The figures are damning – the garment industry is still one of the biggest threats to our global environment. Vogue Arabia asks what needs to change, how soon, and what we can do about it – before it’s too late.
“I personally believe that globalization was the end of humanity,” states Eric Ritter of sustainable Beirut-based fashion brand Emergency Room. And he says it just a little too casually. For such an earth-shatteringly apocalyptic statement one usually expects a little more drama. But for Ritter, this belief is part and parcel of what he does and is simply a fact of life.
“The industrialization and globalization of production and the economy enable multinational companies to produce in one country and sell in another, and this is how fast fashion brands produce very cheap clothes. The problem is that they are not the people who choose the minimum wage – it’s the governments of those countries. You can’t tell these brands they aren’t doing it properly because on paper they are abiding by all the rules. So really it’s just about morals. But it’s very difficult to regulate that,” says Ritter with a weak smile.
When it comes to the morality of the fashion industry, the numbers speak for themselves. As the second most polluting industry on the planet – usurped only by oil production – fashion has a lot to answer for. Climate crisis and the human misery it creates in turn is the price we are increasingly paying for our thirst for what’s new, now and next.
According to UN figures, it takes almost 8000 gallons of water – what one person drinks in seven years – to make one pair of jeans. And when those jeans are discarded, they join the 21 billion tons of textiles that end up in landfills each year. Of 100 billion items produced yearly, 14 for each human on the planet, three in five will be discarded within the year. And the Environmental Audit Committee found that 15% of all clothing fabric is wasted at the cutting stage of production, before it even has a chance to get into stores. During Fashion Revolution’s 2021 Fashion Revolution Week it emerged that 200 million trees are felled each year to make cellulosic fabrics, 35-40% of those coming from old growth woodlands. When it comes to pollution of water supplies, abuse of workers and damage to the environment, the statistics are endless. All in all, making clothing is a dirty business.
“The transition to change the way it works is too slow,” says Dr Rima Trofimovaite, Head of Certification (Interim) for Planet Mark, a sustainability certification that aims to help companies strengthen their environmental strategies. “Without immediate action, the fashion industry will fail to meet the global targets set in the Paris Agreement, limiting global warming to 1.5 °C. And as in any business, legislators and consumers are the most powerful drivers for change. It is in consumers’ hands to drive the change to a more sustainable fashion industry.”
“It is critical that consumers can identify which businesses have adopted authentic sustainable practices through transparency, from the manufacturing process to marketing. The fashion industry needs to shift from linear to circular product lifecycle models and there is a lot of work that needs to be done to achieve that. This shift in manufacturing model would support conscious customers, increase efficiency and result in significant financial gain,” adds Dr Trofimovaite.
Greenpeace estimates that $500billion is lost each year because of under-wearing and failure to recycle clothes. The State of Fashion Report 2021 from management consulting firm McKinsey notes that companies with a focus on sustainability will drive profit from socially conscious consumers – two thirds of apparel shoppers say that sustainability is more important to them today than it was before the Covid-19 crisis.
“As consumers increasingly become more conscious of where they spend their money and which brands and businesses they support, the fashion industry must adapt to these shifting behaviors in order to be competitive and resilient,” says Dr Trofimovaite. “Companies that understand this shift from conscious consumers will need to demonstrate their sustainability credentials in a transparent and robust way.”
These credentials include disclosing manufacturing details, right down to the origin of raw materials – where they have the most impact, both in terms of environmental and human cost. According to the Fashion Transparency index, only seven percent of surveyed brands will reveal those details. However, a new generation of emerging designers are increasingly in agreement with changing fashion from top to bottom.
“It’s not just about the clothing being sustainable; the whole business model in the industry isn’t sustainable,” says Mohamed Benchellal, winner of the 2020 Vogue Fashion Prize, Powered by NEOM. “The world needs to head in that direction of change. To quote my mother, whoever doesn’t want to listen will have to live with the consequences. I’m doing my part, I hope others will too.”
For Benchellal, a shift in desirability and a return to true exclusivity could ultimately be a turning point for the industry.
“As I work with industry leftovers and dead stock materials, when that material is done, it’s done,” he says. “You can’t reproduce items and in a way that’s very challenging but also very interesting. It makes the pieces that you produce available in limited editions, very unique, and I believe in that concept. It’s interesting for the industry; not to be thinking of thousands and thousands of pieces per design, but what materials are available and to make limited editions as a result.”
Just as before Eric Ritter’s dreaded globalization took place clothes were mostly handmade in the home, perhaps a shift in fashion will see style localize once more – and there are plenty of emerging designers who would welcome the change and the challenge.
Fast fashion by numbers
• 20% of global water waste is caused by the fashion industry
• 1 in 6 people in the world works in a fashion job
• 80% of fashion workers are women
• 93% of surveyed fashion brands do not pay their workers a living wage
• 20-35% of ocean microplastics come from the fashion industry
To know more, make sure to tune into Vogue Arabia’s Future of Sustainable Fashion digital event on June 28 at 4pm UAE time/3pm KSA time. Click here to register.