For so long, the fashion industry was focused on MORE. Making more goods, delivering more products to stores, and making customers buy more. It’s only been in the past few years that brands have started to shift and see the light. Most brands realize now that sustainability is a pillar we need to protect our environment and the world at large.
Within fashion, industry sustainability can be achieved through many means, but we have to act. It starts with using water more thoughtfully and managing it post-use once it becomes chemical-ridden wastewater.
Manufacturing garments with recycled materials and fabric and reducing overall fabric wastage are also two significant ways that brands can help the cause. Considering all the technological advances in creating better fabrications, nearly every brand can do this now.
We can also lessen fashion's negative impact on the environment by reducing the overall carbon footprint. This means we stop shipping fabric, trims, and garments irresponsibly and let the concept of fast fashion die out. No brand should be creating 24 collections a year (I'm lookin' at you, Zara) especially considering many of those garments go unworn and end up in landfills, anyway.
The last major way we can create change is by creating circular economies where the garment's full life cycle is considered. As a consumer, you can contribute to a more circular economy by shopping second-hand and reusing garments as much as you can to maximize their use.
The statistics on exactly how dangerous the fashion industry is are still very unclear. Much of the data and effects are hard to confirm and validate, given the grandiose scale of fashion and manufacturing.
One of the biggest concerns in fashion comes down to resource management, predominantly freshwater. While water may seem like an endless resource, the truth is that it's not and much of this water goes towards watering crops like cotton and treating fabric. Did you know that it can take upwards of 200 TONS of freshwater to dye just one TON of fabric by weight? Also, considering how much water it takes to grow cotton, one of the most common natural fibers is outstanding. It takes roughly 20,000 tons of water to create just ONE ton of cotton. There has been a rising interest in growing cotton in high rainfall areas to avoid irrigating large crop fields and using up massive volumes of water. This is helpful, but the solution is limited by the climate and areas where there's already heavy rainfall.
Proper treatment of wastewater is also a big concern for increasing our sustainability. With improper treatment, this wastewater is released into the ecosystem, endangering millions of animals and humans alike.
It cannot be denied that fashion is a massive contributor to polluted wastewater given the chemicals used in manufacturing, dyeing, and finishing the final goods. Unmanaged wastewater leads to contaminated drinking water and puts the health and welfare of millions of people at risk. Current numbers have estimates of roughly 20% of industrial water pollution coming from the fashion industry alone.
“Legacy. What is the legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” -
Another great area we can improve the system is by using more recycled materials in our production. Recycled fabrications help us reuse items that would otherwise be discarded, like plastic bottles. Still, you have to be careful and make sure your fabric is made from actual post-consumer waste. Sometimes items are made from 'recycled' materials, but they're actually using virgin materials like empty bottles that have never been used for drinks -- this is NOT truly recycled! Many factories won't own up to this, but it's a good thing to be aware of if you're trying to positively impact the environment.
Reducing your overall fabric wastage is also a good way to make your own impact on fashion's sustainability. Make it a goal to use as much as you can to avoid scraping big pieces of fabric. Make scrunchies, face masks, or pouches if you can and sell them alongside the rest of your items.
Reducing the carbon footprint is one of the most considerable ways to make a meaningful difference in the environment. For the brands: this means shipping by boat as much as you can and avoiding excessive air travel of your finished garments and the components that make them up. For consumers reading: this means buying items, you expect to keep instead of everything under the sun and then returning what doesn't work. Bringing your returns back to a local store so they can put it on the sales floor is also usually a better alternative to shipping everything back.
Creating circular economies is a big area of sustainability that has been gaining steam. This means that you try to use the item through its complete life cycle. It has a purpose, and it's meant to be a long-term use item from beginning to end. Instead of buying fast fashion garments made poorly and wear out quickly, buy more timeless pieces, and fix them if a button falls off. When you get tired of something, send it to a consignment store to be rebought and reloved by someone else. Shop at second-hand stores yourself and feel guilt-free when you buy something that's been pre-worn. When you're finally ready to discard an item, recycle it instead. Even old panties can be recycled and made into things like insulation, rug pads, and beyond. Thinking more circularly with our garments can mean a lot less ends up in the landfills.
Another area that deserves comment here is how and what luxury brands you support. Many luxury manufacturers create hundreds of thousands of products each year, just to incinerate them later to maintain their products' high cost. Yup, brands are literally burning their goods instead of selling them at a discounted price because it continues to drive the value up. If you care a lot about sustainability, you should do your best not to support these practices as customer loyalty drives them to do this. Burberry used to do this and caught a lot of heat for all the fires they put out there. You might want to avoid a few brands until they wisen up to new practices: Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, Urban Outfitters, Victoria's Secret, and even Nike.
After working in fast fashion myself, the necessary changes were made even more clear to me than ever before by the need to produce more and more instead of better and better. By witnessing firsthand the endless amounts of wastage and pollution, it’s clear there is a better way forward through technological advancement and future thinking. We can no longer treat the earth as an infinite supply of resources because it won’t last.
It won’t last for our lifetime and it certainly won’t last for our children’s lifetime. Considering the next generation is a huge reason we commit ourselves to be part of the solution as well. Everyone has a tiny human (or a few) they love that they want to grow up on a planet that is still like this one, the way it is right now but better. One of my favorite lines from the musical Hamilton is below. This captures what it’s all about:
“Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” - Lin-Manuel Miranda