Going shopping and looking sharp is a guilty pleasure for us all. But most of us don’t know where our clothes come from and how eco-friendly their production process is. In this piece, we look into sustainable fashion and the movement’s leaders.
In one of my recent classes, a professor asked the students: “Who among you knows where your clothes were made?” Only a few people raised their hand. He continued, “Of those that raised their hand, who knows what fabrics your clothes are made of?” Most hands went down. Then he finished: ”Who among you knows who made your clothes?” Take a guess how many hands were raised by the end.
That’s right. Zero.
Thankfully, in recent years consumers have become more and more environmentally and socially conscious. They’ve realized that companies across sectors turn a profit at the cost of human lives and the planet, and thus demand to know where the products they buy come from. Many only buy from brands whose values they identify with; brands who are driven by purpose, rather than solely profit.
Its effect on the planet
The price of clothing has been dropping for decades, while the environmental costs have skyrocketed. The planet has entered a climate crisis based on human activity and is already beyond its tipping point in terms of global heating, waste pollution, changes in land use, and biochemical output.
A primary contributor to this crisis is the production of clothing.
This is true for several reasons, but the biggest one is that fabric processing—including weaving thread and dyeing fabric different colors—requires massive amounts of water and toxic chemicals, including pesticides for growing raw materials.
After the product is created, the waste (water, chemicals, and harmful plastics) created along the way ends up in landfills and large bodies of water. And on an unthinkable scale: after agriculture, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally.
As this water is dumped into our rivers and seas, it inevitably ends up in our food and our bodies. Delicious, right?
Its effect on humans
But our lands and seas aren’t the only ones suffering from the epidemic of materialism.
As the train of consumerism hurdles forward faster than ever, the humans creating the product are left reeling. In the documentary The True Cost, we see how underpaid workers in third-world countries—including children—are exploited in factories to make fast and cheap fashion items.
They work under inhumane conditions: ultra-low wages, long hours, and unsafe workplaces—in fact, it’s not uncommon for fashion factories to collapse or burn down with workers inside them.
All of this is the price of greed, on the part of both the consumer and the supplier. But what if we could change industry? Can we have our cake and eat it too?
Innovation comes knocking: sustainable fashion
One promising trend in recent years is the sharing economy. New business models view fashion as a service, renting out clothing for special occasions. This is already a popular option for one-time-wear items, such as evening gowns, wedding dresses, and costumes.
Reusing, recycling, trading, and donating apparel is also becoming more commonplace in the fashion world, with vintage and secondhand shops on the rise. Conscious consumers have also begun choosing “quality over quantity,” buying fewer clothes, less frequently. This may come at a higher price, but you can rest assured that those jeans will last you 20 years.
But it’s not just in the customers’ hands. It’s up to companies to innovate too.
Patagonia is an outstanding example of a socially and environmentally responsible company leading the way in the fashion industry. They design and sell high-quality, long-lasting outdoor clothing and gear, and their mission is “to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
And this promise isn’t empty. First of all, Patagonia encourages consumers to think twice before buying another jacket they might not actually need. And when a product eventually does get old or damaged, they ask customers to return them so they can be reused and recycled.
Nearly all their fabrics are made from recycled material, including the polyester, nylon, and wool. They don’t use leather or fur in their products, and the wool and down feathers they incorporate are recycled. Lastly, the company boasts extremely high ratings for labor conditions.
And there’s more that companies can do besides cleaning up their production processes. They can rethink the product itself.
Ever heard of pineapple leather? There’s now a host of leather alternatives made from plants, fruits, and trees—providing an ethical replacement for the classic, long-lasting animal hide. From Piñatex to Bark Cloth (cultivated from Mutuba trees on eco-certified farms), these options are biodegradable, ecological, and cruelty-free—and now used by several global fashion giants.
Even big corporations with dirty reputations are making amends, as they know their customers are demanding innovation. Adidas, for example, has historically received negative publicity regarding unethical labor practices and material waste. Now, they are making efforts to sell the first mass-produced shoe made from plastic waste from the ocean.
But whether these corporations are changing their ways because they truly care about the environment or because they simply want to polish their brand image, what really matters is that it becomes the standard to innovate and do what’s best for the planet.
And as we become more and more aware of the perils of fast fashion, I feel confident that the people will demand it.
Kim Riemensperger is a graduate student in the Master in Customer Experience & Innovation, class of 2020, at the IE School of Human Sciences & Technology. She is originally from Germany but has lived in four different countries. Kim strives to be an agent of change of the environment and healthcare, and is passionate about researching, writing about, and communicating global challenges that the world is facing.