Beyond Greenwashing: Paths Toward Sustainability in the Fashion Industry (Part 1)

Friday, October 30, 2020

The fashion industry is thirsty. Every year, it consumes 93 billion cubic meters of water—enough for the survival of over 5 million people. The problems within the fashion industry go beyond water use. Due to the rise in fast fashion, global clothing production has exponentially increased, doubling between 2000 and 2014. Fashion is now the second-most polluting industry worldwide.

fashionIn response to these issues, the trend of “sustainable fashion” has gained attention within the past decade. Consumers are turning to more sustainable brands, recognizing the environmental impact of their clothing. However, “sustainability” lacks a universal definition and can take a variety of forms. Many fashion companies only take a surface-level or “greenwashed” approach to sustainability, and fail to implement practices that actually reduce their company’s environmental impact. “Greenwashing" refers to a company’s use of misleading initiatives or imagery to promote a false sense of efforts toward sustainability. This tactic provides consumers with peace of mind without actually addressing the problem. For example, H&M claims to be the world’s leading user of organic cotton, when in reality only 13.7% of their cotton is organic. Rather than boasting false sustainability through greenwashing, companies should focus on changing their business models altogether.

There are environmentally harmful practices in almost every step of the garment supply chain. The first is the production of textiles. In the United States, 90% of clothes sold are made with cotton or polyester, resource-intensive materials that undergo processes with significant environmental health hazards. For example, textile dyeing can contaminate wastewater and expose heavy metals to nearby residents and animals. Clothing production follows as the next step in the supply chain. Many fashion companies locate production factories in countries that lack enforcement of occupational and safety standards. Workers are subjected to poor ventilation and repetitive tasks, leading to life-threatening respiratory and musculoskeletal conditions, and are often paid below a living wage. Globally, this affects over 40 million workers—especially those in low- and middle-income countries, which produce 90% of the world’s clothing.

In the final stage of a garment’s life cycle, most discarded textiles are thrown away in landfills or exported abroad. Textiles make up 8% of all municipal solid waste landfilled each year in the United States as of 2017, and the United States exports 500,000 tons of used clothing each year, most of which ends up in developing nations. Low-wage workers have to sort and re-bale these garments, and those that cannot be sold in markets essentially become solid waste, congesting rivers, greenways, and parks. The compounded problems in the garment supply chain represent an environmental challenge and a human rights issue.

According to the Global Fashion Agenda, a sustainable business model requires sustainable practices in all parts of the supply chain. The organization spells out eight priorities to address the fashion industry’s role in the climate change crisis. They include supply chain traceability, reversing climate change, efficient use of water, energy, and chemicals, as well as respectful and secure work environments. The organization also lays out a set of principles that would garner fundamental changes for sustainability in the garment industry, including sustainable material mix, circular fashion system, better wage programs, and a fourth industrial revolution. Information about each of these core principles can be found here.

Part 2 of this blog presents further recommendations for the fashion industry to address sustainability.