Our journey from Homo Sapiens to consumers has been a short one. As of 2022, sustainability is the buzzword around town. The textile and fashion industry has not shied from touting their eco positive badges, at times without earning it. It raises the question: what EXACTLY is sustainability in fashion?
Essentially, sustainable fashion refers to clothing and accessories that are produced and/or accessed in an eco-friendly and socially responsible manner.
The word "accessed" is used in this definition to emphasize that sustainable living is not just about acquiring new things in a better manner. While it may seem like we can buy our way to sustainability, it may not always be so. It goes farther than the purchase of brands that proclaim using ‘ethically’ sourced raw materials while completely ignoring the conditions in which the production happens.
Sustainability is now a chain of events, with necessary moral checkpoints at each turn. This is the ultimate guide to the movement, where it stands in 2022 and to all the nuances it holds.
Fast Fashion vs Slow Fashion
Fast Fashion refers to the rapid journey of a garment style from the catwalks to the stores to the bins. Online shopping in the internet age has given fast fashion a complex, new meaning. It is a disease of gross overproduction and mass reproductions. The advent of phenomenon happened in the 1990s and the 2000s with brands like Zara, H&M and TopShop when a garment style took less than 15 days to go from design to store display. All with a pathetically short life span.
With the overproduction of clothes comes without a doubt the mass discarding of them. A recent study points out that 92 million tons of garment-related waste is discarded every year (2022). The statistics are a testimony to corporate greed and the now contested concept of short term profit rates.
What is Slow Fashion?
But with rising critique, Slow Fashion has been raised as the counterpoint. It takes inspiration from the entire process of sourcing, designing, production to the final delivery being done in a conscionable and deliberate manner. Thus, directly challenging the in and out mantra of the cheaper alternatives. It goes by the philosophy of investing in fashion, for a durable period of time and for the greater good.
British Vogue even called Slow Fashion the biggest trend of 2020, and for good reason.
Eco Fashion vs Sustainable Fashion
The eco fashion movement is often used interchangeably with the sustainable fashion movement. The difference however, lies in the terminology itself. Eco fashion, also known as green fashion has the objective of leaving a positive impact or a neutral impact on the environment. The environmental footprint of the eco industry is its biggest marker of its identity.
The Concerns of Eco Fashion
- Green Fashion or Eco Fashion advocates for using biodegradable alternatives like hemp, in terms of production, as opposed to nylon, polyester or other synthetic materials.
- Synthetic materials are one of the primary consumers of petrochemical raw materials, and a major source of greenhouse gas emissions world wide.
- One of the other main concerns of the Eco fashion movement are microplastics (fragments of plastic smaller than 5 mm). Every year, the fashion industry produces half a million tonnes of microplastics which are released freely into the environment.
For the same, reduction of fossil fuel usage & ocean pollution and an improvement of carbon footprint per capita (without extra lifestyle costs attached to it) are some of the main goals of a movement fast gaining momentum in pop culture.
Eco fashion is a part of the bigger, worldwide umbrella movement for sustainability. If sustainability is the conscience of the industry, then the eco fashion movement is an enabler of the same.
Everything you need to know about Circular Fashion
A circular fashion industry designs waste and pollution management in a way to minimize it. It promises to keep materials and products in use for as long as possible with the principles of reuse and recycle. The regenerative powers of such practices are also beneficial to the natural systems as a whole.
But in order to understand the term 'Circular Fashion' as a business model, we need to know the model that counter inspired it: the linear business model.
In Fashion, the linear business model essentially is the rapid model of consumption from design - retail - use - bin. The circular model proposes keeping said material in the consumer market for a much longer time with : Rent / Reuse / Repair / Resell / Redesign.
This model works without leaving a negative impact on the supply chain process. During the end of the lifecycle of a material i.e. material, circularity aims at its easy, fast, and direct release into the natural environment.
It is a very detailed and complicated science that has stayed a steady backdrop for many environmental movements fast coming and going, and has redefined production processes.
The Surprising Environmental Impact of Vintage Markets
Ways of consuming fashion have changed in the 21st century. Trends like clothes swap, carbon-neutral fashion and the awareness of the fact that textiles can be recycled are slowly making their way into pop culture from the fringes, thanks to social media. The lifecycle of a pair of jeans in the market is now longer. It goes a long way around (much like the traveling sisterhood pants) before ending up in a landfill.
At this time, the Vintage Market has emerged once again as a bourgeois alternative to the rising qualms against fast fashion. The online market and clothing industry also plays a pivotal role in this. With Thrift Stores no longer being just another name for Goodwill, clothing companies are catching riding the wave.
What is Upcycling?
Upcycling is defined as "to recycle (something) in such a way that the resulting product is of a higher value than the original item : to create an object of greater value from (a discarded object of lesser value" (Merriam-Webster)
In the global fashion sector, upcycling of clothes and merchandise is everything from reproduction of designer clothing with cloth scraps to salvaging old designer handbags with new technology. It is one of the newer crops of sustainable practises that is gaining some media attention.
If recycled material intrigues you, check out 'Trashion'.
The Water Question
The Fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic metres of water every year. This is 4% of the total freshwater consumption per year (source).
The main culprit for this: cotton. Production of just 1 kilo of raw cotton consumes 7000-29000 liters of water. For this, fashion sustainability at an individual consumer level comes down to choice. Some of the low water intensive materials are hemp, cactus leather, pineapple leather (piñatex) and organic cotton among others, and the choice does come down to defining what you want the future to be.
However, a recent report by Forbes has questioned organic cotton, conventional cotton and the narrative sold around.
The Ethics of Fashion
We have discussed the consumption politics of individual consumers and the environmental impacts of the same. However, the other side of the same conversation is the question of working conditions and fair wages. Social and environmental implications of the industry are not antagonist elements, but rather complimentary. It is in this context the subsidiary of the bigger umbrella movement: 'ethical fashion' becomes important.
The roots of ethical fashion is the outrage following the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh which claimed the lives of 1134 people, injuring 2500 others. This came just a few months after the November 2012 warehouse fire that killed 112 workers. These garment factories were nothing but a cover for the same conditions as would have been found in the Victorian sweatshops. But within the fashion and textile industry, these were the sourcing manufacturers for fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara.
Who made my clothes?
With these events shocking the western world, sustainability gained a new definition beginning at the source. The #whomademyclothes movement was pioneered by Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers and launched in 2013 in England. With over 100 participant countries, this movement holds accountable the consumer and the fashion brand to recognise the source of manufacturing. It understands that offshore manufacturing will not excuse ill labour practises making their way into your wardrobe.
The movement is also a strong advocate for brand transparency and has actually seen gain enough traction through social media to actually see the change in how fast fashion brand market themselves.
David and Goliath: Greenwashing of Corporations
Having considered the environmental and the social implication of a movement, the fashion agenda of corporations may be feeling left out. The call of arms by activists around the world to save what is left of this green hunk of a planet is definitely a low hanging fruit waiting to be capitalized.
Brands producing apparel and fashion companies hopping on global trends find it very easy to get on the bandwagon of the green movement. A recent example of this is H&M being under fire for using scorecards that inform how eco-friendly that item of clothing is, in terms of recyclability etc. More than half of these scorecards were found to be inaccurate and exaggerated.
Greenwashing is not a recent phenomenon, but the awareness on the side of the fashion system that knows that a consumer is more likely to buy when their guilt is checked at the door is - harmful at the least, malignant at its worse.
Is it time to retire Sustainability as a term?
In this article, we have used the word 'Sustainability' 13 times (14 counting this). The function of language is communication, and the function of specific words evolves with time and society. This particular word has been abuzz for a few years, as we have indeed traced in history – reshaping fashion consumption. But to what avail as of now and at this present moment?
The problem some recent experts have with the term is the cleaving gap between human welfare (in many ways - labor welfare) and environmental wellness. At times, the term has come under fire for its disconnect from the other end of the rope i.e. the disconnect well sourced raw materials may have with the manufacturing process of the same. Is it just that a consumer can be promised a carbon neutral existence, without considering the means with which this neutrality is achieved? Greenwashing during holiday season has also been taken as an issue.
A Western movement with Western implications, the critic asks whether for those on whom the direct environmental and labor impact is inevitable (i.e. The Global South) should be primarily on the forefront of the movement.
The Question of Leather
We, Lodis 1965, are sellers of leather goods and bags. We admit that in 2022, Leather in and of itself is unsustainable. It goes against the grain of the ongoing vegan fashion movement. But a direct black and white judgment that dismisses an entire industry as morally bankrupt may not be the answer. In today's day and age, it is in the principle and the spirit of buzzwords that fashion is often a background lurker.
UNIDO's 2019 The Framework for Sustainable Leather Manufacture lays out the criteria and the industry standard for better environmental practises - with the following areas being the focus group:
- Raw Material and Resources (water, energy, chemicals, hides/skins)
- Emissions and waste generated during production
- Quality and appeal of the final product, durability
- Product use after end-of life or recyclability
Responsible manufacturing practices making good, durable final products (that will stay in circulation for long, with a sturdy lifecycle) is a good start for the leather goods industry. Great leather products can last a lifetime and a half. At times, radical action may be short lived, and a solid foundation with the right people working towards a more sustainable and eco friendly future may set the tone for the coming generations.
Accountability for the past equips the present - with the weapons to fight the ills of the future. As a brand of the moment, we are committed to a truly sustainable future.