Sustainability issues in the fashion industry are surfacing across the globe as recent trends contribute to the already large—and growing—social and environmental effects of dressing 7.7 billion humans. At the same time, new initiatives and technological solutions show promise for helping correct course for the future.
Recognizing Fashion’s Impact
McKinsey reports that global production of clothing doubled between 2000 and 2014. Over that same period, the average number of garments purchased each year rose by 60%, with consumers keeping each item just half as long as they used to. These trends mean that the impact of producing clothes has reached a new scale.
In terms of the environment, manufacturing clothes from plant-based fibers like cotton requires harmful pesticides and large amounts of water. A T-shirt made with conventional cotton requires 290 gallons of water, while a pair of jeans requires 1,135 gallons. Meanwhile, some synthetic materials are made from nonrenewable resources that can poison bodies of water and food chains. The New York Times suggests that each of the fiber types generally used to make clothing comes with its own environmental trade-offs. For example, the International Wool Textile Association claims that wool products are relatively long-lasting and biodegradable, but the sheep needed to grow the fiber emit greenhouse gases. And no matter how it is made, clothing consumes oil as it is transported across a global supply chain.
The problem worsens as fashion seasons shorten, leading to the frequent release of affordable fast fashion items, which are meant to be worn for just a short period of time and then replaced as trends rapidly change. With fabric recycling almost nonexistent, clothing that is not downcycled into rags ends up in landfills. Clothing production now accounts for 20% of global industrial water pollution and 10% of carbon emissions. The United Nations reports that carbon emissions from the sector are estimated to grow by more than 60% by 2030.
The garment industry also impacts the people who work within it. Poor working conditions for the industry’s 75 million employees have been well-documented. According to Quartz, clothing workers are some of the worst paid in the world, often laboring in exploitative and unsafe conditions. Social responsibility for suppliers took on a new urgency after the 2013 collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers. Despite improvements in building safety, a 2017 University of Sussex study found that garment workers in Bangladesh and India are still subject to long hours, health hazards, and harassment.
Moving Forward with Technology
Concern over sustainability issues in the fashion industry has led to the formation of a growing number of initiatives, many of which rely on digital platforms and new technology to amplify their impact.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition comprises more than 200 companies from across fashion’s global supply chain, including giants like Levi’s, Target, and Adidas. The coalition grew out of a challenge from the CEOs of Walmart and Patagonia in 2009 to develop a common index that would measure the environmental performance of clothing products. The resulting Higg Index, used by more than 10,000 manufacturers worldwide, measures the sustainability performance of a given company or product. Running parallel to the Higg Index is the Facility Environmental Module, which provides training and verification to member companies.
In May 2018, the London-based Ethical Fashion Forum launched Common Objective, a new online matching engine that allows clothing industry professionals and companies to create profiles attesting to their ethical standards and sustainability efforts. If a company scores high, Common Objective rewards it with higher visibility in its search engine.
In addition, a Dutch-Indian collaboration between several organizations from both countries is introducing new technological solutions to cut water pollution from leather tanning. Tanning is a major contributor to water pollution in India, Bangladesh, and other countries, where tanneries use toxic chemicals to process and color animal hides into leather. The polluted waste water poisons rivers and groundwater, contaminates food when used for irrigation, and threatens workers’ health. Aimed at similar goals, the leather chemical supplier Stahl—along with NGOs Solidaridad and CSR Netherlands—has launched the Green Tanning Initiative to develop environmental improvements in tanning operations in India and Ethiopia.
While clothing manufacturing and fast fashion are not likely to slow down, it is clear that sustainability is gaining ground. In July 2018, 10 UN organizations agreed to create the UN Alliance on Sustainable Fashion, saying they were “committed to changing the path of fashion.” The alliance launched formally in March of 2019. With the fashion industry facing pressure from the UN to meet its Sustainable Development Goals, interest in limiting the negative effects of fashion appears to be one trend that will not be going away any time soon.