Editorial: The Fashion Industry in Excess

by Nevena Rousseva

The river in the YouTube video is blood red.

It’s not this color from a horrific massacre, although that’s what one might initially think. The potent color comes from something much less terrifying.

In fact the color comes from something a lot of us consider glamorous, inspiring, and important. Fashion. The must have red garment is the cause of the blood red color. An unexpected reality from an industry that creates beautiful things. The video, made in 2010 is part of “Clean by Design” an NRDC program to clean up the fashion industry and educate designers on more environmentally conscious design decisions. There’s a saying among environmental groups that goes “You know the color that’s going to be in fashion next season by the color of the rivers in China.” So next season that river might be blue or green, depending on the color that’s in style.

Many consumers are not aware of the havoc the fashion industry causes the environment. Conventionally made clothing and accessories that we purchase may be beautiful and stylish, but they also cause environmental damage. A lot of it. Added up and coupled with excessive production and consumption the damage has led the fashion industry to be named by the NRDC as third worst polluter after the oil and cement industries.

The textile industry has a huge water footprint. It is the third largest consumer of water in the world, behind the paper and oil industry according to “Cleaning Up The Fashion Industry” report. Starting at the fields, it takes 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce a singe pair of jeans and 400 gallons to produce a single T-shirt. The water needed to grow cotton for ten pairs of jeans is enough to fill a 16 by 32 in ground pool.

For many women having ten pairs of jeans is normal if not too little.

Altogether the industry produces approximately 70 million tons of wastewater in a single year. The World Bank estimates that 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. 72 toxic chemicals in our water come solely from textile dyeing, 30 of which cannot be removed.

An NRDC study revealed that a mill dying 45,000 tons of fabric reported using 8.4 million tons of water annually. That’s 200 tons of water for each ton of fabric dyed. Many color mistakes are made and about 10 to 20 percent of fabric in a mill has to be re-dyed two to three times. About five percent never achieve the desired color and are landfilled. Millions of tons of unused fabric are burned or sent to landfills each year when dyed the wrong colors.

Air pollution from textile mills is another impact the fashion industry has on the environment. The industry in total generates 3.1 million tons of carbon dioxide. According to the NRDC, the textile industry creates about 3 billion tons of soot each year. Soot is thought to be the second largest cause of global warming after carbon dioxide.

Pre-consumer and post-consumer waste is another major environmental issue for the industry. Of the fabric that makes it to cutting tables on average 15 to 20 percent is wasted during the cutting process and discarded. According to industry insiders, it is cheaper to landfill the scarps than to recycle them.

Over 90 million items of clothing end up in landfill sites globally each year. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average US citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. According to the EPA an estimated 13.1 million tons of textiles were generated in 2010, or 5.3 percent of total municipal solid waste.

Timo Rissanen, a professor of fashion design and sustainability at New York’s Parsons School of Design says the problem of waste in fashion is “systematic” pointing out that “the dominant economic model is geared towards endless waste-making.” At the very minimum, this is an industry built on the very idea of planned obsolescence – who would wear ‘last year’s’ clothes?- and that in and of itself is an unsustainable practice.

The driving force that’s been encouraging the endless waste-making has been the growing insatiable demand for fashion goods. Americans buy roughly 20 billion garments annually—64 items per person per year. Women in particular are encouraged to love clothing and derive their identities from it. There is no such thing as having too much. More is always better. And interestingly, the metrosexual phenomenon has resulted in many men becoming fashion plates too—with a similar consciousness of wastefulness.

Upon watching home buying and improvement shows one of the biggest issues for buyers is the closets are not big enough. We now need McClosets , whether our house is a McMansions or not.

There was a point in time when having too much was ridiculed. In the mid-eighties outrage sparked when it was discovered that Imelda Marcos, the first lady of the Philippines owned between two and three thousand pairs of shoes. Nowadays we admire people who have vast clothing and accessories collections.

But what’s the value in having so much excess. Carrie Bradshaw, the lovable heroine of Sex and the City found herself in trouble when she realized she had spent the equivalent of a down payment for her apartment on shoes. When it came down to it, her beloved shoes couldn’t buy her something of real importance.

According to Lucy Siegle, environmental journalist and author of the book “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?” women now demand roughly four times the number of clothes than in 1980. To satisfy the current demand around 80 billion garments are produced worldwide. By 2006 Europe was consuming 391 million pairs of jeans every year. The water used to grow the cotton for all those jeans could fill a little over 36.6 million pools. In 2007 an incredible three pairs of jeans were being sold every second.

Yet women still feel like they “have nothing to wear”. How can this be? Siegle points to her “investments” in micro-trend pieces that in the end compiled a wasteland. And UK women consume so much clothing that annually they discard roughly 60 pounds.

The kicker is that many of us don’t understand the idea of not consuming fashion.

Our consumption has been fueled by two factors, mainly the ever-growing obsession with celebrities and trends, and the growth of fast fashion retailers who have been more than willing to feed our obsessions with cheap clothing. This industry has not only learned how to feed our desires, but they encourage consumers to see clothing as disposable. Fast-fashion retailers like TopShop, Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 have seduced average shoppers into believing that owning a twenty-dollar diluted version of a designer piece spotted on a celebrity puts them on the same level as that celebrity. And the idea of always shopping is seen as aspirational, reserved for the glamorous and elite. Fast-fashion has enabled the masses to live that aspiration in one form or another.

But owning a lot of clothing has not made us dress better. If fact, shopping fast-fashion has deteriorated personal style. It has created homogenized looks where one person looks like a version of another.  Mark Twain said “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” That’s can be applied to today’s world if “clothes” is substituted with “well made clothes” and “naked people” is changed to “people wearing cheap fashion”. A person wearing a well-made garment stands out, gets noticed, is taken seriously and heard. If this wasn’t true then successful women wouldn’t care about the right dress, pants, or shoes, and businessmen wouldn’t wear custom made suits. Dressing in the same low quality clothes as everyone else only makes you blend in further.

We follow trends relentlessly yet the styles we most admire and celebrate are classic and timeless. We praise the style of women like Jackie O, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and most recently Kate Middleton, who always chooses classic pieces over ephemeral trends. But we ourselves choose trendy pieces over real timeless investment pieces. We buy what we are told by retailers and magazines only to discard it soon after for the next trendy item they push. If we all chose long lasting pieces and curbed excessive buying the excessiveness of the industry would dissipate.

There is hope.

A shift within the fashion industry has been taking place in dealing with the environmental problems excessiveness has caused. Companies of all sizes including the conglomerates Phillip van Heusen, owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Kering Group, formerly PPR, owner of Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Puma, have committed to improving their environmental performance. And with increased resource scarcity this shift in gears is necessary. “We surpassed the tipping point already and we are facing scarce resources. The industry as a whole is moving in the direction [of conserving]- mainly reducing the need for water, energy, chemicals and waste.” says Carmen Artigas, a sustainable designer, consultant, and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology teaching Ethical Fashion.

And a new generation of sustainable designers is emerging who are making the health of the environment a priority. Natalia Allen who debuted her first collection in May 2012 says “I think there are major issues in the industry. We are all on this huge learning curve and trying to unlearn bad habits as well as aspire toward great habits.”

Ms. Allen believes customers should have higher expectations from retailers, saying “I think every customer should expect sustainable practices from the brands they support.” She sees waste as one of the biggest challenges facing the fashion industry. “Right now the waste cycle for fashion is enormous and getting larger and larger every year. At Essentialist [her line], I design and make products that will last. Each dress is made from quality textiles that will outlast a season.”

Carrie Parry is another example of this new environmentally minded design generation. Ms. Parry says her company is “committed to adopting a closed-loop approach to waste management, in either the deconstruction and reuse of raw materials, recycling, cutting waste in the design and manufacturing process and donation to others which extends the product lifecycle and minimizing waste sent to landfill.”

Her namesake company is using several approaches to tackle waste “We currently recycle all fabric scraps from our cutting process. We first work to lessen waste during the marking process and whatever scraps we do have we are working to up-cycle into small home and fashion accessories. We also currently send some scraps and unused swatches to local universities for education projects and are putting a take-back program in place to collect any unwanted garments so we can donate and recycle properly.”

Innovative techniques and technologies are also gaining ground. Zero-waste garments are designed to create no waste, and emerging brands like Alabama Chanin and Dosa have focused on a zero-waste business model. Titania Inglis, who won the coveted Ecco Domani award for Sustainable Design incorporates zero-waste into her designs.

Ms Allen relies on emerging technology to reduce her environmental footprint. For manufacturing, she uses a machine that stitches the garments together in one step creating seamless clothing and eliminating cutting waste. “Traditionally clothing is cut out of a block of fabric and a person will then sew the pieces together using a sewing machine,” says Ms. Allen “The technology that I’m working with allows me to go directly from the fabric to the finished garment in one step.”

Fashion design students are also more conscious and interested in the industry’s environmental impact. Ms. Artigas says of students in her class “once they become sensitized to the damage the industry has created they start generating concepts and ideas on how to be efficient with design and the use of materials.”

So while small designers are working to create a more sustainable fashion industry, fast-fashion retailers are inevitably trying to keep the system as is. The evidence is in the writing on the wall. Going into the H&M store on 34th street and 7th avenue last year I saw the following plastered on one of their walls: “New stuff is coming in each and everyday so why not do the same?” Overconsumption is still the dominant model for these types of retailers and they would prefer customers to continue to over-shop at their stores.

The belief that we can continue to shop and discard garments in the same way we have been doing and have a sustainable fashion industry is an unrealistic one. At some point, and that point is now, we have to make a decision as consumers if fleeting trends and excessive shopping are more important than preventing the collapse of the environment, something that would affect all of us, not just the fashion obsessed.♥

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s