Fashion Week. Crédito: Pxhere

Fashion industry mobilizes for sustainability

Accused of polluting and hiring illegal labor force, the industry adopts social and environmental responsibilities best practices. Consumer is protagonist in the chain transformation

How many new pieces of clothing do you buy a year? According to the World Resources Institute, a research non-profit organization, the fashion industry manufactures 20 pieces of clothing per person every year. Earth population is comprised of about 7 billion people, we produce on average 140 billion new pieces of apparel every 365 days. This means that every day no less than 383 million pieces are made - an astounding volume of 4.4 thousand pieces per second!

According to the same organization, a relevant share of this production exists to meet demand generated by a very specific ever-increasing fashion segment: the so-called fast fashion.

In conventional fashion, brands sort their collection to meet demand generated by the two coldest and the two hottest seasons. That means a collection for spring-summer and another for fall-winter. No wonder, a great number of fashion weeks are organized this way worldwide.

Conversely, in fast fashion, weeks or even short gaps between days can be considered mini-seasons. Today, this segment is estimated to work with 50 collections a year, and it may reach 100 at times. Hence, a new collection is launched every 3 or 7 days. This makes pieces go cheaper, as volume is extremely higher, but it also shortens cycles of use and encourages disposal; therefore, increasing waste.

It’s not simple to meet the demand for raw material and workforce required by this succession of manufacture cycles. “About 70% of all fiber produced in the world is synthetic,” said Luciana Bueno, costume designer, scenographer, art director and co-founder of Banco de Tecido (Fabric Bank), who brings to the market textile industry scraps through sale and barter. “The sustainability problem in fashion needs to be faced in the entire chain.”

Textile industry production

By far, China is the greatest textile manufacturer, accounting for 50% of the planet’s fabric production. This figure places China far ahead of India, second position with 6% of the production, and the USA in third place with 5%. Data from the Brazilian Research Institute of Industrial Marketing places Brazil in fifth, ahead of all Latin American countries such as Mexico, ranked in 11th, and European countries such as Germany, ranked in 15th.

Currently, according to the Brazilian Textile and Apparel Industry Association, Brazil is the only western country that performs the entire fashion chain; that means the country affords domestically cotton plantation, production of yarn and fiber, manufacturing, retail and international fashion shows. In Brazil, the sector is the second in terms of hiring - only behind food and beverage -, with 1.479 million direct and 8 million indirect workers (75% are female labor).

Movie director Andrew Morgan launched in 2015 his documentary “The True Cost,” which covers the production and distribution chain, advertising, waste and slavery that is part of this industry. With low pay, overwhelming working hours and poor working conditions, 40 million workers around the world sacrifice their lives to keep production going.

Cotton plantations treated with pesticides impact farmers’ health and environment, but synthetic fabric - whose production is cheaper, easier and faster - brings a new problem upon disposal. “If the fabric is 100% polyester, you need to handle in one way. If it’s 100% cotton, you handle it differently. As for mixed fabric, you can’t separate the fabrics at the end of the chain,” explains Luciana, from Banco de Tecido.

Consumption increase and its consequences

With ever cheaper clothes, consumption is easier, encouraging acquisition for experience and not for need. Research from 2016 by McKinsey&Company showed that the average consumer acquired in 2014 60% more items of apparel than in 2000; however, each piece is kept for half of that time.

What’s more: by 2030, 5.4 billion people in the world will be part of the middle class, and demand for assets and services will be compatible with the lifestyle rendered by that income bracket. A publication by the Brookings Institute warns that, if we keep consumption at the current rate, we will need three times more natural resources by 2050 in comparison to those used in 2000.

Cotton is the most used natural fiber to manufacture clothes, accounting for about 33% of all fibers found in the textile industry, though, its plant harvest is demanding. 2,700 liters of water - an amount a person drinks in two and half years - for production of one single cotton shirt, according to the WWF, that promotes sustainable practices regarding the use of water resources in agriculture.

Intensive water use also occurs during clothing manufacture. A research by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reveals that the apparel industry is one of the greatest polluters on the planet. Textile fabric uses 5 trillion liters of water a year just for fabric dying, enough to fill 2 million Olympic swimming pools, according to the Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel (GLASA) report. The same industry generates one-fifth of the planet’s industrial water pollution with about 20 thousand different chemical products.

Sustainability at São Paulo Fashion Week

In an exclusive article for bluevision, Paulo Borges, founder of São Paulo Fashion Week (SPFW), one of the most important fashion weeks in the world, gave details about what has been done to make the event more sustainable. Check it out!

What can we do about it?

There are many players in the fashion industry; however, two stand out when it comes to sustainability development in the sector: those who manufacture and those who buy clothes. Both sides need to be aware that using natural resources indiscriminately causes major and negative consequences to all. And some are already taking it seriously.

H&M and Zara, for example, both being fast fashion vendors, joined other 33 fashion companies to sign the Global Fashion Agenda agreement, in which they commit to receive clothes for recycling at the stores and increase, in general, their recycling of clothes by 2020. The initiative prepares annual follow-up reports on the signatories’ performance where they list and explain good practices, as well as accounts of the initiative, which rallies some of the planet’s most important market players.

“Soon or later this is going to be law and everybody will be forced to adopt sustainable practices. But, for the time being, only some people think like this,” said Brazilian fashion consultant, entrepreneur, journalist and author Glória Kalil. “But this picks everyone’s interest, because it brings positive returns, it’s good advertising for the brands,” she reiterated. To her, it’s vital that major brands move towards sustainability, as big productions tend to cause major environmental impact and also influence the market overall behavior.

Gloria also reminds that an important share of responsibility is in the consumers’ hands that, often, do not demand this from brands. “Nobody goes into a store and says ‘I’ll just buy sustainable stuff,’” she said. According to Gloria, between a more expensive sustainable product and a cheaper non-sustainable one, consumers tend to pick the cheapest. “There isn’t a clear demand for sustainability in this sense yet.”

Thus, a cultural change, in which everyone undertakes their responsibilities when consuming fashion, is needed. The movie “The True Cost” gives 5 valuable tips on individual actions that help build this sustainability culture in fashion. Check it out.

1. Ask yourself if you will wear the desired item at least 30 times. Choose smart and purposefully.

2. Break the mini-season cycle and lower your acquisitions, guide your acquisitions per spring/summer and fall/winter cycle.

3. Look for brands committed to apparel manufacture and production processes, who comply with responsibility protocols.

4. Take out of your closet clothes with toxic fabric or dying. Favor brands taking part of programs such as Detox, by Greenpeace.

5. Demand from brands a position on responsibility and sustainability and follow the progress of campaigns  - Fashion Revolution is a reference.

Published 05 December 2018