A Conscious Revolution in the Fashion Industry

Demand for a cleaner, friendlier and more affordable industry is on the rise, but most consumers don’t realize the severity of the problem.

by Virginia Libano Rubio

We can probably all guess that the fashion industry causes serious environmental and social problems at a global scale. But you might not realize that the fashion industry is the second most contaminating sector in the world — right behind the oil industry.

An All-Pervasive Problem

The negative impact takes place across most of the industry’s value chain: From the seeds being used to grow cotton, to the toxic dyes applied on the garments, to the transport of clothes from developing countries (where most of the production takes place) to far-away Western consumers.

Polyester, for example, is the most widely used fiber for clothing, and approximately 70 million barrels of oil are used every year to produce it. Or the production of cotton is responsible for the use of 24% of the world’s insecticide, and 11% of pesticide, affecting the surrounding earth and water.

The root of the problem is that we have recklessly established an unsustainable production system that must now be urgently changed and re-organized.

As awareness of these acute problems increases, demand for a cleaner, friendlier and affordable industry is on the rise. Consumers are asking more and more questions and brands are becoming more concerned with their production processes. Unfortunately, all still lack the knowledge, resources or motivation to address them.

María Almazán, founder of Latitude

But María Almazán has a smart solution.

Maria, an Ashoka Fellow and a part of “Fabric of Change,” a global initiative of Ashoka and C&A Foundation for a fair and sustainable apparel industry, created Latitude, a collaborative network of sustainable textile production facilities in Spain. These workshops address the two major challenges in the textile sector: the environment (use of organic or recycled raw materials for garment production, energy efficiency, avoiding use of pesticides or herbicides, and even buying organic fair trade coffee for the employees) and labor rights (ensuring decent wages, well-lit working spaces and regular breaks, informing workers of the source and destination of the products they produce).

The root of the problem seems simple when she describes it: Low-cost retail business is extraordinary, growing more and more each day. Consumers buy more clothes, for a lower price and throw them away after few uses. In Europe for example, Norwegians will spend an average of 1,246 Euros per year, followed by the United Kingdom with 941 Euros, then Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Spaniards, for example, spend 508 Euros a year.

“We need to understand that there are people behind those clothes,” says Maria. “We cannot expect half of the countries in the world to be completely dedicated to producing while the other half is only concerned with consuming.”

Starting from Within

The turning point for María occurred when she was visiting textile factories in Asia. At the time, she was working for a large multinational company and her job was to supervise the textile production process on the continent. She visited each factory herself, wanting to see the process with her own eyes. But what she saw changed her life completely — she saw dirty and packed workplaces, people working non-stop and workers with burnt faces due to constant exposure to harmful chemicals.

She recalls two specific events that impacted her deeply: When visiting a factory in China that was fully approved by the country, she noted that the average age of its workers was only sixteen. When seeing these teenagers, she immediately pictured in her mind the hundreds of 16-year-olds in shopping centers and malls in Spain, and thought how unfair it is that half of the world’s children must endure such terrible conditions so that the other half can feel stylish.

The second moment came when visiting Bangladesh. There, she saw rivers completely dyed with the color of the fashion for that season because there were no water treatment plans.

In a former life, Maria worked for a large Spanish textile company, where she first noticed the gap between the way clothes are being consumed and the huge social, economic and environmental cost of its production. “There is a lot of misery [in this industry],” she explains. “This is why Latitude was created, because there are people behind the clothes, people who must have a voice and enjoy dignified working conditions and a safe workplace.”

In Maria’s journey towards improving the fashion industry, we can clearly see a pattern of empathy, leadership and determination. These qualities have driven Maria in every aspect of her life since she was young. Just another example of her will to fight against injustice was when she mobilized — at just 16 years old — her whole neighborhood against the nearby airport, which wasn’t complying with noise and pollution standards. After weeks of citizen activation, signing petitions and protest, she organized what she calls the “Pajamas in Action program,” convincing neighbors and friends to go to the airport in pajamas and stand up for their rights. Her movement led to the improvement of flight schedules, as well new soundproof windows and pollution detectors being installed in the neighborhood.

It’s easy to understand why someone like María, having witnessed the extreme social and environmental cost of the textile industry, would want to do something about it.

From Production to Sales

María’s network now spans six sustainable production facilities across Spain. To respond to the high demands of multinational brands, and still maintain the sustainable and worker-friendly standards, these workshops work as a network and distribute the workload accordingly. Today, approximately 180 people are employed in María’s factories, earning a dignified salary and working in healthy and comfortable conditions, while still providing products to large European brands.

“Companies want to work in a different way, but they have to understand how to do it within their processes to avoid creating well-intentioned but isolated projects, and actually build transformational processes within the industry,” she explains.

María is aware that her business will not be the highest earning one in the world, but she firmly defends that it is a profitable one. Her goal is to set a path for other similar businesses to do the same and, thus, help the fashion industry become more conscious and environmentally friendly with better conditions for every person involved in the production chain.

Consumer Consciousness

Recognizing that significant change in the textile industry can only take place if consumers change their habits, Maria also created the PROUD label for consumers to identify garments produced under sustainable and clean processes. Any manufacturer or brand certified by Latitude can apply the PROUD tag to give visibility to their social and environmental commitment.

Through a number of high-impact media and public interventions, María is working on offering consumers information on how to recognize products produced locally and sustainably.

Inspired by another Ashoka Fellow Darell Hammond, founder of KaBOOM!, María is also designing an online interactive platform with accessible, easy-to-use tools to replicate the sustainable model she applies in her own workshops. In KaBOOM’s case, for example, this strategy multiplied by 10 the number of safe, innovative playgrounds across the United States. That is, for every playground that KaBOOM! constructs, other organizations creates 10. These are the scaling numbers that Latitude is aiming for.

Virginia Libano Rubio is a student and writer based in Madrid, Spain.

Fabric of Change is a global initiative by Ashoka and the C&A Foundation to support innovators for a fair and sustainable apparel industry. Learn More