In the Fashion Transparency Index, while a few brands are reporting initiatives to collect, recycle, or donate used clothing, overall brands do not disclose many substantive efforts to address the problem of overconsumption. Take five with Founder and Global Operations Director at Fashion Revolution Carry Somers.
In the two decades leading up to this establishment, Somers’ fashion brand Pachacuti had pioneered the concept of radical supply chain transparency, mapping out the GPS coordinates for each stage of the production process. From the community plantations where the straw grows, through to each Panama hat weaver’s house.
As far as China goes, question marks loom tall. Temper takes five with Somers and asks…
How do brands move from taking a moral stock inventory to factually re-dressing themselves in rehab?
The China Landfill Files
An exploding urban population and a rising middle-class. China is briskly extending its material use and consumption. Apace with its growing economy, we find a spreading of consumer waste. As the cornerstone of the global textile and apparel supply chain, China manufactures nearly 65 percent of the world’s clothes, remaining one of the globe’s largest apparel exporters.
With fashion and cutting floor waste no longer skipping down the street hand in hand, hard lessons are to be learned…
While new and cheap collections are more frequently available to Chinese consumers these days, the average lifespan of their clothes is shrinking drastically. According to Collective Responsibility, “approximately 45 percent of the textile produced in China is wasted, ranging from industrial waste created in fiber, textile and clothing production and consumer waste that people throw away from their closets”.
A crisis looms and in that fashion, revolutionary knowledge is key. Enter Somers.
Take 1! Revising fashion’s sustainability process. How does this benefit the cloth(ing) itself?
Somers: Sustainability needs to be revised across the supply chain, from the raw materials through to how we deal with waste. Some of the most pressing issues are around the use of water, waste, and pollution. It’s an industry-wide problem, although it is exacerbated by the speed and scale of production.
The chemicals used to grow, dye, launder, and treat our clothes end up polluting rivers. A huge amount of water is used to produce garments through growing cotton and through wet processing, such as dyeing and laundering. And finally, clothing accounts for around 3 percent of global production of CO2 emissions, according to The Carbon Trust.
The problems aren’t just in production, it’s also about how we care for and dispose of our clothing. Waste is one of the most pressing issues in the fashion supply chain, exemplified by recent media exposés showing Burberry and H&M burning unsold stock and reports of the growing number of micro-plastics polluting our oceans.
Estimates say that only 20 percent of textiles are recycled globally, which means 80 percent end up in landfill or incinerated (Worn Again, 2017).
Take 2! Where does it all end up?
Somers: The Burberry stock-burning example has exposed only the tip of the iceberg — i.e. the vast amount of clothing and accessories that is discarded in an economically and environmentally inefficient way by fashion brands. So little is known about waste practices throughout the rest of the fashion supply chain.
For example, it is estimated that 400 billion square meters of textiles are produced each year globally and 60 billion square meters (equaling 15 percent of all textiles produced) end up as cutting floor waste (MIT, 2015). It begs the question: Where does this waste go? We don’t really know.
Meanwhile, when textiles do end up in landfill, synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which are essentially plastic filaments, take an estimated 500 to 1,000 years or longer to fully degrade, in the meantime being eaten by maritime life and us.
Textiles are estimated to be the largest source of microplastics, accounting for over a third of global microplastic pollution.
Take 3! What is — fashionably speaking — outreach material which can effectively communicate sustainability issues and objectives?
Somers: Increased transparency means issues along the supply chain can be identified, addressed, and remedied much faster. Greater transparency also means best practice examples, positive stories, and effective innovations can be more easily highlighted, shared, and potentially scaled or replicated elsewhere.
When companies publish information about their supply chains and business practices it helps NGOs, unions, local communities, and even workers themselves to more swiftly alert brands to human rights and environmental issues.
It can also help the company keep track of any unauthorized suppliers being used to make its products which makes it easier to manage risks that might lead to human rights and environmental abuses and could harm the company’s reputation. Brands that do not disclose their supply chains are withholding a critical tool that can promote workers’ rights.
Take 4! The Organza effect
Somers: Whereas we are seeing brands begin to publish more about their social and environmental efforts, which is most welcome and very necessary, there is still much crucial information about the practices of the fashion industry that remains concealed. Particularly when it comes to a brand’s tangible impact on the lives of workers in the supply chain and on the environment. Brands score relatively well for disclosing their policies and commitments, but score fewer points when you drive into detail about how their policies are put into practice.
Only 55 percent of brands and retailers publish measurable, time-bound goals on improving environmental impacts, whilst only 37 percent publish human rights goals. Around half are reporting on the progress they’re making towards achieving these goals. These reports frequently cover only environmental goals.
This is why we need universal, industry-wide accountability standards. At present, despite the growing number of transparency tools and apps for consumers, we still have no way of knowing whether or not brand policies and procedures are truly effective and are driving improvements for the people actually making our clothes.
Take 5! From swapping clothes to minority dyeing techniques. What factors do you consider a sustainability initiative (for China)?
Somers: I don’t know enough about China per se; this was my first visit and I was only here for three days. Having said that…
In the Fashion Transparency Index, while a few brands are reporting initiatives to collect, recycle or donate used clothing, overall brands do not disclose many substantive efforts to address the problem of over-consumption.
Only 6 percent of brands are promoting repair services in order to extend the life of its products. 18 percent of brands describe what they do with unwanted samples, unsold and defective stock. Currently, just a quarter of the brands out there disclose investments in circular resources with the aim of keeping materials out of landfill.
The growing second-hand luxury market presents a big opportunity for China in terms of sustainability initiatives. Although in the past there was a large market for fakes, reputable online sites will verify the provenance and authenticity of a designer accessory or item of clothing, so customers can buy into luxury. But without the high price tag.
China in 2020 still showcases a lack of standards regarding the safety and quality of recycled products, the management of recycling processes, and the categorization of recyclable materials. The nation is now trying to figure out the way to boost its recycling business.
Instead of focusing on the twelve steps ahead, let’s take care of that first one. Start by hosting those clothing-swap parties or paying a visit to one of the first-tier omnipresent vintage shops such as Pawnstar Shanghai.
Getting fashionably wasted is a go-go no more.
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