NEW YORK, United States — There is a two-part solution to making the fashion industry more sustainable. Part one is what consumers can do. Part two is what the industry can do.
By and large, mass market and established fashion houses are not doing a great job at eco-conscious production, no matter what they tell us. They are running archaic and eco-destructive production systems and business models and their sustainable policies are often damage control, with a lot of PR sparkle but very little substance.
Meanwhile, smaller independent brands with sustainable production models built into their DNA are widely available. And unlike more established brands, they do not have to undo their global production systems, or convince investors that money must be spent to re-make the system that has made them wealthy.
If consumers purchased from the huge number of lesser-known fashion houses that have made sustainability an integral part of their business models, we’d be on our way to a solution.
But, of course, small sustainable brands don’t have the marketing budgets to make themselves as well-known as big businesses — and the way we shop for clothes is a complicated cultural addiction. As consumers, we want what to buy what is convenient and familiar, at the deflated price points that we’re accustomed to, so we can keep up with trends that change at lightning speed.
A one-sided, consumer-dependent approach is not realistic. So the industry must make major efforts to change, firstly by taking a serious look at its entire supply chain, from seed to hanger. The ideal production cycle is a cradle to cradle system in which nothing is wasted and the earth is left the same, if not better, than it was before. These aren’t new concepts and many companies have been working toward these goals for years.
Some big fashion brands launch have launched sustainable capsule collections, or employ ecofriendly materials here and there. It’s a start. But, really, this is just playing catch-up and only useful if it is part of a larger plan to expand across the company’s entire supply chain. Capsule collections designed to placate a small group of informed customers are “green marketing” tools — essentially, lip service.
The only way to create mass change in the fashion industry before it’s too late is for established companies to make less garments, change the way every garment is made and what it is made from — and make it last longer. Spending the money now to make these changes will not put these companies out of business — the triple bottom line has been proven time and time again to be not only environmentally friendly, but also great for business in the long term.
Major fashion industries should mimic what independent sustainable fashion houses do from the very beginning. These smaller labels are ignoring the insane seasonal fashion cycle, opting for collections that can be worn all year round, or producing fewer garments per actual season. They are also using recycled fibres and less cotton — a water, land and labour-intensive crop even when it’s organic — and opting for Tencel, hemp and other sustainable options. They are using waterless or chemical-free dyeing processes and less synthetic materials. Most of our garments, including elastics, nylons and polyester, contain plastic. When thrown away, plastic does not compost — it sits in our soil and floats in our oceans. The mainstream fashion industry needs to invest in textile innovation, which I believe is the future of sustainable fashion.
Even after the garment has been made, there are steps to take. Companies should strive to produce their garments close to their stores. The CO2 emissions caused by shipping garments over the globe is staggering. The industry should also take accountability for its waste by establishing textile recycling and consumers need to understand that after-purchase care also affects the environmental impact of a garment.
Finally, the fashion industry should set up a labelling system, just like the food industry’s, so the consumer can make informed purchases and get educated on what they should be looking for.
Unfortunately, the fashion industry’s business model is currently based on providing more and more clothes, faster and faster, for less and less money. These reparative steps are a nuisance to the economics of most fashion companies. But you can only drive a broken engine so far before it starts to self-destruct. A system that places profits before the human and environmental resources creating them is fundamentally unsustainable.
Rachel Kibbe is the founder of online ethical fashion retailer Helpsy and the leader of the social media campaign #itsnotjuststella.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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