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Holistic approach towards sustainable fashion industry (part 1)

Textile and clothing industry is the 2nd largest contributor in industrial pollution. About 17-20% of global water get polluted by using near to 8000 synthetic chemicals for its processing, 25% of the world’s pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton. To produce T-shirts or a pair of jeans equivalent to one kilogram of cotton requires more than 20,000 liters of water. It’s the 2nd highest carbon emitter responsible for 10% global emission. About 85% of textiles are sent to landfills covering 4% of land which produces 21b tons of garbage every year.

It is to be mentioned that this figures don’t mean that these pollutions are all happening in textile and clothing manufacturing countries like Bangladesh, the biggest part of these pollutions happen in cotton producing countries, chemical and other synthetic material producing countries and more importantly by the consumers of the clothing in the west.

Figure 1: Info graph showing the impact of textile and clothing industry on environment.
Figure 1: Info graph showing the impact of textile and clothing industry on environment.

Four years ago, when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh killing 1138 people and injuring 2500 others, it became the world’s fourth biggest industrial disaster ever. Rana Plaza was an ice-breaking wake-up call. The discussion of sustainability came on the table with a new dimension. Concern for worker health and safety created many movements and activities. The consumers became more aware of fashion supply chain. Fashion Revolution has introduced the tagline #WhoMadeMyClothes. Few concern groups come together to raise awareness of the issues encouraging people to break their habit of buying fast fashion and to seek out more information about the clothes that they are buying seeking transparency and accountability of the sweat shops.

Figure 2: Info graph showing the impact of apparel in cotton growing place and in apparel users’ country.
Figure 2: Info graph showing the impact of apparel in cotton growing place and in apparel users’ country.

Eventually after huge pressure from right organizations and the consumers, the brands, manufacturers and business organizations gave their words to solve this problem. They founded many rules and regulations regarding green building, fire safety, eco-friendly raw materials, waste water treatment projects, renewable energy, labor health, safety, and payments.

g33On the other hand economic aspect of sustainability is another very big part to discuss- in fact the most important part. Current structure of the value chain is imposing continuous pressure on the sales price and so reducing the margin per unit of garment. While the margin per unit gets down at the brand shops and put multiplied pressure on the other partners in the value chain, the worst impact comes on the shoulder of textile and clothing producers. In a reality when unit price for these manufacturers go down by around 40% in few years, it is not right to expect more investment by them for making sure sustainable production. For them the reality is that their cost of production increase by 18% at the same period. So, the manufacturing of textile and clothing business has become itself unsustainable in economic aspects as well.

With all these realities it becomes more difficult to define what a sustainable clothing industry is about. Because the pioneers have not yet could develop an overall vision to achieve sustainability by giving a holistic definition of it and by giving a concrete road map to achieve it.

Currently, industry trends towards sustainability are incremental rather than transformative. Their efforts are not sufficient, they are following the model of consumption that is itself unsustainable.

Why this problem?

There are many reasons the industry lacks behind achieving sustainability. One of the main reason is greediness. Our desire is limitless, we want more to satisfy, but the world has a very limited number of resources. The fast fashion phenomenon is a great example. People want to see new fashion clothe weekly to the shelves of the shop. So brands have started focusing on cheap garments with short lead time in sweat shops. Fast fashion allows the consumer to buy trendy clothes on demand for extremely cheap prices. But they don’t even think who is paying the price for cheap cute cloths? This psychological behavior of customers has to be changed to implement the sustainable fashion movement.

Figure 3: The cycle of influencing consumer behavior.
Figure 3: The cycle of influencing consumer behavior.

In a world that mostly dominated by corporates and businesses, nobody in the business want to reduce consumption. And so the change in consumer behavior will never be promoted by the businesses. Rather all the propaganda machinery, businesses and consumers increase the competition of consumption as shown in figure 3. So such big change in mindset of life is only possible by revived and strong governments. Who really can make people were about the impact of unsustainable completion of increasing consumption.

What is the solution?

Sustainability, by definition, should meet current generation needs without compromising future.  It’s a fuzzy and wide concept; thus it needs holistic approach of environmental ethics, and moral value. The leading challenge in achieving sustainability is the cooperation of all suppliers of individual components. They have to be ethically secured and accounted for, from designing to branding, labor to transportation from factory to retail outlet, aftercare, and disposal of garments.  Each of us can make small but significant individual contribution toward sustainable fashion industry.

  1. Consumers:

Passively driving the fashion industry

As a consumer, we can also push the industry, asking for more sustainable fashion, which can now be remunerative for big business to make and sell at scale, as well as ethically better.
Sustainable slow fashion can best be brought in by creating sustainably designed products which increases the longevity of a garment. Until the industry believes that its customers really want sustainable fashion, and it can be cost-effective for them, today’s damaging status quo will continue.

A brand like Walmart, Loblaws, Mango, Primark get protested and boycotts by consumers after Rana Plaza incident. So change is in our hand.

  1. Designers:

Influential directions for long term goal

The designers are the visualizer of our fashion they could think eco-fiber to make the cloth. Selecting materials and design styles that will promote durability and longer use of the garment. While designing the concept they should think of its life cycle in an innovative way that could enhance product recyclability. Designers should keep the aspect of sustainable low resource consuming production process in their mind as well. If the product could be made multifunctional it would become a timeless style. This might seem fanciful, but there is an inspiring example of a sustainable fashion designer. Abraham and Thakore and others have shown the world that If you apply creative talent to sustainable design, the results can be stunning, and as wearable as anything else made today. Their collections are sold all around the world including London, Paris, Tokyo, Singapore, New York and Rome.

  1. Celebrities & media:

Shaping opinions & spreading message

Today’s media shapes fashion trends rather than just reporting them and plays a powerful role in creating the fashion aspirations and desires of consumers. The fashion magazines and mainstream dailies telling us what’s in, what’s out, what colors to wear and what shapes to avoid.

Celebrities are the most influential person of our culture and society, what happens when celebrities use their fame and influence for good causes. Their style, fashion get copied by fans worldwide. Because celebrity endorsement is one of the advertising world’s most popular tools.

Facebook and Twitter and Instagram have more reach than anything that has come before, where names like Kardashian, Beckham, and Khan are more relevant to people than Trump, Theresa or Modi.

It would be entirely feasible for a group of celebrities to generate more public awareness of sustainable fashion than all the other efforts so far put together. Celebrities like Pharrell Williams, Emma Watson have already been devoted themselves promoting sustainable recycling fashion trend.

Figure 4: The concept of consumer powered sustainable fashion.
Figure 4: The concept of consumer powered sustainable fashion.

But often all these celebrity and media activities push unilateral pressure on poor textile and apparel manufacturing countries as if they are the sole contributor in the environmental and social impacts of sustainability. These themes promoted by then hardly challenge the consumers to change the habit of fast fashion and unnecessary cheap cloth consumption and dumping them quick.

  1. Retailers & brands:

People mostly believe on

Once a few popular brands and retailers find that sustainable fashion sells and can be lucrative as well as profitable. But this will inevitably turn into pressure on the manufacturers that they can’t ignore. The lack of conversance about the weak points in the supply chain and manufacturers creates a reputational risk, at the very least. And this approach for the brands & retailers widely requires holistic look and effort by involving all the counter parts in the complicated value chain.

One is the fire in a Nike factory in Indonesia due to poor working conditions, resulting in protests and boycotts by employees and the media. Twenty-four years later, now Nike is one of the leading companies in accomplishing sustainable practices. So from the realities if we craft our policy and vision many big changes could be made.

According to Rankabrand, the Dutch sustainability organization says that 63% of fashion brands mention sustainability on their websites, but only 20% publish information about how sustainable they are. It indicates that they are not practicing sustainability, rather they are following the trends of branding.

It’s been a great news that H&M declares that it has set itself the challenge of “making fashion sustainable and making sustainability fashionable”.  They call it ‘H&M Conscious’, products that aim for a better ethical and environmental friendly. Several big brands like Gucci, Calvin Klein, Stella McCartney and Puma are also stressing on sustainability.

Last but not the least, the competition of cheap fast fashion may look like that it has opened huge opportunity for these brands and retailers; a careful look will reveal that this has made their life very difficult and risky. Now these companies have to take lot of pressure and activities to secure a profit that previously they were making much easily with much less sales and activities. This severe competition of cheap fast fashion has through many companies out of the business. To cater trendy and fast changing demand of the consumers they are taking many short cuts in their supply chain and so being imposed to risks.

  1. Manufacturers:

Where the rubber hits the road

Textiles and clothing is a trillion dollar industry. They need a holistic approach towards sustainability goal. Through this approach, the company’s focus moves from a single transaction and short-term economic thinking to long-term sustainable strategic planning and future-oriented thinking.

Better than just giving the code of conduct list to suppliers is to work in collaboration to improve the situation. Working with subcontractors and establishing a tight relationship, mutual understanding and trust take time.

Both heavyweights and small manufacturers need to focus on their Eco-portfolio immediately. The widely practiced strategies include Innovation, Collaboration, Process Improvement, Sustainability reporting and Greening the Supply Chain. It starts with raw material suppliers, they should practice eco-friendly collaboration. They need to focus on a green supply chain. Addressing specific sustainability issue a specific code of conduct and supplier eco certification regarding eco materials, renewable energy dependency, recyclable process and materials, zero wastage production, ensuring no child labor or forced labor, fair price for fair payment. The collaborative approach towards sustainable process development. They must be ethical in their production and CSR.

They need to be more ethical in their corporate practices, investments in training employees and on nature-based knowledge and technology. They also need to create new sustainable R&D department, generate regular sustainability report.

  1. Educator

Shaping the mindset of future industry

Textile and fashion schools generate graduates. They provide a degree in textile engineering, apparel manufacturing, fashion designing and fashion management. If sustainability were a core part of their syllabus, they will have a strong knowledge and opportunity to make sustainable fashion.

Universities need to introduce research project on sustainable fashion providing scholarship. They need to make collaborative approach between industry and institution. The industry should provide financial aid on research project and call for competition on sustainable fashion industry development solution.

From the entrepreneurial point of view, we all need to stand under the umbrella of sustainability. Pollution prevention, resource productivity, environmental management, sustainable technology, social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, human and labor rights, transparency, stakeholder management among others will be our challenge.

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