Sustainability in fashion, Part 1: A necessity, not a choice

Sustainability in fashion, Part 1: A necessity, not a choice


Text: Tracy Phillips

Image: Getty

Over the next few weeks, Buro 24/7 Singapore will bring you a series of stories on sustainability in fashion and how working towards small changes can have a big impact

Fashion has never been more popular, more democratised or as widely consumed as it is today but when was the last time you asked yourself about the origins of the clothes that you wear?

Would you question things more if you knew that fashion was the second highest polluter in the world, right behind oil? That one in six people who work in the global fashion and textile industy — the majority women who earn less than $3 a day? Or that more than half of all clothes produced end up in a landfill, of which most are made of synthetic, petroleum-based fibers that will take decades to decompose?

Would you make different choices if you knew all the facts? We think and hope you will. Over the next few weeks, Buro will be sharing more ways than one to making better sartorial choices that advocate sustainability. 

1. What exactly is sustainable fashion?
At its most basic, it is creating a system that can be supported indefinitely whether on human impact on the environment or social responsibility. When defined in this way and considering future generations, it's clear that it is not a choice but a necessity.

Clothing production is up more than 400% from just two decades ago and a staggering eight billion pieces of clothing are purchased globally a year, and in large part due to the emergence of fast fashion. Simple math shows that this is neither sustainable nor ecologically sound based on the planet's finite resources and how the majority of garments are currently made.

We need to take into account all the stages of a product's life cycle to fully consider the sustainability of every purchase. It begins with the source material and how it is made and processed, to the working conditions of the people producing them and the product's final carbon footprint which includes shipping, storage, after purchase care and its eventual disposal.

Sustainability in fashion, Part 1: A necessity, not a choice (фото 1)

2. Source material
How was the raw fiber turned into a textile? Did it come from sustainably grown fiber crops or recycled materials? How much water and chemicals were used in the process? It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton that equates to one T-shirt and a pair of jeans; and over 8,000 different chemicals to turn raw materials into clothes.

Both natural fibers and petroleum-based fabrics like nylon, polyester and spandex have their pros and cons. While natural fibers break down more easily in a landfill, they still utilise a lot of pesticides and chemicals to grow. 25 percent of all pesticides applied in the United States are used to specifically grow cotton. With these staggering figures, choosing organic fiber sources is one of the many small steps to seeing a global shift towards toxic free apparel. 

When buying petroleum-based fabrics, the best thing we can do is ensure we intend to get as much wear out of the garment as possible. For this reason, creative director of Eco-Age and eco warrior, Livia Firth, has started the hashtag #30wears to encourage people to only buy things they intend to wear at least 30 times.

Livia Firth speaks onstage during the Fashion 4 Development's 5th annual Official First Ladies luncheon

3. Manufacturing and distribution
The next step in production is turning raw materials into garments. This happens in factories throughout the developing world, particularly in China, Bangladesh and Vietnam where workers cut, dye, print and finish the clothes before they're shipped to stores. Many of these steps use harsh chemicals that are harmful to the workers' health and often these same chemicals are being dumped back into waterways after use — causing long-lasting ecological issues.

Conditions for workers in the factories and throughout the entire supply chain are major concerns too. Have you asked yourself how your T-shirt can cost only $5 when there are so many steps involved in its production?

The documentary, The True Cost is a good eye opener of the impact fashion is having on the world and how we need to shop responsibly. The joy of getting a great deal on a pair of jeans quickly dissipates when we reconcile that it's only thanks to poverty wages and unethical practices. 

Sustainability in fashion, Part 1: A necessity, not a choice (фото 2)

4. Recycling and disposal
The carbon footprint of what we wear continues after we buy a product, in its care, maintenance and where it finally lays to rest. You might think that if you donate your clothes then it doesn't matter how much wear they're given but the reality is that only 10% of the clothes people donate to charity actually gets sold. The rest still ends up in incinerators, landfills or in developing countries like Haiti where they have all but killed the local craft industry.

We have to stop looking at clothes as easy disposal items for real change to happen. Even if businesses start minimising waste, shifting to using renewable energy for production and using recycled or environmentally friendly fabrics it does not solve the issue if consumers still have the habit of "buying and dumping". 

5. Too many seasons
There was a time when there were just two fashion seasons — spring/summer and fall/winter. The industry has since gone into overdrive, many now producing six collections a year and 52 micro seasons in fast fashion with weekly store drops. The frenzied pace has taken a toll on designers' too, causing notable high profile departures like Raf Simon's from Dior last year. Further signs we could be reaching a tipping point? The Council of Fashion Designers of America's decision to re-evaluate the existing structure of New York Fashion Week.

The sustainability of fashion as we know it has to move from impulse to considered, disposable to treasured. The interest in the provenance of the food we consume has grown considerably and should now extend to our wardrobes too and what we wear daily. There is no better time than now to start creating the world we want to live in, one outfit at a time.