When the Industrial Revolution started in Britain, in the 18th century, we didn’t yet have the tools or the knowledge to predict the impact our production processes will have in terms of pollution. We were quite content that we could now afford so many things that made our lives easier and more enjoyable. 

You could say we were blissfully ignorant, but in recent years, we find ourselves unable to escape the consequences of our wasteful modern lifestyle. Despite no longer being able to say we simply don’t know any better, we seem to find it difficult to change our consumerist habits.

One could also argue if it’s fair for these industry sectors to place the responsibility solely on the consumers while they’re lobbying against any governmental measure that would decrease their profits. The issue of transparency has been quite a hot topic, especially in regards to fashion brands such as H&M, Zara or Marks & Spencer among many more. 

Nevertheless, the cycle seems to be as follows – major news about some fashion brand linked to environmentally unfriendly practices, dangerous working conditions and exploitation is followed by public outrage and impassioned debate, but not long after we go right back to shopping at fast fashion stores or watching YouTube video of influencers bragging about their shopping hauls

How Bad for the Environment Is the Fashion Industry?

In 2014, people were buying 60% more clothes than they did in 2000. That’s after “breaking news” of the collapse of the Dhaka factory in Bangladesh. The western World is now also impacted by the China ban, a policy enacted in early 2018 outlawing the import of poorly sorted plastics, which has put further strain on our ever-increasing landfills.   

The clothing industry is one of the largest polluters in the world, second only to the oil industry. And guess what? More that 60% of fabrics used nowadays are synthetics, meaning they are derived from fossil fuels, not bio-degradable, have to be either burned or will also end up in a landfill. Perhaps if the general population had more knowledge in terms of chemistry, the fiber content labels would have a greater influence on their decision to buy the item.  

We also need to take into consideration the chemicals used in the dyeing process and the high water usage (79 billion cubic meter pe year). Despite what advertisers might lead you to believe, only about 20% of clothes are either recycled or reused, and in the UK alone, it has been estimated that 350,000 tons of clothing are sent to the landfills. To turn raw materials into fibers, further 8000 chemicals are needed. 

There is growing concern in connection to the microfibers derived from synthetic fabrics through laundering, polluting the Earth’s water, since they’re too small to be filtered out by water treatment plants and this results in our food supply being contaminated as well. A study revealed that 34% of microplastics found in the oceans were made of polyethylene, acrylic, polyester and elastane (produced by the textile and clothing industry).

The Sustainable Fashion Movement

With all the environmental consequences linked to pollution from the fashion industry, there has been growing interest in sustainable fashion, but this movement is not new. 

In the beginning of the 90s, roughly at the same time as the United Nations conference on Environment and Development (1992) otherwise known as the Rio Earth Summit, the idea of eco-friendly made its way into the fashion world.  Yvon Chouinard and Douglas Tompkins, owners of Patagonia and ESPRIT and passionate outdoorsmen commissioned research into the impact of the fibers used in their garments. The legacy of their effort still shapes today’s sustainability agenda for the fashion industry. They were also the co-funders of the first conference on organic cotton held in 1991 in Vasalia, California. 

In 1992 ESPRIT launched their ecollection based on the Eco Audit Guide and throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, many more brands started shifting towards the same values. Patagonia ran an ad campaign in 2011 with a picture of their merchandise and the slogan “Don’t buy this jacket” meant to encourage people to be more mindful of the impact their shopping habits has on the environment. 

The main concerns of the sustainable fashion concept are:

  • Finding ways to raise the value of local production
  • Increasing the durability of the materials and thus prolonging the lifecycle of the garment
  • Reducing waste and the harm caused by production and consumption
  • Educating people on how to be a “green consumer”

There’s also the issue of whether “sustainable fashion” isn’t in itself an oxymoron since fashion is mostly about constant change and the industry has a business model based on the frequent and continuous replacement of products which brings us to the “slow fashion” movement.

The Slow Fashion Alternative

Slow fashion means seasonless garments produced through more traditional techniques and focused on durable design. For workers in the production chain from developing countries, it also means higher wages and for the consumers, they get higher quality products. This reduces both the industrial waste, as well as the amount of clothes thrown away. 

The UK brand People Tree was one of the first brands to gain global acclaim thorough their unambiguous emphasis on slow fashion. They embraced ethical trade, supporting local producers and using eco-friendly materials. The company was given the Ethical Trade Brand award in 2013.

Slow fashion is regarded as an alternative to fast fashion, similar to the “slow food” approach and involves a reformed infrastructure with the intent of showing greater care for the living conditions of the population and minimizing the use of the planet’s resources. 

The problem is that fast fashion is advantageous for the low-income end-users as the low prices allow them to access more attractive looking clothes, similar to what those with higher social status would wear. They resent being told what to buy and their argument is that only those in a higher position can afford to change their shopping choices and be more environmentally conscious.