Image courtesy of Harrods

is fashion really the world's second worst polluter?

While the popular myth about fashion pollution was recently debunked, the moral obligations for the industry to be accountable for its output has never been more important.

by Osman Ahmed
08 July 2019, 7:00am

Image courtesy of Harrods

This story originally appeared in i-D's The Voice of a Generation Issue, no. 356, Summer 2019. Order your copy here.

It is a universally acknowledged truth that fashion is the second biggest polluting industry in the world. It is a statistic that has been the centre of various campaigns, countless articles and even a game-changing documentary (Andrew Morgan’s The True Cost). It’s used when lobbying against fast fashion companies, it’s been the impetus for luxury brands to reconsider destroying deadstock and it’s brought about bleak enlightenment for a generation of fashion folk in the nascent stages of their careers, motivating them to completely rethink how they make and how we consume. There’s just one catch… It’s not true. What is widely considered as gospel has been debunked by the New York Times and several environmental experts. No one seems to know where this headline-worthy tidbit initially appeared. So long has it been recycled by respectable sources, that it is now a universally acknowledged truth.

Does this matter? Fashion is no saint, so surely it makes no difference? It may simply help to raise awareness of the colossal size of fashion’s waste and pollution problem. Wrong. As brands are quick to embrace sustainability as a PR buzzword, it may seem as though environmentally-mindful methods of production are de rigueur, that sustainability is this season’s must have accessory. Yet according to the Global Fashion Agenda, around half the industry haven’t taken any action on sustainability at all, and the term is simply self-serving marketing jargon. Data may not be very exciting, but it is crucial to understanding the problem. After all, if we are unable to accurately identify what is wrong how can we even identify what needs to change?

What we do know for certain is that, according to McKinsey, almost three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation found out than less than one percent of materials used to create clothing are recycled. The fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are more than all international shipping and flights combined, and every second the equivalent of one rubbish truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. It has also been confirmed that washing clothes releases half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, the equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles — and currently, around 20 to 25 five percent of globally produced chemical compounds are used for textile-finishing.

In recent years it may seem as though fashion has put ‘sustainability’ at its core, but consumer demand for fashion is skyrocketing, and despite the vocal concerns of so many, supersonic-speed fast fashion retailers are more popular than ever before. For so many fashion designers, the issue remains unclear, vague and confusing. For the rest of us who want to buy clothes, even more so. The problem is; where to start?

“You might have noticed, the term ‘sustainability’ is this season’s must have accessory. Yet according to the Global Fashion Agenda, around half the fashion industry haven’t taken any action on sustainability at all. Instead, the term can often be reduced to self-serving marketing jargon, benefitting sales and clocking up press coverage."

“The word ‘sustainability’ is now associated with something unobtainable,” says Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit fashion activism group. “But if you take creativity, add efficiency and a large dose of common sense, you’re on your way to becoming sustainable.” Usually it is smaller labels and independent designers who are able to effectively create in the most conscious way. “There is no legislation that defines sustainability, and very little in place to protect the people who make our clothes,” points out womenswear designer Richard Malone. The key is to be considered and clued-up. “Don’t worry about being perfect, just start,” agrees Claire Bergkamp, Head of Sustainability and Innovation at Stella McCartney. “It is so much easier if you build in sustainability from the beginning.”

Sustainability also presents a paradox. Fashion is about creating new things, so it is impossible to be completely eco-neutral. Don’t let that put you off. As Bethany Williams, whose label is devoted to supporting social charities and ethical production, says: “You have to be a part of the problem to become the solution.” Through using your practice, and your platform, to propose ideas that are both desirable and mindful, you will be offering customers an option that is equally, if not more compelling.

An estimated $500 billion is lost every year due to clothing that is barely worn and rarely recycled. And so it’s vital that more of our designers start working with recycled materials and deadstock fabrics, thankfully a number of them already are. Richard Malone works with nylon recycled from ocean plastics; Bethany Williams sources her recycled denim from a waste depository in Kent and turns waste paper into woven textiles; Dutch designer Duran Lantink splices second-hand designer clothes into mash-up hybrids; Phoebe English sources all of her organic recycled materials from Britain to reduce her carbon footprint; while Stella McCartney recycled deadstock from previous collections into an entirely new one at Paris Fashion Week this season.

“Focus on your fabrics, use organic cotton, use recycled polyester and nylon, chose a viscose supplier that can guarantee they are not cutting down ancient and endangered forests for their fibre, use hemp and linen and don’t use leather,” Bergkamp says, who points out that animal agriculture and leather production are leading contributors to climate change, contributing approximately 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

One of fashion’s biggest issues is an arcane supply chain that is difficult to trace. New platforms such as the Open Apparel Registry map out garment factories across the globe to encourage consumer transparency of where, how and by whom clothes are made. For designers, it comes down to working with independent suppliers who are able to control and limit their environmental impact. Richard Malone, for instance, uses plant-based dyes for his fabrics, many of which are recycled and made by a community of women who dye all the yarn, spin and hand-weave the fabric in Tamil Nadu.

“Three years ago I set out to trace our supply chains back to the fields, from the Alpaca farms in the Peruvian mountains, to the wool farms of Uruguay and the cotton fields of Turkey,” says Mother of Pearl’s Amy Powney. “I was on a mission to find out if I could create a fully sustainable line and know where each garment came from, where it’s been, what materials are in it and how the people who have worked on it have been treated. The brilliant thing is that it has worked out cheaper to work this way, through localising our production processes and trying to use vertical supply chains where possible.”

For those of us who don’t make clothes, it can be as simple as rethinking what we can do ourselves. “Repairing, customising, swapping, donating or resale,” offers Francois Souchet, head of the Make Fashion Circular campaign, as easy ways to reduce waste while updating your wardrobe. “If clothing has been made from safe and renewable materials, and designed to be recycled, it can feed back into the system and be used to make new clothing.

In 2019 more information on where your clothes come from is only ever a click away. “The trick is to have the patience to read, and read between the lines, and question everything, and then reach inside your gut instincts to discern what feels relevant,” Orsola de Castro says. “Even if it’s just one thing, it makes a difference.” Ongoing developments in plant-based materials offer advanced alternatives to animal products. Bolt Threads is a company making silk from protein, created using fermentation, and leather made from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. Elsewhere, EcoNyl is high-quality nylon made from plastics found in the ocean. “Constant research and always learning is what’s really going to help drive change,” agrees Richard Malone. “Most importantly, make sure to share your knowledge and findings. My hope is that all organisations, from small independent brands to luxury conglomerates like LVMH and Kering, will adopt sustainable practices very quickly by using each other’s developments in materials and production.

“The type of fashion I want to make does not lend itself to a traditional wholesale model that is all about big sales margins and hype product,” Richard Malone explains. For many the key to sustainable practise is redefining the infrastructure of a fashion label. It starts with putting a limit on how much can be produced, and building meaningful relationships with retailers and individual clients. It may come down to working outside of the conventional fashion calendar, or simply partnering with recycled textile suppliers and designing smaller collections around those materials that are available. It could come down to asking your customers to wait longer for clothes they order, only making what needs to be produced. Perhaps it could be asking businesses to give you their leftovers, or turning unexpected materials into beautiful clothes.

What is really important is that it’s not just about how a garment is made, but the future life cycle of it once it goes into the customer’s hands. “When you come to design a product think about how it is going to be used,” says Francois Souchet. “That includes how long will it be used for and by how many people, and what happens to the product after a customer finishes wearing it? Can it be repaired easily, can the fabric be reused and is it easy to recycle?”

“The final question is what system do you need to make these things happen? Think about the materials, but also what is the best business model to make sure the clothing can be used more. Is it rental? Is it something you could take back at the end of its life? Are there partnerships and collaborations that can help you?”

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

the voice of a generation issue