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Friends, we all love fashion. We love it for the chance to play dress up 😉 but more importantly because our style and fashion picks are an expression of our personality, our moods, beliefs and individual tastes! We totally agree with the famous fashionista Rachel Zoe when she puts it, « Style is way to say who you are without having to speak ». But, every coin has two faces and fashion has a very ugly flip side.
Fashion apparel and textile is the second most polluting industry after oil and energy. The making of our clothes is marred by terrible ecological damage at every step. And very often you are wearing a dangerous chemical cocktail on your beautiful bare skin without probably knowing it.
So are we saying that you should feel bad coming home with 7 bags in the right and 8 bags in the left hand? Well, yes, in a way. However, we are certainly not saying that you wear a potato sack from now on! But you can certainly become a better, more responsible fashion lover and we’re here to help you do just that. UrbanMeisters will address eco-fashion in two parts- in this first edition we will give you an overview of the fashion and pollution angle and what is being done to make it better. The second edition next week will show you how sexy and cool eco fashion really is, because we bet you thought they’re all drab and boring!
So first, let’s bring out some hard facts:

  • The Chinese textile industry accounts for over 50% of world production. Unfortunately China is not a country known for its eco-friendly manufacturing and ethical use of ressources (Source).
  • It takes around 7.000 litres / 1.800 galons of water to produce a single pair of jeans (Source). What makes it so water-intensive is the production of raw material, but also the processing, like the wash­ing and dyeing.
  • At the same time a huge amount of chemicals (about 8.000) are used to turn raw materials into textiles (Source). Many of them are released into lakes and rivers in the country of production, affecting their safe drinking water drawing capacities. And the effects of this industrial waste travel from one water body to another. Greenpeace has reported that traces of pollutants used in textile producing countries like India were found in the liver of polar bears! Yes after all our eco-systems are connected.
  • In 2012, Greenpeace had also investigated clothes from global fashion brands. They found horror stories- numerous potentially hazadrous industrial chemicals across a significant number of the samples tested (Source). One of them was NPEs (Nonylphenol Ethoxylate) that showed up in over 60% of the garments- it is also widely found in detergents. This chemical can get absorbed in body and it is considered dangerous for it’s ability to mimic hormones like Oestrogen and thus cause hormonal imbalance in the host body. That’s a pretty serious health hazard and it’s just one case.

Now don’t these facts put a whole new light on the words eco-fashion and sustainability?

Breaking down Fashion & Pollution

Fast fashion

Our heads were smoking several times during this research. There is in particular a dangerous lack of visibility at the beginning of the chain. It hides toxic pollution, unethical labour pratices and tremendous waste when for example the textile is dyed in the wrong colour or some such seemingly minute problem. But to break it down for you, mass fashion, or as we like to call our Zaras, H&Ms and Gaps is characterised by ‘fast fashion’. Essentially referring to their propensity to respond to customer preferences by delivering new fashion trends in increasingly short cycles. It’s their key competitive advantage. The reverse side is that this has a huge implication on pollution:

  • Super tight deadlines and pressure for the suppliers make them go for unethical solutions. They produce in low-cost (read cheap) developing countries mostly in Asia & South America- places lacking sustainable manufacturing infrastructure– part of the reason why they’re low cost. But they have abundant cheap labour. You’ve all read about sweat shops- things are admittedly better with tremendous world pressure but still not acceptable
  • But first comes the procurement of raw materials which is marked by hazardous practices like using pesticides in cotton farming or using artificial growth boosters to meet the ever rising demand of fast fashion. Then remember how we explained at the beginning how resource intensive the manufactoring process is and how chemialcs are used all along the value chain? Well the increased volume compound the negative effects, and then tight deadlines also lead to high rejects or damaged goods.
  • Then we move to finished goods being transported all around the world from these hubs- huge transport carbon foot print. It doesn’t end there. Thought about corporate offices and crazy number of showrooms and the strain these put on the environment- electricity, harmful promotional material like plastics etc. Think we’re making it up? How about this- if every Inditex (company that owns Zara, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, Bershka, …) store accidentally left on one light overnight, it would add up to almost nine years of wasted electricity.

We told you we’re not joking. Each stage in the production and consumption of fashion is a tremendous strain on resources.

High end Fashion

Let’s also look at luxury fashion and designer labels. This world functions on creativity marked by high innovation. Each collection has to showcase ‘new’ and the stakes just keep getting faster, bigger and better! Of course sustainability is not a priority. Raw materials are innovative or rare and more often than not procured unethically and this has the bane of the luxury world for quite sometime now. Recently Hermes got into an ugly controversy about crocodile leather it uses so much so that Jane Birkin asked the luxury powerhouse to remove her name from the most famous and prestigious bag in the world! Fur, leather and so many other materials used are points of contention forever.
Then the high carbon footprint of fashion shows- which are too many in a year now-Spring Summer, Fall Winter, Haute Couture, Cruise/ Resort collection and the numerous in betweens! Then the luxury industry as a whole has been much criticised for promoting extravagance and uninhibited consumption- further fuelling our demand of fast fashion, and it’s been struggling to stay relevant in the changing scenario of resource consciousness and austerity.
Another big polluting by-product of this world is the massive counterfeiting industry that is bound by no rules of ethical and responsible production. And make no mistake, it’s a huge thriving industry which is patronised by us consumers in our quest to look trendy and ‘with it’.

So is Fashion going green?

Someone says pollution and we immediately think of big factories puffing smoke and dust or chemical waste pouring into our water systems or heavy traffic on roads choking our lungs with bad air. Do we ever think of the shirt on our backs or the dress in pink? Maybe we need to start now. After all, isn’t fashion all about the choices we make? While we’ll always root for being stylish and fashionable, we know you want to make a difference too by being responsible about fashion. Green fashion is the way to go- the responsible choice any urban fashion junkie must make. And the good news is they are! Experts have pointed to the rise of a new kind of more conscious consumer who is looking for sustainable indulgences and luxuries- WWF Report. Now the onus is on the industry to redefine it’s parameters and respond to the challenge. Also on us to spread the message and convert more people into responsibly consuming fashion and giving eco-fashion brands and labels a fair chance.
It’s not that the traditional fashion industry is not responding to the challenge of eco-fashion. There are efforts on by big and small players to make a difference in their production scales and processes and make sustainability a mainstay. Let’s quickly see what’s being done.

  • Material Sourcing: This is one of the most contentious issues in fashion. Though fractured and not as strong as it should be, there’s movement towards ethical sourcing and designing with sustainable and recyclable materials. Many players have dabbled in this for the last several years in capsule collections and limited editions. Recent examples being Chanel’s Eco-Couture show which created much hype. But are these PR stunts or than actual commitment to sustainable fashion? We will have a look at this in part 2 of our article.
  • Collective measures like Fur Free Retailers Program is very welcome. It’s an industry initiative that recognises and supports retailers who have committed to a no-fur policy. Good news is that big retailers like Zara are part of this commitment. Faux fur is on the rise with luxury labels like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney of course among others. Though Fendi still refuses to budge. While the fur traders contend that this is natural, sustainable material but the demand trumps the natural pace of supply leading to unnatural accelerated breeding and various other cruel practices. So the sustainability angle really becomes a moot point. But still it’s a step in the right direction.
  • Pacing down the frantic merchandise calendar. ‘So last season’ is such a favourite put down but the fashion industry takes it very seriously. The actual seasons don’t change as furiously as fashion seasons do. This has caused the ‘change designs’ race to spiral out of control and this is a huge drain on resources by simple logic of more production leading to more pressure. It also doesn’t allow designers to focus their creative energy on stylish designs with lasting appeal and innovative materials. Like Demna Gvasalia, the new creative director of Balenciaga said recently,“I’m not really sure if the market actually demands all those clothes….You know we deliver winter in July; it doesn’t make any sense…. I feel something needs to happen to find a new mechanism or system to work because it is a lot of money wasted as well, on development, on selling things we don’t really need.” This fashion calendar also trickles down to mass fashion which takes the production pressure stakes to new heights.
  • Detoxing fashion: Though it’s a small number, 18 companies (10% of global retail) including Valentino, Burberry, Marks & Spencer and H&M, have begun to eliminate toxic chemicals from their supply chains as part of Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion campaign. Experts have outlined 4 major ways of detoxing fashion:

(a) Choice of material- renewable and sustainable as far as possible

(b) Eye on factories that dye and finish these fabrics- minimise use of harmful chemicals and untreated spillage into water bodies

(c) Transportation of goods- airways is a big no no

(d) Consumer care directions on garments- promote hand washing and shun dry cleaning as it again uses toxic solvents

Read part 2 to give Eco-Fashion a chance!

Fashion is one of the most powerful industries in the world not just in terms of the monetary stakes but also as the most powerful influencer and opinion maker. Green players are on the rise and established brands are re-looking at their business models. We’ll keep a hawk eye on the green fashion developments and report back to you. But let’s not forget our role as consumers. There are plenty of smaller players raising the bar in sustainable fashion but we as consumers need to support them. We will show you in part 2 of our article how edgy, sexy and stylish they are. A lot has to also do with the choices we make. So are we willing to green it? Read now Part 2.

May the Force of Green be with you!

Secondary Research: Business of FashionKnowledge/InseadEcouterre

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