media and quickly gained momentum with millions of people getting involved, growing the necessary conversation and encouraging garment workers to respond to the movement with the hashtag #IMadeYourClothes.
The push for sustainability
67% of consumers consider sustainable materials an essential factor when purchasing an item of clothing, confirming sustainability is at the forefront of modern minds. Most of us want to shrink our carbon footprint and make big and small changes to improve the health of our planet. After all, we all live here, and so will many generations to come. So, to make the Earth a better place for our future families, we can no longer ignore our responsibilities to contribute to a better planet.
A circular model eliminates waste, reduces pollution, and extends the life cycle of every garment.
Anna Brismar is the founder of Green Strategy, a consultancy firm that aids the fashion and textile industry in developing sustainability and circularity. She coined the term ‘circular fashion’ in 2014 when preparing for a fashion event on sustainability. She later found that the sustainability team at H&M had also been using the phrase in its Swedish translation, “cirkulärt mode.”
Brismar defines circular fashion as this:
“Circular fashion can be defined as clothes, shoes, or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced, and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use.”
Essentially, the concept of circular fashion is a regenerative system that extends the life of garments by circulating them for as long as they remain valuable before they return to nature. According to a McKinsey report 60% of fashion executives have already invested or are planning to invest in closed-loop recycling as part of a circular textiles model to reduce waste.
Brands doing their bit
The focus on sustainability is continuously growing. Although progress is slow, the world is beginning to see some results. For instance, many fashion leaders have pledged sustainability at COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference that brings together industry leaders to get active in solving the climate crisis.
Meanwhile, several brands are leading the way in sustainable business practices. British designer Stella McCartney has been shaping the sustainable fashion movement since her brand’s launch in 2001. She has continued to implement solutions that tackle issues, like using alternative materials, banning animal products, and inventing the label system Clevercare to help consumers practice good garment care.
American designer brand Mara Hoffman also takes alternative approaches to creating responsibly. The brand uses fabrics derived from waste and recycled plastic and materials such as hemp, organic cotton, and linen in collections.
How can we help?
The fashion industry is looking bleak, but the good news is that there are many ways we can help. Small, day-to-day changes can lead to big results, especially when everybody participates and does their bit. Perhaps first and foremost, it starts with changing our mindset. The idea that fashion is disposable is dated and no longer acceptable in the current climate.
Buying less and buying high-quality clothing where possible is one of the best strategies to implement at home. It saves resources and prevents more waste from ending up in landfills. This way of living can also promote greater mental well-being and overall satisfaction. Furthermore, purchasing a garment or outfit and wearing it repeatedly also reduces waste. Additionally, repair should be the first port of call when a garment becomes torn, or a button falls off.
Shopping for vintage and second-hand clothes gives old clothes new life and is another significant environmental benefit. It’s also possible to upcycle old outfits by altering the length, adding cut-outs, and adding more fabric or embellishments. It is already growing, and as of 2021, the secondhand apparel market worldwide is expected to double in size by 2025.