16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg made the cover of i-D magazine, after speaking amongst world leaders at COP24 in Poland at the end of last year. The UN Sustainable Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action was launched as a response to the Paris Agreement and aims to cut down 30% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030—Burberry, Gap, H&M, Inditex, Kering, Puma and Target are included as founding signatories.
These developments have been successful in instilling a sense of urgency in the fashion industry. But the problem is, we’re not reacting fast enough. According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 report, published by Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and Sustainable Apparel Coalition, fashion is slowing down on sustainability efforts. The 2019 Pulse Score increased 4 points from last year, yet 2018 saw an increase of 6 points.
Why? The same report suggests that companies continue to struggle with economic and technological hurdles. Sustainability requires massive long-term investments—and not the most profitable ones. Market capitalism dictates businesses to make as much profit as possible, which means producing tremendous amounts of product and selling them in impossibly brief amounts of time.
Fast-fashion, which can produce up to 60 collections a year thanks to weekly and countless capsule collections, are beacons of this. Asos take as little as two weeks to bring a design to life in stores, and Zara adapts fresh-off-the-runway designs within the same timeframe. Is it any surprise that we get poorly made things?
The truth is, even as brands face economic challenges, multinational companies are responsible for its supply chains. Operating at a such a scale grants them lobbying power to influence changes—they can even influence governments to prioritise reducing environmental impact. Whether they use that influence to prioritize money-making or human and environmental wellbeing is a different story. Capitalist realities are strong.
And unfortunately, fashion’s course of production doesn’t suggest that it’s aiming towards a more sustainable industry; it’s tackling the problems of overproduction by producing even more things. It’s spending its efforts to direct your money into their coffers instead of vehicles of direct change i.e. organizations, politicians, charities, education. Even H&M’s recycling program incentivises us with discount vouchers to buy more things at their stores.
There are brands, however, that have created completely new business models to try and be part of the solution. Subscription services like Rent the Runway, Fashion Pass and Style Theory have created fashion’s own Netflix. But even renting clothes in bulk present more problems: getting clothes you don’t want, an insurmountable amount of packaging waste, a higher carbon footprint, use of cleaning chemicals, and encouraging the habit of getting new things.
For those with typical models, however, will need to be inspected thoroughly. Let’s take an example out of H&M’s Sustainability Report. Among the Swedish retailer’s top priorities is to use 100% sustainable cotton for all its products by 2020, using only Better Cotton produced under the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI); organic cotton; and recycled cotton. Even though H&M is at 95% now, it sounds too good to be achieved by next year. It also does not disclose how much of its products are made of cotton.
Cotton is the most water-, insecticide- and pesticide-intensive crop. Cotton is responsible for 25% of the world’s use of insecticides and 10% of pesticides. 79.9% of H&M’s current cotton supply is Better Cotton, which requires only slightly less water and chemicals than regular cotton. But despite its heavy campaigns, H&M only receives 0.3% of its cotton supply through recycling.
We shouldn’t even be using so much cotton, given the facts. Until new recycling technology swings in full motion, brands should already be shifting consumer demand towards more sustainable materials—since they’re already available anyway. We’ve already invented eco-friendly alternatives to cotton such as Tencel, Econyl, Qmonos and Pinatex. There are also less water and chemical-intensive natural fibres available, such as hemp and linen.
Fashion needs to change and education should support that change. There is already plenty of new literature and suggestions of what fashion can do now. The Global Fashion Agenda has published the CEO Agenda 2019, which spells out nine key sustainability priorities, targeted at top-level managers. Nike recently published Circularity: Guiding the Future of Design, a designer’s guide to creating circular products, in collaboration with students of Central Saint Martins.
For us who have little or no direct involvement in the manufacturing of fashion goods… what can we do? There isn’t much we can do that isn’t elitist or trivial. Loading yourself with information, however, is necessary until fashion companies can become more transparent and sustainable (you can monitor the progress through the Fashion Transparency Index).
You can contribute funds directly towards legislation, research, grassroots initiatives, social movements and lobbying. You can also use your voice to pressure the change and join in the causes. Fashion Revolution goes beyond the #whomademyclothes hashtag—you can volunteer as a researcher.
It seems so difficult to make the right, sustainable decision even with the best of intentions. And fortunately or not, the key to having a more sustainable fashion industry is not just to spend money on more stuff.