By Marta Lynch, posted 04/04/21
Know Your Clothes
It is difficult to concisely express and divide up the main problems in fashion. Let me name five big ones that cannot be looked past. All these issues overlap and sometimes contribute to each other. The topics are listed in no particular order as all of these are important.
Global systemic racism and the connection to slavery
Like all industries and institutions, the fashion system operates within the boundaries of the global trade system often based on colonialist trade routes and hierarchies upholding to this day neo-colonial rule. Disproportionately women of colour carry the burden of producing clothes for little or no pay. India, China, Bangladesh are often the origins of our clothes as we all know when we check the labels. This does not mean categorically all garments from those countries are produced in bad working conditions or under harassment, but it is undeniable how many of them are.
An example: Cotton is known to be the fibre with the biggest connection to the era of slavery in America. The cotton produced in America during the Industrial Revolution accounted up to 2/3rd of the world’s cotton production and has contributed massively to the economic power of the US. But unfortunately, it cannot be said that production now happens under any more ethical conditions. It is estimated that about 1/5th of all cotton products come from the Xinjiang region where Uighurs are held in internment camps. And the fashion industry openly admits to not being able to make sure that the cotton they use do not come from there as the supply chains are often too complex to track. But this is unfortunately just the worst of the worst as examples of child labour and workers’ rights abuses are widespread in different production locations and fibre types.
The answer here is: Think local and look out for short supply chains. Irish linen and British wool are the examples of materials grown in closer proximity. Small companies focusing on only a few products/ materials are better able to track their supply chains.
If this is not possible due to price or accessibility, buying second hand is always a good option as these garments have already been produced.
Only little research has been done on this issue compared to the scale of the problem facing us. Microplastics have been found everywhere on earth now from the Mariana Trench, the peaks of the Himalayas to the top of the polar regions. Broken fibres of synthetic clothing seem to be the biggest culprit when it comes to this pollutant. They travel both through marine environments as well as by wind and are settling in all manner of organisms, with analysis still wondering if they are carcinogenic or what other damages they may cause. As this is a fairly newly discovered problem and as most contributors to this problem are private companies, there has been very little action taken to reduce the output of synthetic fibres or and no talk of responsibility on how to clean the ecosystems up. (In 2015 plastic fibres accounted for about 61% of the global fibre output).
The answer is here: There are now many products that you can use when washing your clothes, from bags to put all of your clothes inside to ‘eggs’ that catch the tiny particles. The aim of these is to trap and contain microfibres before they enter the wastewater system so that they can be disposed of in a safe way. Trying to buy natural fibre clothing wherever possible will also help, both by reducing the number of micro plastics you release in washes but also by showing fashion brands that natural materials are sought after.
In general clothes are designed in the Global North and then are made by people in the Global South are then sent to the West to be “consumed”. Once used and disposed of they are then sent back into the producing nations, either impacting the local fashion industry if resold or polluting water and grounds if put on waste tips. These mostly poorer nations get no support/ funding or technologies to process the waste properly (if processes even exist for the clothing produced).
Roughly 15 million second-hand garments are exported into Ghana’s Katamanto market in a country of 30 million people weekly. They are sold on as well but 40% end up on enormous waste tips or along the Gulf of Guinea.
Within production and disposal there are many processes requiring toxic chemicals for dyeing or dissolving of fibres as well as using local water sources and creating emissions. The companies contracting the factories have very little control over how much of the pollutants used escape into the environment or how diligent they are about keeping their workers safe from these pollutants as it is often such complex supply chains with so many different parts that it would be impossible to check. With the number of styles these companies produce, and all the small parts needed (Yarns, zips, buttons etc) in different colourways to track and check regularly that all their producers are complying while being strewn across the planet is not achievable.
The answer is here: By only buying the clothes we really need and borrowing, swapping and buying from charity shops wherever possible, we will reduce the number of items of clothing in circulation so that there is no longer a need for such massive second hand markets. This will allow local textile markets to grow which will also help to improve transparency in supply chains.
Trying to buy clothes from companies that use more natural dyeing processes or supporting campaigns and encouraging brands to reduce water pollution can also help. There are probably already some campaigns out there that you can join in with.
Depletion of soil due to overuse and pesticides/ insecticides and monocultures
This is a problem in which fashion is not necessarily one of the main culprits but is certainly having an impact. Most of the trees grown for viscose, Tencel or bamboo fibres (this includes is the fsbc-labelled garments) are grown in monocultures resulting in a greater need to use insecticides/ pesticides as there is a higher risk of infestations from funghi or insects damaging the crop. On the other hand this results in less cutting down of trees surrounding the trees that they want to have felled, as it would be like in a conventional forest so there is no ideal way to solve this problem.
Companies such as Monstanto and Bayer have made a huge amount of money on seeds and have, for example, exported American cotton plants to large parts of India as well as other cotton producing countries. Not ideally suited for the local soil these also require more pesticides/ insecticides and cotton is a greedy plant soaking up the soil’s nutrients and water. The film True Cost also shows the impact pesticides have on the health and bodily developments of children in rural areas.
The answer is here: The fashion industry could, in fact, help with enriching the ground the fibres grow on. Plants such as Flax (Linen) and Hemp replenish the nitrogen storage of the soil and bind carbon. Less water and pesticides are required (both of them are considered weeds as they spread and grow faster and so higher annual yields are possible on the same surface area). When buying new, keep an eye out for linen, hemp, or recycled cotton. Some of the more ethical fashion brands may be able to ensure that any plants in their supply chain are grown in better conditions that are less damaging to the natural environment.
Production outstripping demand by far
Fashion is one of the industries in which the products are not seen as an investment but rather as entertainment and its purchase to pass the time on a weekend or online. Huge marketing machines make customers want different entire wardrobes to aspire to a different lifestyle or keep up with trends of friend groups. I think this is all nothing new to any person seeing a shopping street on any day of the week (even during a pandemic). But the numbers are heart-breaking; more than 150 billion garments are produced each year (that makes 20 new garments for every person on the planet ANNUALLY). If you consider how many people around the world and within the UK cannot afford to buy these it means that large amounts of clothes will either sit in people’s wardrobes unworn, or are never sold and get incinerated/or sit in landfill.This makes fashion the second largest polluter in the world (with oil being the biggest one, but looking at fashion we also contribute to the extraction of oil which is often not calculated)
The answer is here: Choosing to swap clothes, share with friends, buying second hand and changing the way we use and value clothes will force the market to change. If we can show that there is no longer a demand for fast fashion, companies will have to change in order to be profitable.
It is difficult to condense these issues into a short list but do find me on Instagram and ask more questions or links to resources.
For some more Instagram inspiration on these topics, have a look at this blog post!
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