Discussions on sustainability generally focus on obvious targets—the fossil fuel industry, plastic waste, the pollution of our oceans, climate change—but so much of what we do throughout our daily lives contributes to the destruction of our planet without us even realizing. We all know that the fossil fuel industry is the second most environmentally destructive industry, but do you know what the second most destructive industry is? Take a moment to come up with your best guess.
Did you guess the plastics industry, or perhaps the travel industry?
More likely than not, your first guess was not the fashion industry, but indeed the clothing and fast fashion manufacturing industry is the second most environmentally destructive industry—second only to the manufacturing and use of fossil fuels.
Through the use of toxic chemicals and dyes, synthetic resin based fabrics, and a trend-based model with a quick turnover rate that leaves millions of tons of clothing waste in landfills around the world, the fashion industry is one of the leading causes of environmental destruction, and many individuals in developed countries who do not see clothing manufacturing first hand do not even realize that it is a problem.
Furthermore, the fashion industry is not only unsustainable in its treatment of the planet, but also in its treatment of the factory workers who make the clothes sold in storefronts around the world. The globalization of the fashion industry has far too often been touted as a sign of progress. As you well know, while this process has provided job opportunities for people around the world—particularly in developing countries—many have been exploited by Western companies who fail to pay them living wages, provide adequate and safe working conditions, or protect their surrounding natural environment.
Women are disproportionately impacted by these practices, as they make up over 60% of the world’s work force, receive the least education, are paid the lowest wages, and own the least amount of property. Consequently, they are more heavily impacted by local economic and production crises such as layoffs and salary cuts, as well as a lack of legal and contractual protections. When a particular type of trendy sweater falls out of fashion after a few months, and its replaced by some new hot-button item, the factory in rural China or India or Honduras that was devoted to producing that specific item suffers a debilitating economic blow. It is not the immensely profitable fast fashion corporation that is hurt by this shift in public interest from one sweater to the next, but rather the people—namely women—whose lives depended on the meager wages they were paid to make those sweaters. A commitment to sustainable fashion is more than an important aspect of an eco-friendly lifestyle—it is a bold feminist statement.
While all of the environmental and social destruction brought about by the fashion industry is rather disheartening, there are many non-profits, as well as for-profit corporations, working to change the landscape of the fashion industry. Non-profits such as Eco-Age and Fashion Revolution are non-profit groups dedicated to raising awareness of the destructive aspects of the fashion industry, largely through social media. Eco-Age developed the Green Carpet Challenge, in which certain celebrities like Emma Watson and Emma Roberts dedicated their presence on highly visible red carpet events in Hollywood and around the world to raising awareness of the issue by wearing vintage, recycled, or sustainably produced evening-wear. Emma Watson is a leader in raising awareness of the horrors of the fashion industry through her platform as a celebrity. Additionally, for-profit corporations including Patagonia and Eileen Fisher work to dedicate themselves to slow, sustainable fashion. Patagonia is now incorporating certified fair trade sewing into their manufacturing process. Even the fast-fashion giant H&M, known for its trendy, affordable clothes, has developed a “conscious” line featuring pieces made with more ethical labor standards and more sustainable fabrics and dyes.
More people need to stop and think about where their clothes came from, and, more importantly, who made them. It is essential, and highly possible, for our society to shop consciously. Consumers have the power to do so much good by spending their money on clothing made by workers who are guaranteed living wages and contractual protections. We choose where our money goes, and we choose whether we want to support a corporation dedicated to making as much money and selling as many clothes as possible, or a corporation dedicated to sustainable practices and fair wages for their workers. It is entirely up to us.