Fashion may look pretty on the runway and on Instagram feeds, but behind the scenes it wreaks havoc on the environment.
That’s because the building blocks of modern clothing — polyester and similar synthetic textiles — are, basically, plastic fibers made from coal, petroleum, air and water.
Compounding that is the huge consumption of water, which, contaminated by pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals used in apparel production, is later discharged into waterways. Garments, when laundered, shed tiny fibers that slip through sewage and washing machine filters and end up in the ocean. And there are the mountains of castoff clothes that sit in landfills releasing greenhouse gases. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates Americans threw out 11.9 million tons of clothing and footwear in 2015.
“The fashion industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is more than the maritime and flight industries combined,” says Annie Gullingsrud, a sustainable fashion consultant, author and adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts, citing an Ellen MacArthur Foundation study. And 8 percent of global GHG emissions comes from the production of apparel and footwear, Gullingsrud adds.
“And that’s not talking about all the pollution and chemicals,” she says. “Or the fact that half of our fashion is disposed of in under a year. We’re coming to the conclusion, fortunately, that we’ve overshot the planet. The fashion industry is taking more from the planet than it can naturally regenerate. We can grow cotton, but you add the concept of scale and you’re depleting farmland.”
As the world wakes up to the idea that today’s linear take-make-use-dispose economic model is not viable in a world of finite resources, some propose a radical solution: Reduce the volume of clothing production to zero, or almost zero.
Gullingsrud acknowledges this is a tough one, not only because fashion generates trillion-dollar revenues for companies, but also because many customers still value price, design and novelty over whether a sheep has been humanely treated in the production of a wool sweater.
“When people are wearing used clothes, it will decrease the amount of virgin clothes required,” she says. “That’s scary to the industry. But it has to change. It can’t keep putting out virgin clothes. Changing the model is not a may, it’s a must.”
While many industry insiders see making no new clothes as a nonstarter, they are embracing another option — the circular economy. Under a circular economy, companies operate on what is called a “closed loop” model, a process that uses innovation to eradicate waste by turning it into a resource, through regenerating and recycling, to create new items.
On Oct. 29, Burberry and H&M were among more than 250 brands and institutions (including Target, L’Oreal and Unilever) that signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Signatories pledged to “eradicate plastic waste and pollution at the source,” and collectively represent 20 percent of all plastic producers. The effort, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, supports a circular economy, in partnership with UN Environment, according to a news release
“Materials are extracted from the earth in a nonhazardous way and sold to make garments,” Gullingsrud says. “And then those garments stay in circulation for as long as possible. New companies like Poshmark promote that. Based on this, people are getting help in buying used instead of new clothing. This is a fantastic business model — and now we call this a value chain, not a supply chain.”
And in the U.S., the circular economy is catching on. PVH Corp., producers of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, is doing it, says Gullingsrud, adding, “We’re not at the execution stage, let’s be clear. But we’re absolutely moving toward it.”
Jason Kibbey, CEO of San Francisco’s Sustainable Apparel Coalition, agrees. SAC developed the Higg Index, tools measuring environmental, social and labor impacts across members’ supply chains. “It’s just getting started,” Kibbey says, “but scaling pretty quickly. When we started the Index five years ago, there were only 25 companies which had the remotest ability to work on issues. Now when you look at who’s engaging in sustainable practices, it’s becoming a norm.”
Kibbey foresees clothing production decreases. “The idea that we’re going to flip the switch and clothing companies won’t use any raw materials at all is not realistic,” he says. “But over the long term, all the large companies are looking at how to continue the sustainability of input materials to make clothes. There is a sincere desire to reduce the virgin material that goes into clothing, and it will happen.”
For that to occur, big guns need to lead the way.
In 2005, Levi’s began releasing the names and locations of all its contract and licensee factories, and this year, expanded that list to include fabric mills. In July, in an earth-moving first for the industry, Levi’s announced it would reduce carbon emissions across its owned and operated facilities by 90 percent, and within its global supply chain by 40 percent, by 2025.
“This is a huge shift, not only for Levi’s but for the industry at large,” says Todd Paglia, executive director of environmental activist group Stand.earth, a vocal critic of Levi’s. “Levi’s are to be applauded for doing this and the rest of the industry must follow suit.”
Stand.earth notwithstanding, Levi’s pioneering sustainability efforts led to its being named one of the most innovative companies in the world by Fast Company in 2014. Levi’s vice president of sustainability, Michael Kobori, was named one of the 1,000 most creative people in business.
Kobori spearheaded the company’s ethical fashion mission with several programs and early membership in the Better Cotton Initiative, which trains farmers across the world to grow cotton with less water and fertilizer.
“The program reaches 2 million cotton farmers, and they are farming 15 percent of all the world’s cotton,” Kobori says of the cotton initiative. “That may not seem like a large amount, but the initiative has only been around for eight years and we’ve gotten to 15 percent. We believe because we’re big and global, we can influence the industry to scale sustainability.”
Its WasteLess program features products made of 20 percent recycled plastic bottles, and to date, the company says, it has used 11.9 million recycled bottles for its products. By removing water from finishing stone washes or combining multiple wet-cycle processes, Levi’s has reduced its water usage by more than 2 billion liters since instituting its WaterLess program in 2011.
Levi’s has also committed to achieving zero discharge of hazardous chemicals from its supply chain by 2020. In 2016, it partnered with textile technology startup Evrnu to create the world’s first pair of jeans using five discarded cotton T-shirts to make new fiber, a process that uses 98 percent less water than virgin cotton products.
“The idea around the circular economy is how do you continue to produce products without consuming additional resources,” Kobori says. “One element is making sure you have the ability to take used clothing from consumers and turn it or use it in different ways.”
To that end, the company now fixes up secondhand Levi’s and resells them as authorized vintage jeans. “You get twice the use and life out of a product you manufacture and you don’t have to consume any additional resources for your consumers,” Kobori says. “And today that is the most sustainable approach. Make something that is durable.”
Gausewitz says progress has been made. “We’ve seen the Sustainable Apparel Coalition help other companies get aligned,” he says. “And it’s been a good example of how the industry is today — that you get H&M, known for fast fashion, and us, known for more durable, technical products, all in the same room. In meetings and conversations at SAC you see a lot of brands that weren’t necessarily there before.”
H&M has a mixed record. The world’s second-largest clothing manufacturer, it was the first fashion company to introduce garment collecting globally in 2013. It has made worthy efforts at sustainability, but some say they might not matter if the company continues to produce the millions of clothes it does. (H&M won’t say how many garments it makes.)
“H&M is a good example for being on track with chemical management,” says Kirsten Brodde, global project lead of Greenpeace International’s Detox My Fashion campaign. “But still being a fast-fashion giant will never be sustainable.”
Furthermore, says Brodde, the fashion company incinerates new clothes it can’t sell. “H&M and Burberry admitting burning stock means the end of the silence on textile waste. This practice of destroying perfectly marketable goods is the logical consequence of their mass production and points to the key challenge that the industry needs to (address): how to slow down, to respect people and the planet.”
In an email, H&M said, “Only products that have failed to fulfill safety regulations and cannot be re-used or recycled are sent for destruction.”
The new plastic commitment’s targets, which will be reviewed every 18 months, include eliminating unnecessary plastic packaging and moving away from single-use plastics to a reuse model. They also include working to ensure all plastics are recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 — in effect, a circular plastics economy. Brands must publish their progress annually. San Francisco’s Everlane announced its own effort about a week before this multi-company pact.
“Big businesses talk about recycling as if it was the most important aspect of circularity, but measures like design for circularity, extending the use-phase of clothes by enhancing the quality and durability of clothes, or offering repair services receive much less attention,” she says.
“The current discourse depicts that society can continue to make, buy and discard as much fashion as it likes, we just have to be smarter about doing so. Underlying that is a paradigm of continued expansion and overheated production that remains untouched. We need to stop thinking about growth and speed and start thinking about extending the lifespan of clothing to slow down and limit our excessive wasting of precious natural resources.”
Levi’s Kobori agrees. “In a truly closed loop, circular clothing system, raw materials would not come from cotton fields but from consumers’ closets,” he says.
“We believe that owning quality product for longer — and integrating business models along the way to both enable that durability, while supporting business viability — is key to addressing unchecked consumption.”
Mandy Behbehani is a freelance writer in Marin County. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.