Fashion is Not the Problem: The Industry Needs to Change

It begins with a simple question: How were my clothes made? But the answer can often be elusive.

April 24–31 is Fashion Revolution Week, which aims to create greater transparency in the fashion industry. It was established to coincide with the anniversary of the devastating Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where 1,138 people were killed and many more injured on April 24, 2013.

This tragic event exposed the systemic labor violations and appalling working conditions that continue to plague the garment manufacturing industry. It also shed light on the fact that fashion is utterly dependent upon cheap and available natural resources — labor and the energy to grow, process, construct, ship, launder, and eventually dispose of clothing. And we dispose a lot — the average American throws away an astounding 68 pounds of garments per year.

We live in a material world, and the fashion industry is a leader in the demand for and use of both natural and manmade materials. Garment manufacturing is the world’s third-largest industry — behind automobiles and electronics. Yet, few people are fully aware of the human and environmental impact of its manufacturing lifecycle: from fiber to cloth to clothing to landfill.

In the garment industry, the processing of and demand for materials can be linked to many of the big environmental issues of our time, such as climate change, waste creation, and water poverty. The sustainability movement in the industry is relatively new, with organic cotton developed in the late 1980's and California brands like ESPRIT, Levi’s, Patagonia, and Gap Inc taking the lead on various initiatives over the years. But sustainability continues to pick up steam as brands and their customers become more aware and advocate for further change.

However, for those companies that are diligently researching the impact of their production and devising mitigation strategies, communicating their actions to consumers is complicated — the details are often highly technical. As a result, information provided at the point of sale and even on the brands’ websites tends to be over-simplified, widening the knowledge gap between brands and wearers and slowing the potential for change.

What can we do to help mitigate the excesses and destructive practices of the garment industry?

Many environmentalists would advocate doing away with fashion altogether (Story of Stuff, for example).

Yet this strategy is prompted by a focus on the negative impacts of materials and processing of fashion garments and fails to acknowledge fashion’s positive immaterial aspects. All of us own a long-held garment that holds a memory of a loved one. Most of us understand fashion as a means for self-expression and for identifying with our chosen social group. Many of us feel the joy of touching and wearing a well-crafted product— these are just a few of the many deeply satisfying associations we hold in garments.

The key to increasing and amplifying the uptake of sustainability in fashion is not only in decreasing material impacts but also in acknowledging fashion’s social and cultural importance. While emergent business models work to decouple revenue from declining material resources, design educators and their students are giving form to altogether new ways of designing, producing, distributing and experiencing fashion.

Stay tuned!

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Additional Resources:

Fashion-and-Sustainability-Design-for-Change, Lynda Grose and Kate Fletcher

levistrauss Life Cycle Analysis of a jean

Local Wisdom, Kate Fletcher

Emotionally-Durable-Design, Jonathan Chapman

Fashion Fibers: Designing for Sustainability, Annie Gullingsrud

Chalo, Karina Michel