In the four years since the collapse of Rana Plaza in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, which housed five factories making garments for the global high street, the fashion industry has come under unprecedented scrutiny from consumers. While it took the death of more than 1,100 people to throw a spotlight on some of the industry’s darker corners, it has led to increased awareness, with campaigns including #whomademyclothes, the Fashion Transparency Index and Vintage Fashion Challenge taking over social media feeds and asking difficult questions.
Although many chains were already working on sustainability reports by that time, the disaster has expedited the shift in attitudes to, particularly, fast fashion. And the industry has been quick to respond. Labels have become more transparent at showing the origins of their clothes, and more keen to address sustainability and waste questions. Although, as retailers talk increasingly and openly about their environmental targets, the question remains. Is fast fashion fundamentally incompatible with sustainability?
As Ethos editor Lucy Chesters reported in issue three, “worth $3 trillion globally, the fashion industry is the second largest polluter on the planet. Accounting for 10% of all global carbon emissions, it is second only to the oil industry, yet one in six women globally are also employed in the industry – the majority of whom earn less than $3 day.”
The indisputable fact at the centre of the conundrum is this: global clothing production has more than doubled since 2000. 2014 saw the production of 100 billion garments, according to campaign group Fashion Revolution, of which 40% are never used. We buy 60% more clothes than in 2000, but keep them for around the half the time. That creates 92 million tonnes of waste every year globally, with 10.5 million tonnes of clothes sent to landfill in the US alone. But concerted efforts have also sought to improve conditions for the 75 million people employed in the industry.
So, as a consumer, how do you pick your battle ground? We have more information than ever about our clothes – from the growing and harvesting of raw crops, worker’s rights and conditions throughout the manufacturing process, to the way we care for them once we’ve got them home; the temperature and frequency we wash at. How do we decide what to do
Annually, 60 billion square metres of material is cut-off and discarded on factory floors. Sustainability reports tell us that better processes for designing and producing clothing are increasing – but improvements are still undermined by the vast numbers we’re buying.
For the chains, the biggest sustainability issue is the sheer volume of new clothes produced. Swedish giant H&M is one of the best known for its sustainability campaigns, which include its Conscious collection, made using sustainable and recycled materials; garment recycling ads and voucher programme offering discounts to customers donating old clothes at its stores. But it’s also one of the world’s largest retailers, selling a staggering 600 million items of clothing every year. By contrast, since it launched its garment collection initiative in 2013, it has collected just 39,000 tonnes.
In the UK, the amount of clothing being sent to landfill has fallen in recent years – by 14% from 350,000 tonnes in 2012 to 300,000 in 2016 – but a quarter is still binned rather than recycled. The difficulty in separating blended fibres in order to recycle fabric is key – look at the labels on your clothes and you’ll frequently notice a blend of different fibres – with poly-cotton mixes particularly common. This is the challenge to save clothes from landfill – currently, a t-shirt that’s 99% cotton and 1% spandex will head straight to the dump.
So, what are we asking of manufacturers? To adopt sustainable fibres to reduce the water footprint? (Cotton is one of the most resource-intensive fabrics to produce). Or use lower-impact processes in the production of garments? Some retailers focus on garments that deliver the largest reductions in carbon, water and waste footprints, or enable customers to improve clothing care, repair, and re-use.
We need to buy fewer clothes, and make better choices about where we buy them from.
Encouraged to provide ever-greater transparency, brands including Levi’s, Gap, Nike and Adidas publish lists of the suppliers producing for them. H&M’s new label, Arket, goes further. Its website gives the location and name of the factory where every piece of clothing was made. But while it pushes transparency, what should consumers do with that information?
Bangladesh’s garment industry is the second biggest in the world, behind only China. The collapse in April 2013 of the eight-storey Rana Plaza building came soon after two 2012 fires – one in Dhaka that killed 112, and a blaze at a textile factory complex in Karachi in Pakistan that killed almost 300. They prompted not just demonstrations amongst garment workers and their families, but soul-searching from consumers about the real state of the global fashion supply chain.
Formed in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse, the Bangladesh Accord is an independent, legally-binding agreement between brands and trade unions, designed to work towards a safe and healthy Bangladeshi garment industry. “Our purpose is to enable a working environment in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses, or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures,” it says.
Its achievements so far include 200 signatory companies and it works with more than 1600 factories companies and supports over two million workers. It has a five-year agreement between brands and trade unions to ensure, amongst other things, a safe working environment, independent inspection programme, public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports and corrective action plans.
Sportswear manufacturers Adidas, Puma and Helly Hansen and high street brands including Benetton, G-Star, H&M, New Look, Next and Primark have signed up to the accord. In the four years to July 2017, it reported that 78% of safety issues identified were verified as fixed, 74 factories completed remediation from initial inspections, 494 factories had completed more than 90% remediation; more than 300 safety committees had been trained, and over 100 safety complaints resolved. But there is still more to be done.
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