Fashion: The long-lived $368 billion industry that caters to every economic tier and demographic. While trends come and go, the overall impact is ever present from monthly outfit fads to curated home design to stylish COVID-19 masks. Constantly evolving and growing with the target consumer, fashion is an industry that relies on excessive natural and production resources to maintain market dominance. Modern consumers are growing more conscious of the wasteful and negative impact the industry has on the environment — all to produce the latest “must-have item” — and are forcing fashion houses around the world to stop and take stock not only of their warehouses, but their public image and reputation.
As recently as January 2021, Vogue magazine published an article titled “Redefining sustainability for 2021: The New Priorities.” Spotlighting Adiff, a label created specifically with the goal of making clothes out of material previously considered waste and which employs refugees from Greece to help ease the burden of the resettlement process, Vogue is promoting the concept of understanding what sustainability in fashion means and how it will reshape the industry in the 21st century.
As American brands and designers are becoming more socially and environmentally conscious, new metrics for success are emerging as industry benchmarks: Fair labor laws, awareness of environmental impact leading to change and innovation during sourcing and development, and the desire to remove unnecessary waste from a company’s production and operations. As Vogue opines, it’s important to understand precisely what these metrics mean and why these companies are suddenly publicizing their efforts for sustainable production. Before purchasing that next blouse or pair of high-waisted jeans, it is imperative for an environmentally conscious public to appreciate precisely how “sustainable” their favorite brands are and what that means for the bigger picture.
FAIR LABOR LAWS
In any industry, fair labor laws include everything from ensuring safe working conditions to guaranteeing fair pay, and even the democratization of labor leaders (allowing laborers to choose their representation). In places without labor regulation, workers around the world are overworked and poorly compensated.
Before purchasing that next blouse or pair of high-waisted jeans, it is imperative for an environmentally conscious public to appreciate precisely how “sustainable” their favorite brands are and what that means for the bigger picture.
To combat this phenomena, US-based companies Patagonia and Walmart founded the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), an organization that believes in a fashion industry “that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities.” SAC brings together leading companies in the fashion and textile industries to share key metrics and ideas about how to increase sustainability within the value chain. It has developed many worthwhile initiatives, such as the Higg Facility Social & Labor Module, which assesses a company’s wages and benefits, health and safety protocols, community engagement, and working hour limits. Unfortunately, this assessment is optional and only utilized by companies willing to allow their labor practices and systems to be scrutinized by a third-party auditor. In an attempt to remain transparent, Patagonia provides the public access to their Supplier Workplace Code of Conduct, as well as their Social and Environmental Compliance Benchmarks for Suppliers. However, Patagonia’s practices and transparency are not required by law, nor are they the norm.
ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE AND INNOVATION
The fashion industry accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, using an exorbitant amount of natural resources, energy, and water to create what seems like an infinite amount of clothing. Levi Strauss & Co., in a bid to provide transparency for their customers, provides a graph that shows the carbon footprints (estimated greenhouse gas emissions tied to all stages of production) of their products and then uses those numbers as benchmarks for improvement. Examining greenhouse gas emissions released along the entirety of their supply chain (beginning with cotton cultivation and ending with consumer disposal), Levi cites fabric production as the carbon-costliest, with 31% of emissions released during that stage of the production cycle alone. Meanwhile, Patagonia states that their supply chain makes up 95% of their carbon emissions, and 86% of those emissions come from the raw materials needed for production.
Not all companies, however, are created equal. L.L.Bean, a self-styled environmentally-friendly American outdoors company widely recognized for their famous duck boot, doesn’t have a publicly accessible sustainability report. Instead, L.L. Bean dedicates three pages on its website to highlight the company’s commitment to sustainability and its membership in multiple sustainability-focused fashion initiatives. In regards to emissions, L.L.Bean claims to have reduced its facility-related emissions by 30% ahead of its commitment to reducing to 50% by 2025, but the company provides no data or explanation as to how this was achieved. L.L.Bean makes the overtures of a sustainability focused company while purposefully hiding the information that would back their claims. Though there is clearly room for improvement in terms of transparency and accountability, L.L.Bean readily discloses its factory list, allowing the consumer to know precisely who makes their clothes and where they are assembled.
REMOVING UNNECESSARY WASTE
Eliminating waste from any part of the supply chain is a crucial metric across any industry. But the rise of fast fashion and the continuous movement in trends and seasons solidifies the fashion industries as a top offender when it comes to waste production.
Gap, a widely known American fast-fashion brand, unfortunately strays from its wholesome image regarding the waste it produces. A study from 2019 estimates that Old Navy, a Gap brand, tosses 14,000,000,000 pounds of plastic hangers into landfills every year. This number solely represents plastic hangers from a single subsidiary. It’s difficult to know how much total waste is discarded each year in the production process of all of Gap’s subsidiaries.
On the other side of the spectrum, Patagonia has multiple initiatives to cut down on waste and increase reliability in their clothing. By creating pieces that are durable and have a lifespan of more than two years, customers who buy the Patagonia brand reduce the amount of clothing they consume. When something needs repair, Patagonia offers DIY guidance on its website to save the customer money and prolong the life of the apparel. If the fix is too advanced for the customer, they can send it in to Patagonia, have the store fix the item, and receive the repaired product a few days later. Patagonia’s sustainability in this regard is twofold — this repair service helps reduce waste and prolongs the longevity of a piece by preventing fixable clothing from being unnecessarily thrown away into landfills.
These clever and affordable hacks offered to customers, however, are not the norm within the apparel industry. In general, companies will provide basic guides saying they care about fair wages and labor and that they have the infrastructure in place to ensure they are enforced, but there is little to support these claims. The fashion industry also has little to no regulation on metrics reporting and sustainability, meaning each company acts of its own volition and based on its own values. Unfortunately, this lack of sustainable initiative is unregulated and completely legal. Luxury brands can forgo transparency on labor welfare and environmental impact and still charge customers exorbitant prices for shoes and scarfs. Until legal action requires fashion labels and companies to disclose all data, no major change will occur.
THE FUTURE OF FASHION
Moving beyond the days of “fast fashion,” modern customers are looking for sustainability to be integrated into the fashion industry at all levels. Millennial and Gen Z consumers care about the sourcing of the products they buy and how their purchases impact the environment and communities affected by or dependent on fashion companies. Because of this, younger generations are turning to consignment and more sustainable sources for fashion. Transparency and a consistent effort for constant improvement and change can help a company grow its bottom line while also benefiting the greater environmental and social good.
Additionally, the public can begin to search for resources that highlight which brands are actively working toward a socially and environmentally focused bottom-line. Websites, such as Fashion Transparency Index, break down hundreds of companies around the world, ranking them based on resource, labor, emission, and supplier transparency. That pair of shoes from Tory Burch may be in season, but how much did the garment worker earn to sew the sole into that flat? Where and how was the silk harvested for that silk neckerchief, and what happened to the waste discarded during the production process? These questions, presently, have no answers available to the public. Hopefully sustainability and prioritization of environmental and social metrics will have their chance to shine on the runways.
Leah Garden is the 2021 Environment Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a freelance writer, and Director of Sustainability at Genetic Literacy Project. She previously served as the Dairy Greenhouse Gas Impact Intern at World Wildlife Fund, the Sustainability Communications Intern at the Can Manufacturers Institute, and Account Coordinator at the consulting firm Schultz & Williams. She holds an M.S. in Sustainability Management from American University’s Kogod School of Business and a B.S.B.A. from Bucknell University.