27 November 2019

Unraveling the sustainable fashion paradox

How 'sustainable fashion' became a billion-dollar industry – and what it means for brands.


Industry of All Nations, with its flagship store in Venice, Los Angeles, manufactures all of its clothes with one unifying characteristic: everything has to be made at the source of the raw materials. ‘This way you respect the culture of the makers and let them get the full profits, all the way from their land to the finished product,’ says Juan Gerscovich, who founded the brand with his Argentinian brothers, Fernando and Patricio. 

In 2010, frustrated at not being able to buy jeans made ‘the right way in the right place’, the brothers travelled to southern India to begin the ‘Clean Clothes’ project, teaming up with local manufacturers to develop cotton basics that are completely non-toxic, loomed from organic Indian cotton and made using all-natural dyes. Among the people they work with are Mr Kumar, a master dyer in Auroville; Mr Mohan, a specialist in cutting and sewing in Tirupur; and Mr Muthu, a master of batik, a technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to cloth, in Erode.

‘Fashion has ballooned from a $500bn-a-year-industry to a $2.4tn-a-year industry in the past 30 years.’

‘We arrived into a precarious scenario where the art of natural dyeing had been almost abandoned for the past 60 years,’ Juan recalls. ‘From dyeing cotton yarn to making shawls to hand looming silk for saris, we had to pivot together with these new teams to make t-shirts and learn how to garment dye them with their natural pigment techniques, all in an environment of extreme heat, smells and visuals barely imaginable.’

The first production of jeans was a disaster. ‘Fabric would rip and we had invested so much time, energy and money into it,’ Juan continues. ‘But we knew it was our duty to wake up the world to new ways of working and living. So we picked stronger cotton, tightened up the looms and put in a bit more strength – and then magic happened!’ Or, put simply, the brand’s ‘Clean Jeans’ were born.

Today, Industry of All Nations partners with organic cotton farmers, traditional natural dyers and textile communities from all over the world, intent on placing production back in the hands of the original manufacturers. Its products, which include luxury knitwear from Bolivia, light drawstring pants from India, and simple, biodegradable Espadrilles from Argentina, are also sold in stores in New York and San Francisco, each a ‘think tank’ to educate consumers about the possibilities of making clothes in different ways. ‘Not everything should be made in one or two countries just because it’s cheaper, faster or easier,’ says Juan.

Until the late 1960s, the majority of apparel was made domestically or in small workshops across the country. As consumer culture began to swell towards the end of the post-war baby boom, brands sought to increase their output by focusing on low-quality garments produced in vast amounts at low prices. To maintain margins, they outsourced production to the developing world with cheap labour and low environmental regulations.

From 1974 through to 1994, when global trade in textiles and garments was governed by the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA), there were limits on the amount developing countries could export to the developed world. This drove up manufacturing costs in developed countries, so when its successor – the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC) – expired in January 2005, offshoring became the international industry standard and the floodgates opened.

In 1991, 56.2% of all clothes purchased in the US were made domestically, but this was down to 2.5% by 2012. Since 1980, the number of jobs in the textiles industry in the UK has decreased from one million to 100,000. In the same period, the number of textiles jobs globally has nearly doubled to 57.8 million.

Because of this, fashion has ballooned from a $500bn-a-year-industry to a $2.4tn-a-year industry in the past 30 years, and today employs one-sixth of the world’s population. At its helm sit brands like H&M, Topshop, Boohoo, Primark and Zara. Zara alone produced more than 450 million items in 2018 and reported sales of $18.8bn.

The cost of cheap clothes is much more than the price you pay at the till. Fashion accounts for nearly 20% of all industrial water pollution annually, and it releases 10% of our carbon emissions into the air. It consumes 25% of all chemicals produced worldwide. In the past two decades, the amount of clothes we throw away has doubled to 14 million tonnes each year, much of which goes to landfill, where the chemicals contaminate soil and the water table. In the US, textile waste is up 53% since 1999. The UK chucks out more than 9,000 garments every five minutes.

Calls for more conscious consumerism have done little to stunt this growth but, over the past decade, ‘sustainable fashion’ has trickled into the mainstream and become a billion-dollar industry of its own. Reports indicate that the number of sustainable apparel items rose by 508% between 2006 and 2018, up from 58,144 to around 353,817. Brands such as Stella McCartney, Gucci and Calvin Klein have long talked about sustainability, but the number of high-street retailers introducing so-called ‘conscious’ collections has soared, including H&M, which introduced its first in spring 2011, and Uniqlo, which has recycling bins at its stores for consumers’ unwanted clothes.

A slew of new environmentally-friendly brands, meanwhile, have launched with a message of sustainability at their core. Yael Aflalo’s Reformation, one of the most successful eco-friendly clothing labels with projected sales of $150m this year, claims to have been carbon neutral since 2015. Everlane, founded in 2010, sells affordable basics and prides itself on ‘radical transparency’ and ‘ethical factories’. Midlands twins Nick and Steve Tidball’s Vollebak’s range includes a combustible t-shirt made from plant fibres and ‘100-year’ trousers that aim to outlive their owner.

Founded in 2018 by Kristy Caylor, a former employee of Gap and All Saints, For Days aims to produce zero waste through a simple circular system. Customers choose a membership plan which gives them three, six or 10 new shirts for $38, $108, $210 or $340 a year, respectively. When they’re done with a shirt, for whatever reason, For Days will replace it for a $8 refresh fee and the old t-shirt, which they’ll then upcycle into a new piece. ‘We see the customer’s shift from ownership to access in other verticals, and I felt that it was time to change our relationship to the clothes we wear everyday,’ says Caylor.

From their east London headquarters, Ben Tattersall and Nia Jones run their ethically produced sneaker brand Good News. The company keenly monitors production and collaborates closely with charities and partners who share similar values. ‘For Good News, sustainability comes down to looking at every aspect of the supply chain; you really have to scrutinise everything,’ Jones says. ‘There are so many ways that you can do things more sustainably and they don’t actually cost more money.’ Good News has a fully ‘green’ biodegradable shoe coming next year, and they’re also working on offsetting their carbon footprint, which Jones believes should be ‘given for businesses.’

Ninety Percent, Veja, Everybody.World, Industry of all Nations – they all share a similar message, and the list of these kinds of brands is growing longer and longer.

‘I think it [the movement towards sustainable fashion] exists because outside the industry the dialogue has changed,’ says Kresse Wesling, co-founder of Elvis and Kresse. Shafiq Hasan, who launched Ninety Percent in response to a fashion industry controlled by multinationals, agrees. ‘Sustainability has become the centerpiece of everyone’s work because people are realising that we only have 10 years, and so it cannot be business as usual.’

There’s reason to believe that we are now in the middle of a cultural transition. H&M and Zara, two of the world’s largest fashion retailers, are among a handful of high-profile brands who have launched sustainable and ethical clothing collections. Topshop recently introduced its ‘Considered’ range, produced with lower-impact materials and innovative methods. Inditex, Zara’s parent company, pledged that all eight of its brands will only use cotton, linen and polyester that’s organic, sustainable or recycled by 2025.

‘There are a number of mid-market and high-street brands who have set targets to source 100% of their cotton through sustainable supply chains,’ says Mark Sumner, a lecturer in sustainability, fashion and retail at the University of Leeds. ‘Those commitments are out in the public domain, and if they don’t achieve their targets then their stakeholders, media and NGOs will bring them to account.’

He adds: ‘It’s easy to think of this as lip service, but if you look carefully, lots of these fashion brands are doing positive sustainability work in some very difficult economic environments. But then you look at some of the luxury brands and the profits that they’re making and it feels to me that there’s an imbalance.’

As interest grows in sustainable fashion, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these brands are cleaning up. Online searches for sustainable fashion terms have increased by around 66% over the past year; and a global survey conducted in 2017 indicated that 81% of people feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment, with millennials, Gen Z and Gen X identified as the most supportive. In line with this, the resale market has grown 21 times faster than the retail fashion market over the past three years and is projected to be bigger than fast-fashion by 2028.

‘Generation Z is switched on, and the companies who choose to ignore thinking about climate change aren’t going to exist much longer,’ says Hasan of Ninety Percent.

‘I know there are a lot of people saying it’s a trend, but the industry cannot keep on going the way that it has been. If people don’t adapt then their brand won’t survive and neither will the industry,’ says Jones of Good News.

Still, the culture of fast-fashion persists. ‘The fashion industry is good at celebrating tiny little incremental changes,’ says Wesling of Elvis and Kresse. ‘But if you’re making a tiny change and, at the same time, you’re increasing the number of seasons you release a year, then any gain you make is irrelevant.’

Caylor of For Days is more optimistic: ‘The industry is finally open to innovation, but it’s hard to shift such a big machine. Profitability has been predicated on selling us all more and more products, and the industry didn’t have to concern itself with  what happened after the product was sold. But that’s changing as customer behaviour shifts. Furthermore, material innovation and recycling innovation are both moving in the right direction, but could definitely move more quickly.’

While parts of the industry work on reducing the environmental footprint of their products, the real power to induce change lies with the consumer to think more about what and how much they are buying. Since 2005, Elvis and Kresse has been rescuing raw materials, transforming them into luxury lifestyle accessories and donating 50% of profits back to charities. As with all the environmentally-friendly brands popping up, the price-points are much higher than the average high-street retailer.

Not everyone can afford the higher prices. To combat this, Wesling believes that legislation is required to increase the costs of those whose working practices negatively impact the environment. Her suggestion is a carbon tax, or fees for water usage or the dumping of chemicals.

‘There is a misconception that food and fashion should be cheap, but they should both be expensive because an enormous amount of labour and resources are involved,’ Wesling says. ‘The planet is our home and many brands have been able to get away with artificially low pricing because they’ve not been paying rent or maintenance fees.’

It feels natural to be afraid of legislation, but Wesling feels differently. ‘Some of the best innovation comes out of total necessity and legislation can create that necessity,’ she says. ‘In the building trade, for example, if you said to all the architects in the UK that within five years no building could be built that had a gas boiler, not all of those houses would be expensive; they would get very good very quickly at designing in a different way.’

There is also confusion as to what ‘sustainable’ even means. There is no general standard regarding the responsibility of corporations or consumers, and an inherent lack of education as to good sustainable and environmental practice at the grassroots level creates a confusing space for even the most progressive and well-intentioned.

‘There are a lot of brands who are aware of sustainability as a philosophy, but actually they don’t understand the supply chain and the impacts of their decisions.’

Sustainable is an easy word to say but a challenging one to define, and brands interpret it in various different ways. The consensus seems to be that, in its purest sense, it means working without any cost to the environment. But some fashion brands tend to focus on specific hotspots in the supply chain – which is complex because so many other industry sectors are involved, such as agriculture for cotton and oil for byproducts such as nylon. ‘What we are talking about is a globalised, fragmented and in some ways opaque industry. As a result, the sustainability challenges are multidimensional,’ says Sumner. As a result of this, many brands claiming to be sustainable are actually causing great harm to the environment, often because their efforts don’t extend beyond one area of their business.

‘What we do see is a lot of green claims that are probably not compliant with advertising guidelines because it has not been substantiated and not focused enough,’ Sumner adds. ‘It’s easy to think that brands, especially the younger ones, are paying lip service but it’s often because they don’t fully understand. There’s a lot of people who are aware of sustainability as a philosophy, but actually they don’t understand the supply chain and the impacts of their decisions.’

This ambiguity also opens the door for brands to claim to be sustainable for marketing purposes. It’s ironic, in a sense, because they claim to be protecting the environment in order to sell more clothes, which is actually harmful to the environment. This difficulty in identifying those jumping on the bandwagon breeds a skepticism among those who are driving change, and frustration as brands continue to exploit a growing interest in environmental protection for personal gain.

‘Many of these companies are claiming to be sustainable or ethical because it’s a trend, and they’re keeping their sustainable and ethical practice to a minimum so they can claim that. People then start buying and they have no reason to change,’ says Gerscovich. ‘Often these companies have many investors so they have more money for press, and they can send one message when their sustainability standards are completely off… There needs to be a certification for sustainable companies, and these certifications needs to be regulated.’

We find ourselves in this precarious position because of greed – on the side of the brands selling these clothes and the consumer for consuming them in unprecedented quantities. In the absence of industry-wide standards and legislation, it’s up to the media to educate the public about these damaging and often deceptive working practices in the hope that it’ll sway wider demand. After all, brands will listen when they need to.

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