The industry as it operates today is having a devastating effect on the planet
The concept of sustainability in the fashion industry emerged late, owing to the elusive division drawn between the social world and the natural world. Several fashion studies, focusing on not only the social, cultural, and economic aspects of fashion, but also the environmental and ecological aspects have augmented the segregation by highlighting the environmental costs in their studies.
The emergence of the issue of sustainability dates back to the mid-1990s, when the issue of child exploitation by some suppliers of the Nike brand grabbed the attention of Western society (Martínez-Barreiro, 2020). Since then, different non-governmental organizations have urged fashion brands to move towards more sustainable business models and practices.
However, it took time for the fashion system to adopt the terminology of sustainability until the beginning of the 21st century after the publication of several scientific journals. Academic works have directed all their efforts to promote dialogue on fashion and sustainability, and from the production of these works, the terminology used in the academic discourse has streamed from "eco-fashion" to the prodigious use of the concept of "sustainable fashion.”
Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose encapsulated “sustainable fashion” as the concept which promotes good social and environmental practices, including relegation of the production and consumption of clothing, to the promotion of recycling and the use of renewable and organic materials.
Moreover, Claudia Henninger in her article “What is sustainable fashion?” emphasized that sustainable fashion means moving away from the production and consumption practices of the fast fashion system.
Amidst all this publication of academic works and the promotion of sustainability in several campaigns, an important question surfaces: Can the fashion industry ever be sustainable?
The rationale behind this trepidation encompasses the environmental impact caused by the fashion industry, specifically the fast fashion industry, with mounting evidence of intensified global clothing consumption and the enlarged accessibility and affordability of clothing, and the meticulously cloaked work of corporations, using social and environmental justice affairs to market products which are manufactured through environmental and social injustice, exclusively in the Global South.
The fashion and textile industry are considered to be the second most polluting industry. Every year, almost 2 billion cotton t-shirts are made and almost 100 billion t-shirts are purchased annually. It takes 2700 litres of water to make a cotton t-shirt which is equivalent to two and a half years’ worth of human drinking water, and most clothes are worn about seven times before being tossed out (2020).
During manufacturing, several chemicals are used, and the produced waste is thrown into the water, hence contributing to water pollution. 50,000 tons of dye are discharged into the global water system from the textile industry.
The UN has affirmed that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse emissions annually. According to a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, textile productions generate such an exceeding amount of greenhouse gas emissions that it surpasses the amount produced by international aviation and maritime shipping combined.
Further, it is anticipated that sooner than 2030, the water consumption of the fashion industries will increase by 50% to 118 billion cubic metres, and 2,791 million tons of carbon will be released.
Moreover, the environmental impacts of the fashion industry are exacerbated by excessive consumption practices. It is known that the human behaviour of consumption of clothes is fuelled more by the desire to satisfy their emotional and egotistical desire. It is contemplated that consumers would be able to subjugate their hedonistic subconscious forces if information concerning ethical issues is advocated more.
However, the majority of consumers expressed that several expert opinions, coupled with the complexity of the issues concerning sustainability, are plunking them to a muddled state. Therefore, it gets easier to compel the consumer to turn a blind eye and buy that new shirt.
Amidst this escalated popularity of the fast fashion brands in this era, they are encountering heavy scrutiny regarding their transparency in terms of working conditions, detrimental environmental impact, factories, supply chain, etc. Despite the trenchant criticisms, most companies are not inclined to advocate fewer consumption practices.
The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter in 2019 published an interview with the former CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson, where he stated that consumption should not be stopped as it leads to economic growth; rather a solution must be found through innovation (Karlsson and Ramasar, 2020).
Nevertheless, many fashion companies, to retain the customer’s trust, have incorporated feminist and sustainability policies in their marketing strategies to sell their products through greenwashing. Such marketing strategies are molding the consumer’s opinion regarding their consumption habits.
As a result, it is leading them to believe -- predominantly women -- that they are buying more and more sustainable, cruelty-free clothes. This is evidenced through the advertisements of many fashion brands. For example, the music video by Gina Tricot “The Way” showcased catchphrases like "organic" repetitively. However, the use of the phrase has never been elucidated (Karlsson and Ramasar, 2020). The reiteration of such catchphrases and using organic materials does not ensure the sustainability of the product when considering the whole product lifecycle.
It should be noted that the term “life cycle” is misleading as the chain of the process does not form a “cycle” and instead forms a linear sequence of events, with a conspicuous beginning and end. A true cyclical life cycle guarantees recycle or reuse, feeding the end waste back into the system to be used again. It is known as the 5 R's of fashion -- reduce, repair, recycle, repurpose, and reinvent.
A Delhi-based fashion studio called “Doodlage” uses waste materials to make new clothes. Furthermore, trends like swap parties and vintage clothing are being endorsed by many clothing brands such as Broqué (a Bangladeshi clothing brand) to mitigate the environmental impact.
It should be remembered that the textile product life cycle will never be completely impact-free as it depends on the environment to some extent. Therefore, the focus must be on the minimization of such impacts, coupled with the establishment of proper corporate social responsibilities, not green or fem washing.
Above all, an ardent belief must be restored by the consumer that we don’t need excessive clothes.
Nusrat Zahan is a lawyer and a certified Human Rights Trainee.