The Challenges facing Sustainable Clothing
Every minute, in Ireland alone, a half a tonne of clothing is dumped in a landfill. In terms of carbon emissions, that is the equivalent of driving 65,000 kilometres in a car, every minute.
Grim facts such as these, as provided here by Oxfam, are quickly forgotten and easily ignored, but whether they resonate with you or not, the reality remains, according to the UN Alliance for sustainable fashion the fashion industry is now second only to big oil as the largest polluter in the world.
At Human Collective we are convinced that our commitment to using only sustainably sourced materials and conscientious suppliers is the key to reducing the overall impact on our planet, but how did we get here, and what can we do about it?
In her book ‘Fashionopolis’ author Dana Thomas alludes to the typical American consumer buying 12 items of clothing a year in 1980, compared with 68 items of clothing a year in 2020. The catalyst for this increase coincides with the advent of ‘Fast Fashion’, which refers to those retailers who are able to replicate the style of the latest runway trends quickly and cheaply, in a see now, buy now, retail environment.
Fast fashion first came to prominence in the 1990’s through the convergence of quick response manufacturing and the development of cheaper manufacturing materials such as polyester and nylon. With these raw materials on hand, fast fashion uses dynamic assortment to introduce new lines almost weekly, continuing the line only if it sells well, in a streamlined distribution model that can take as little as 15 days from conception to clothes rack.
The traditional approach, as outlined in the documentary The True Cost, would introduce a large amount of clothes in just a few seasonal releases, spending months designing lines, buying and treating fabrics, manufacturing in bulk and distributing in a process that took anywhere up to 2 years.
Inditex, the parent company of Zara, is the biggest retail and fast fashion clothing company in the world, with over 7,000 stores in 93 countries. The New York Times maintains that Inditex pioneered and perfected the fast fashion business model, and their success meant that many others would soon follow suit, like H&M, Shein and Primark. Furthermore, the continued growth of fast fashion has led to the stagnation of many legacy brands like Gap, Levi’s and PVH (Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein), who in turn have accelerated their own supply chains in order to compete.
The net result is that the majority of our clothes are now manufactured quickly, sold cheaply and disposed of indiscriminately.
Clothes in landfill - Courtesy of Ikhlasul Amal
The Price We Pay
The environmental and societal consequences associated with these business practices are immense. Manufacturing processes rely on the widespread use of chemicals, excessive water consumption and the dumping of textile waste that can sometimes enter fresh water supplies.
The World Bank estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all wastewater and uses 93 billion cubic meters of water every year, enough to cater for the entire island of Ireland.
Chemical Wastewater - Courtesy of Sabinanepal
To expedite production, fast fashion keeps its costs down by using the cheap labour predominantly found in South East Asia, where they wield huge bargaining power amongst competing factories. These workers endure poor working conditions and very low wages. The tragic 2013 Dhaka factory collapse in Bangladesh resulting in the death of over 1,100 people, shone a light on these reprehensible working environments, provoking calls for reform.
Sustaining the unsustainable is clearly not an option, but the challenge as opined by Terry Nguyen of Vox, is exacerbated by younger cohorts like generation Z growing up without ever knowing a world without fast fashion. A radical evolution in the values of consumer capitalism will be critical to redressing the balance.
Wear What You Believe
'Slow fashion' is the term given to the revolution transforming the way we produce, value and dispose of our clothing. This movement revolves around adopting sound behavioural principles such as using sustainable materials only, supporting ethical labour practices, paying attention to the provenance of your clothing, and choosing brands that ensure their production suppliers use responsible manufacturing policies.
Conor Buckley, founder of Human Collective, wanted to initiate an approach of ‘clothes with a conscience’ by not only using recycled polyester and organic cotton in production, but also only using factories audited by the Fair Wear foundation, an international NGO dedicated to improving working conditions in the textile industry.
Under Fair Wear’s scrutiny each factory must adhere to quality planning and social compliance, with the aim of supporting workers and realising their rights to safe, dignified employment where they are remunerated appropriately.
“When you buy a €10 jumper, somebody, somewhere has to pay for it. When you buy your jumpers from Human Collective we guarantee the use of organic cotton and recycled polyester, and our Fair Wear certification means that we are aligned with protecting the rights and conditions of all the workers used in our garment production.”
- Conor Buckley, Founder, Human Collective