Mind Your Manners: How Throw-Away Culture is Destroying Our Planet
As London Fashion Week draws to a close, the industry’s editors, designers, representatives, and influencers are flocking to Milan for week three of fashion month. Stunning looks abound—romantic velvet burnout gowns at Erdem, gothic trompe l’oeil prints at Mary Kantrantzou, and Christopher Bailey’s rainbow-infused farewell collection for Burberry were just a few moments in what is shaping up to be a beautiful AW18 season.
But unlike other years, I’m finding it harder to get caught up in the fantasy of it all. As much as I love fashion, I’m preoccupied with the toll that these man-made wonders takes on the environment and the garment workers who support the industry’s rapid cycle. In September we will see the same parade of designers present new looks for SS19, and between now and then there will be countless global fashion weeks and smaller collections to see and buy. No doubt, these special moments on the runway will generate a deluge of trends, which will fill fast-fashion stores within weeks—months before much of designer items themselves are available for sale. But trendy clothes, as it goes, are the epitome of that famous fashion adage, “in one day, out the next.” As new garments become available, consumers throw out last season’s looks, and the cycle of environmental harm continues.
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The rate and process by which clothing is produced, sold, and thrown away is on the verge of creating an environmental crisis. A recent report from the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme puts the average lifespan of a piece of clothing at about one to three years before being discarded. A 2016 study revealed that Americans throw away 13 million tons of textiles per year alone, which accounts for 85 percent of clothes and 9 percent of total unrecycled waste. Whether garments go directly into a landfill, as it is in these cases, or are processed by a problematic recycling program, the crisis is only getting worse as the population increases and demand soars. Worse still is that our knowledge of the waste is incomplete, as much of it is hidden along supply chains.
While textile waste is a worldwide issue, cities like Dhaka in Bangladesh see the worst of it. Factories in Dhaka produce clothing for many high street brands like H&M, Zara, Gap, and even Walmart. In turn, these areas have the worst air pollution in the world and are surrounded by water that can’t possibly sustain life.
Unfortunately, the situation inside these factories isn’t much better—working conditions for many are unthinkable. In 2013 1,134 garment workers were killed in a Savar factory collapse in Dhaka that occured due to the limited regulations brand negligence. There is a widely documented issue with child labor, and the low-skilled, low-paying jobs trap families in a cycle of poverty. Meanwhile, excess product accumulates in the streets, clogs waterways, and burns along the side of the road.
While it’s easy to point fingers at corporations that turn a blind eye to the problems in their supply chain, the problem is bigger than them. At the heart of the waste-issue is a global throw-away culture—entire populations obsessed with newness and constant reinvention—all at a seemingly accessible price. Knowing this makes it hard to buy into the endless cycle of fashion trends. Is it possible to reconcile a love for beautiful clothing with the fact that fashion is now the fifth-most polluting industry in the world? How can we get excited about a new tee shirt, knowing that it represents 2,700 gallons of water, or that it passed through the hands of countless workers in a cramped and overheated factory? How can an informed individual enjoy fashion while knowing that everything new comes at the price of our world’s health and longevity?
The good news is that there are many brands and designers who are conscious of the industry’s predicament and are reshaping our broken system. Stella McCartney is the luxury Kering group’s top performing brand from a sustainability perspective, a feat for a brand that never uses fur or leather. The brand is pushing towards what their mission statement refers to as a “circular economy,” composed of three basic principles: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. “The systems we rely on to make, sell and dispose of clothing are broken,” says the brand’s mission statement. “Operated in an almost completely linear way, large amounts of non-renewable resources are continually extracted to produce the products we love, which largely end up going to landfill or incineration. We need to change the system by making fashion circular and eliminating the concept of waste.”
The Stella McCartney AW17 campaign, shot by Harley Weir in collaboration with Urs Fischer was a poignant visual representation of these values. In a Scottish landfill, models draped themselves over rusted cars and laid among piles of garbage. The juxtaposition of McCartney’s clean lines and oversized silhouettes against the backdrop of rubble sends a strong message about the cycle of fashion, and the eventual fate of all things new. “The idea we had with this campaign is to portray who we want to be and how we carry ourselves; our attitude and collective path,” said the designer in a press release. “Our man-made constructed environments are disconnected and unaware of other life and the planet, which is why there is waste.” While the campaign has a strong moral tone, the concept is more optimistic than it first appears. After all, as McCartney says, it’s about who we want to be, not just the problems we as an industry currently face. The models are smiling, perhaps hopeful that more brands and individuals will take it upon themselves to do the hard work required to transform fashion’s linear system into a sustainable circle.
Off the runway, Patagonia’s environmental policies are the gold standard for the textile industry. Similarly to McCartney, Patagonia has a multi-pronged strategy: source and create high-quality materials, recycle through their Worn Wear program, reduce waste and carbon emissions, and protect the environment by providing grants to small organizations. Because Patagonia has such high-quality product, it lasts longer and easier to repair. Once an article of clothing has reached its expiration date, the material is broken down and recycled into a new product—the closest any brand in the industry has come to closed-loop technology. Patagonia also pledges 10 percent of pre-tax profits to environmental groups and innovators who are at the grassroots level and may be overlooked by government or corporate donors.
The company made headlines when the CEO, Rose Marcario, responded to President Trump’s decision to rescind 85% of Bears Ears National Monument and nearly half of Grand Staircase-Escalante National with a lawsuit. “By eliminating so much of Bears Ears National Monument, the President is putting over a million acres of land at risk for permanent destruction, and we aren’t going to just stand by,” Marcario said in her December 2017 statement for Time Magazine. “Protecting public lands is a core tenet of our mission and vitally important to our industry, and we feel we need to do everything in our power to protect this special place.”
On a smaller but no less ambitious scale, Kym Canter of New York City’s House of Fluff is changing the perception of faux fur. When the former Creative Director of J. Mendel felt increasingly alienated from her fur coats, she decided to start a cruelty-free line of faux fur that felt just as luxurious as the real thing. To fund the business, she sold 26 of her furs and then set about recreating them using regenerated yarns, local NYC factories, and environmentally friendly dyes. The result has been widely successful in the mere months since it launched. Each House of Fluff piece is designed, produced, and sold within a two-mile radius. The brand partners factories that provide a living wage and safe working conditions and takes steps to reduce waste, making fuzzy creatures called “scrappies” from bits of unused material. “Millenials and the next generation don’t see fur as a status symbol anymore,” she says. “It’s no longer something people should aspire to own or work towards.”
It’s true that the meaning of luxury for younger generations is tied to social responsibility, individuality, and innovation. Everlane, one of the most successful direct-to-consumer brands among millenials, is a trailblazer in its approach to transparency. The company is invested in the safety of its factories, and works to build personal relationships with the owners. “Each factory is given a compliance audit to evaluate factors like fair wages, reasonable hours, and environment,” says their mission statement. “Our goal? A score of 90 or above for every factory.” Everlane also states the true cost of each garment sold, revealing the price of materials, labor, and transportation involved in production. Their efforts toward ethical practice are inspiring in an industry that is deliberately opaque about the origins of clothing. It gives consumers some peace of mind to know where their clothing comes from, and where their money is going.
Independent designers have some of the most exciting sustainable practices in the industry because their operations are smaller and they can take more time to produce high-quality products. Alexa Stark, a designer based in Portland, Oregon is dedicated to maintaining a sustainable business model from fabric sourcing to minimal waste production. “There are many challenges because good things take time,” she explains. “Small batch fabrics and production tend to be more expensive because they’re not part of the mass production rush that factories have mastered so well.” Stark’s label is designed in-house and produced by the Portland Garment Factory. The leftover fabric is repurposed in “One-Off” designs or donated to other designers and students. Stark believes that working with high-quality salvaged materials is the future of producing new designs. “Consumers have grown accustomed to fast fashion, trends that move too quickly, and cheap items that fuel a throw-away lifestyle,” she says. “My biggest challenge is keeping up but also educating others on the importance of slowing down.”
Corporations and designers should be held accountable for their practices, but consumers are just as responsible for future of fashion. There are numerous ways to make a difference, and even a small change in the way we shop, care for our clothing, and dispose of it can have a positive impact.
Firstly, become an informed shopper. Take time to research brands and where their clothing is manufactured. Create standards for garments you wear, and dress yourself in a way that reflects your values. Rather than participating in every trend, create a capsule wardrobe that expresses your unique style. Buy used clothing when possible, but if you must buy something new, invest in classic pieces that are made from ethically-sourced, high quality materials. These will last much longer with your care, and outlive passing trends. Finally, choose to support designers that care about their workers and the environment.
A consumer’s responsibility continues long after the store checkout has been reached. By taking good care of clothing, it will have a long life in your wardrobe. While high-quality clothing from eco-friendly brands may come at a higher price, sustainable choices are not just for the wealthy. As Celine Semaan Vernon, CEO of Slow Factory points out, Western culture tends to miss the point of sustainable solutions due to the capitalist imperative to buy new things. “The environmental slogan of the ’80s — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — has mostly ignored the first two more important R’s and focused on recycling because it encourages consumption and continues to nourish and expand the disposable culture that drives the environmental destruction it is supposed to mitigate,” she explains in a recent article for The Cut. “Cultures in the Middle East, North Africa, Africa, and Asia have practiced sustainability since long before it became a status symbol... We need to create a culture of pride around caring for your things.” Read care instruction labels, avoid overwashing, and hang dry clothing whenever possible to prevent the material from breaking down. Learn basic skills, such as how to mend a ripped shirt or sew on a button. According to WRAP, Simply extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months can reduce its environmental impact by 20-30%.
Whether your garment’s lifetime is up, or it no longer suits you, look for alternatives to recycling before dumping your clothes in a bin. Swap clothes with a friend, or sell them on Heroine to reduce the likelihood that they’ll end up in a landfill. According to WRAP, providing one ton of clothing for direct re-use by selling online can result in a net greenhouse gas saving of 11 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. If that’s not possible, donate clothes to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, but stay informed about what happens to the clothes that they can’t sell. Over 80,000 pounds of unsold clothing from charity shops and recycling programs in the New York City area ends up at Trans-Americas Trading Co every day. Once clothing reaches this point, 40 percent of garments are balled and shipped around the globe to be resold as is. Another 30% of recycled clothing will be cut into wiping rags and donated to industrial companies, while the rest is shipped to processors who chop it into “shoddy,” which makes up building insulation and carpet padding. The toxic elements in processed fibers never go away, no matter how small you chop them or where they end up. They continue to proliferate in the air, soil, and water, long after your donated clothes are well out of sight and mind.
As an industry, we are still a long way from using closed-loop technology that would strip textiles down to their essential fibers and repurpose them into a completely new garment. The process is expensive, requires high-quality thread, and treated materials are essentially unusable—once cotton, silk, linen, and wool are dyed and finished, the process no longer works. There are other obstacles to seamless recycling, such as zippers, snaps, and buttons that can render a piece of otherwise good clothing completely useless. Although brands like H&M tout so-called recycling programs in an attempt to soothe consumers, according to their development sustainability manager Henrick Lampa, only 0.1% of salvaged clothing actually gets made into something new.
Until the industry develops the technology to close the textile loop, the best options we have are to consume less, buy responsibly, and care for what we already have. While no brand, designer, or individual is perfect, we can all do more to prevent fashion’s environmental crisis from getting worse. Clothing is an important part of our lives and identities, and fashion will continue to be a universal means of self-expression. If we as creators and consumers embrace our responsibility for our planet and each other, fashion will also be a global force for good.