By Mahika Panditha
At some point or another, you have probably heard the term ‘sustainable fashion’, or you have used it before. For those of you that do not know, sustainable fashion is basically clothing that is designed, used, manufactured and distributed in the most environmentally friendly manner. It goes hand in hand with ethical fashion, which refers to a type of consumerism where consumers are conscious of the social welfare and employee rights behind the clothes they purchase and wear.
Nowadays, the fashion industry should be moving towards making their efforts more sustainable. It is only beneficial for them as it will allow them to operate in ways that will allow them to work for years and years. There is an ever-growing interest in doing so, with sustainable fashion being highly debated and covered in the media, and within the companies and so on and so forth.
Many businesses around the world are looking to transform their business models and are adjusting their supply chains to reduce the negative environmental impacts they cause. Unfortunately, sustainable fashion is not the forefront of the industry. It is fast fashion that has taken over and has become the dominant market. Fast fashion is clothing that is designed with the intention of being sold at cheap prices. This invites consumers to buy and buy, while the clothes end up being disposed of as opposed to recycled.
This is at the other end of the spectrum, as fast fashion is far from sustainable by exploiting workers around the world for cheap labour, and misusing natural resources at hand, there is an absurd amount of waste piled up because of it. Aside from this, the fashion houses that everyone loves to look at, only produce a few collections per year, whereas a fast fashion brand would have new pieces coming out every single week.
Sustainable fashion is slow, but what caught the world’s eye was the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013. The tragedy of the garment factory in Bangladesh caused over 1,100 deaths, and is said to be the worst ever industrial incident. It was an eight-story building in the outskirts of Dhaka; there were large cracks found on the building the day before the collapse. The shops and banks on the lower floors were closed, but all warnings to evacuate the building were ignored. When the garment workers returned the next day, the building collapsed leaving many dead, and many more trapped under rubble and machinery for hours to days before being rescued. Gaining worldwide attention, the public interest and media attention uncovered the truth of fast fashion (cheap labour, terrible working conditions, etc.). Many activists and several organisations fought tooth and nail to bring attention to the problems that fast fashion has caused and will cause in the future. The Rana Plaza tragedy forced transparency in the industry; to this day, there is still a major debate occurring all over the world.
Sustainable fashion is not an isolated term; there are many forms of sustainable fashion. You may see some of your favourite actors and actresses promoting sustainable and ethical fashion, for example re-wearing a red carpet outfit. There are many strategies for sustainable fashion, all of which advocate conscious production and consumption. It goes as follows (via Green Strategy); Custom Made clothing (this can be made-to-order, bespoke, DIY), Green & Clean, High Quality and Timeless Design (which you will find in the traditional fashion houses, in regards to Sri Lanka – it would be sarees passed down through generations), Fair and Ethical (clothing that is made traditionally with animal rights and human rights in mind, or using artisan craft – this can even include handlooms), Repair, Redesign and Upcycle (if one of your favourite tops was missing a button, you could easily repair it instead of throwing it out), Rent, Lease and Swap (sharing clothes with friends or renting out fancy outfits for one-time events), and last but not least – Second Hand and Vintage (which happens to be one of the most popular options that more and more people are looking into nowadays with the surge in thrift stores both online and offline).
When it is put like this, it does not seem difficult to adjust to from an individual standpoint. When an item of clothing is completely worn out, it can be returned to its first stages and reused. Instead of purchasing new items constantly, there are many ways to recycle your pieces; for example, a scarf can be used as a wrap-around tube top.
The good thing about this model is that there is a strategy for everyone but some strategies will not work for some people; it is all about individual taste but it just goes to show that it is not impossible to support sustainable fashion.
With regards to corporate responsibility, while they have a responsibility to change their production and distribution practices, they also have the responsibility towards their consumers and the patterns showcased from their customers. In Sweden, some companies provide second-hand or rented fashion systems, which allow consumers to lease clothes or accessories. Other companies have set up collection and recycling systems which will aid in the reusing of items and textiles.
As a consumer that supports the sustainable fashion movement, you should ideally be looking for eco-friendly dyes. This includes dyes from digital printing as well that are more plant-based, recycled materials such as clothes that have been made from pre-existing textiles that do not require any new extraction from natural resources. This can include recycled nylon, polyester and cotton, in addition to organic and natural materials such as hemp, linen, cotton, silk and so on. As opposed to acrylic, nylon, or polyester which is derived from petroleum, low-waste or zero design clothing minimal to zero pattern cutting, as this contributes vastly to waste material.
Further, you also have a choice of locally made clothes, such as products of local vendors you can support who source their fibres from local regions, a concept that many brands have embraced by producing their items closer to the location of purchase. The final option is second-hand clothes where you can find durable second-hand clothing, especially if it is handed down through family.