A Year in Eco Fashion
During the past year, eco fashion has changed from a trend into a movement. From consumers to the media and the fashion industry itself, the roots of long-term,fundamental change have taken hold. Consumer research shows that there is an unprecedented surge in concern with who makes clothes, how they are treated and how the manufacturing process affects the environment. The mass media and high-fashion glossies carry reports on how it is ‘cool to care’. Businesses and retailers have also caught on to the fact that it pays to be ethical; while the costs for companies doing nothing get ever-higher.
Banned Substances List
Banned substances lists cut out or cut down on harmful chemicals in clothes, and all retailers and brands should have one. According to Greenpeace, among the most hazardous substances commonly used in the textile sector are lead, nickel, chromium IV, aryl amines, phthalates and formaldehyde. Marks & Spencer was the first major retailer to set its own standards that ban or restrict chemicals on the products it sells, and has an Environmental Code of Practice for dyeing and finishing. Other retailers, such as H&M, have restrictions on metals such as cadmium,lead and mercury, certain dyes, formaldehyde, PVC, phthalates and brominated flame retardants. In 2006, Mango announced a long-term commitment to remove hazardous chemicals from its entire production worldwide, after talks with Greenpeace. Next has a Restricted Substances List, as does Monsoon. George at ASDA has a policy restricting and banning various chemicals and dyes.
Over half (23.1 million) of Britain’s shoppers think that ethical production of the clothes they buy is important, according to the latest research from global market information company TNS Worldpanel Fashion. Over a quarter (27 per cent) of all people said that they would pay more for ethically produced clothing. A 2006 survey commissioned by Marks & Spencer found that 78 per cent of shoppers wanted to know more about the way clothes are made, including the conditions in the factories where they come from and the use of chemicals in their manufacture. Almost one-third of those questioned said they had decided not to buy an item of clothing because they felt concerned about where it had come from or under what conditions it had been made. In 2005, ethical consumerism was worth £29.3 billion – up 11 per cent on the previous year, according to the Co-operative Bank’s 2006 Ethical Consumerism Report. It’s no wonder that high-street retailers are rushing to introduce ethical clothing ranges.‘Consumers are steadily becoming more environmentally and ethically aware and retailers know they have to respond,’ says Kathy Child, senior retail analyst at Mintel. ‘As awareness increases, so does the demand for organic and Fairtrade fashion.’
While the past year has been a pivotal period in fashion history, particular designers have been critical in transforming the fashion world. These designers, whom some would call extremists, have for some time been slowly laying the foundations to build the movement for eco fashion, each having carved out their own individual paths for change – from organic fabrics to Fairtrade practices, ‘reclaimed to wear’ textiles and much more. An eco designer has to contend with a whole host of challenges and difficulties not encountered by other designers: sourcing fabrics, inventing new processes, and consciously designing with environmental or social issues in mind. From the consumer’s perspective, they add a whole new dimension to appreciating the clothes we buy. Be they campaigners, innovators or thinkers – as a whole, through their work and ideas they’ve led to a sea change in the world of clothing and fashion.
Making clothes can be a dirty business – at least 8,000 chemicals are used to turn raw material into clothes. Many of these cause irreversible damage to people and the environment. The bleaching, dyeing, sizing and finishing of textiles all result in large quantities of effluent, often containing highly toxic heavy metals that pollute the soil and water and damage aquatic life. Add to that the carbon emissions and impact of growing non-organic cotton, which uses petrochemical fertilisers and leads to reduced soil fertility, soil erosion, water pollution and reduced biodiversity. Then there’s the high-energy manufacturing process and the clothes miles in transporting the fibre/textiles/garments around the world. Once bought, how an item is cared for and disposed of also has an impact on the environment. How can clothes be made in a way that is more environmentally friendly and doesn’t harm workers?
Fairtrade. As well as bananas, coffee and chocolate, Fairtrade has moved into the clothing sector, with certification for Fairtrade cotton clothes. At the end of 2006, there were 860 products in the UK using Fairtrade-certified cotton, and 27,000 farmers worldwide working on Fairtrade-certified cotton farms. Fairtrade sets a minimum price paid to producers, based on the costs of sustainable production. Buyers also pay a Fairtrade premium, which is set aside for community, social and environmental projects. The Fairtrade mark denotes that the cotton is certified Fairtrade – not the brand name or the retailer. The rest of the clothes-making supply chain – e.g. the spinner, knitter, weaver, dyer, cut/make/trim manufacturer and their sub-contractors – are not certified but have to ‘respect Fairtrade Trading Standards’. Fairtrade Foundation director Harriet Lamb says they are now looking at how to ensure certified standards across the supply chain, to be put in place over the next three years. Some businesses – including shops and clothing labels – will say they are ‘Fair Trade’ because they have been certified by the IFAT, the global network of Fairtrade Organisations, as a Fairtrade business. The term ‘fair trade’ usually means a company wants to assure consumers its products are made using fairly paid workers.
Low pay, lack of rights and appalling conditions are the norm for millions of garment workers across the world. Their wages have fallen in every continent. In Bangladesh, the legal minimum wage fell by half in real terms between 1996 and 2006, to £7 per month. The minimum wage, if there is one, is often below the poverty line. Working hours are excessive: 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week; unpaid overtime is compulsory. A War on Want report found workers in Bangladesh regularly work 80 hours a week for 5p an hour, in death-trap factories, to make cheap clothes for British consumers. Exhausting hours and exposure to toxic chemicals, heat and noise leads to poor health, which may be punishable.10 Violence is frequently threatened or used against workers. Many are denied the right to form a trade union. Many suppliers favour short-term contracts (or none), so they can ‘hire and fire’ more easily.
Hemp as a sustainable ecotextile fabric has a lot of potential. It ‘breathes’, so helps to keep you cool in hot weather, and is soft, comfortable and yet hardwearing. And it is a particularly low-input crop, reducing the need for artificial pesticide and fertiliser use. In the UK, around 2,000 hectares of hemp have been grown every year since the early 1990s, mainly to produce animal bedding, cigarette paper, pulp and fibre or recyclable car interiors.
UK hemp clothes on the high street? Currently, there are no factories or mills in the UK that have any experience of spinning, weaving or knitting hemp – most hemp clothing is produced in China and eastern Europe. In an attempt to revive the UK textile market, BioRegional Development Group, an independent environmental organisation that develops commercially viable products and services, has started a research project with Hemcore, the UK’s largest hempgrowing organisation. ‘We want to see hemp on the high street,’ says project director Emily Stott. They are developing a technology to produce a fine enough fibre to be spun in a traditional cotton mill – some of which still exist, although defunct – in the UK. If hemp could be spun and woven in the UK, there would be commercial potential for it as a mainstream fabric.
Women’s clothing prices have fallen by a third in 10 years, while the ‘value’ end of the market is booming, doubling in size in just five years to £6 billion of sales in 2005. As clothes get cheaper and cheaper, we’re buying more than ever, fuelling a trend for fast, disposable fashion. Fast fashion specifically aims at a culture of rapid purchase and disposal. Not made to last, clothes are produced with little care, using low-quality fabrics – so much so that one may be lucky to get a few wears out of them. As budget retailers sell jeans for as little as £3, the impacts of cheap fashion increasingly hit those at the bottom of the supply chain.
Arguably, retail buyers are one of the most influential groups of people growing the ethical fashion market. They are the direct link between designers and consumers.
Claire Hamer, a junior buyer at Topshop, has been instrumental in getting Topshop to stock its very first Fairtrade clothing line, People Tree, and create its own line of Fairtrade clothes.‘At Topshop, buyers are quite key in the whole thing. Who’s going to make the product and where it’s going to be made, is down to the buyer,’ Claire says.
Green initiatives can also start from the top. Julie Gilhart, fashion director and senior vice-president of Barneys New York, one of the most ‘directional’ department stores in the fashion world, has introduced green fashion to the store. ‘I do not think the eco/organic/ fair trade movement is a trend. I think it is the beginning of a major shift in consciousness in the fashion business,’ she told the Financial Times.
‘The reality in the fashion business is, “Right, what’s available? I want it quick and I’m not bothered how it gets here”.’ – Salvatore Pignataro, Traidcraft Clothing used to be dictated by seasons. A collection was introduced for ‘Spring/Summer’ and ‘Autumn/Winter’. Beginning in the early 1990s, retailers like Gap and Esprit introduced one for each of the four seasons, still within the realms of what ‘season’ truly means – one of the four natural divisions of the year. This then led some retailers to up the stakes and supply six or eight seasons, then even 10 to 12. Today some retailers have 15 seasons every year. Far from actual seasons, our high streets have now become a constantly revolving carousel of new fashions, changing in a matter of weeks. The result is that lead times have got shorter and shorter. ‘A company puts pressure on the supplier to condense the lead time and it’s a one-way discussion. It’s all about what the buyer wants. Buyers end contracts if lead times can’t be met,’ says Salvatore Pinataro, UK purchasing and sourcing manager of Traidcraft. Retailers and manufacturers both know what allows them to survive the demands of ‘fast fashion’ retail: a 26-million strong labour force in poor countries; expendable, underpaid and overworked.
Multi-stakeholder ethical trading initiatives
Multi-stakeholder ethical trading initiatives (MSIs) involve retailers signing up to a Code of Conduct based on International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions. The largest UK-based MSI, the Ethical Trading Initiative, was set up in 1998; it represents 40 companies with a combined annual turnover of £107 billion. These come to the table with trade unions, development charities and worker organisations. Sounds good. But do the companies practise the principles they’ve signed up to? Primark joined the ETI in May 2006. In December that year, War on Want published a report on workers at factories in Bangladesh that supply to ETI members Primark, Tesco and ASDA/George. These workers were typically paid 5p an hour and worked 80 hours a week. So is ETI membership a shield – even a selling point? Sam Maher of Labour Behind the Label says, ‘None of the companies can guarantee that all parts of their supply chain implement the ETI Base Code. The main issue is that there is no transparency – the reviews, criteria for inclusion and exclusion in the ETI are all confidential, so as a pressure group it is hard to know what to try to hold them to. However, when there is an urgent issue involving a specific violation, it’s much easier to get the companies involved to sit around a table and discuss it.’
Can dyes ever really be all-natural? Can eco dyes be commercially viable? These are questions that many in the industry are beginning to ask. While there is no push, as yet, to use natural dyes on a big commercial scale, natural dyeing is gaining mainstream significance through the creation of ‘eco jeans’ that use natural indigo dye. Natural dyes are based on natural sources such as plants, berries and insects and are inherently biodegradable and carbon neutral. But they are not without controversy. Some say that eco dyes are a fallacy, because mordants are needed to fix the dyes to the fabric, and these generally include heavy metals. ‘The colours aren’t always as bright and strong, they’re not as colour-fast as we’re used to and lots of natural resources are needed to make them,’ says Peter Johnson of Huntsman, one of the biggest synthetic dye companies. Huntsman has developed several ranges of dyes suitable for use on organically certified garments, that have eliminated many harmful substances normally used in synthetic dyes. ‘Any big company will be sceptical of natural dyeing. It’s expensive and can be physically hard work. The only mordant I use is alum, a mineral salt,’ says Gracie Burnett, a UK-based natural dyer.
Cotton makes up 40 per cent of world fibre consumption and is produced in 80 countries. It is also one of the dirtiest crops in the world, because it is heavily reliant on hazardous chemicals that poison farmers, soil and water. In contrast, organic cotton has outstanding benefits, especially to small-scale farmers, in terms of improved health, income, livelihood and food security.13 Farming organically means healthier, stronger soils, increased farm biodiversity and less pollution of water and air. And organic cotton is on the up. ‘Interest in organic cotton is growing. The market is really starting to take off,’ says Sarah Compson, business development officer at the Soil Association. ‘We’re getting an increasing number of enquiries from the big multiple retailers who want to have certified organic ranges.’ Estimated global retail sales of organic cotton products increased from $245 million in 2001 to $583 million in 2005. According to the Organic Exchange, global organic cotton product sales are projected to skyrocket to $2.6 billion by the end of 2008 – an annual rise of 116 per cent. In the UK, more than 120 brands, 150 retail shops and 170 online shops sell organic cotton clothing. Find one on the Pesticide Action Network’s site, www.wearorganic.org.
Hailed as a Utopian fabric in the 1950s,today polyester equals cheap, massmarket clothes. Non- biodegradable, it will be around for another 200 years or so. And as it is mostly blended with other fabrics, it is hard to reprocess. Producing polyester leads to emissions of heavy metals, cobalt and manganese salts, sodium bromide, titanium dioxide, antimony oxide and acetaldehyde. Can polyester be green? One of the most popular uses of PET (polyester) is for plastic drinks bottles. Patagonia, a US-based outdoor clothing label, pioneered the use of recycled plastic bottles to make a polyester fleece. Since they started 14 years ago, the recycled plastic-to-polyester fleeces have directed 86 million bottles from landfill. Marks & Spencer launched its own recycled polyester collection in August 2007. It calculates that with the men’s fleeces alone, it will reuse 22 million two-litre bottles. Making one fleece takes just 11 two-litre plastic bottles. In time, M&S hopes to produce all the store’s polyester clothing from recycled plastic bottles. If other retailers follow suit, it could mark a real turning point in our use of synthetic fabrics for clothes. Eight per cent of the world’s annual oil production goes into making plastics. Making recycled polyester clothes will use much less crude oil than producing virgin polyester.
Questions for Brands and Retailers
How can I tell if a garment is made in a sweatshop? There are no easy answers. The sad truth is that even if a garment is relatively expensive it still could have been made in a sweatshop. According to Martin Hearson, Campaign Coordinator for Labour Behind the Label, ‘The problems are structural and apply across the board. We need to engage the industry as a whole. The right question for people to ask is: “How can I persuade companies to do more to improve the conditions of workers on the ground?” It’s not just about the particular pair of trousers you buy.’
Before you buy, ask the retailer:
1. How much are the people producing the clothes you sell being paid? A living wage for workers should cover the cost of meeting a family’s basic needs in: food and water, housing and energy, clothing, health care, transportation, education and childcare.
2. What hours do they work? Can the retailer demonstrate that workers are not subject to excessive overtime or bad terms of employment?
3. Can workers defend themselves? Are unions and collective bargaining allowed and encouraged in the factories where the clothes are made and packaged?
Reduce Reuse Recycle
Between 2001 and 2005, the number of garments bought per person in the UK increased by over one-third.19 We are now buying approximately 2.15 million tonnes of new clothing each year. Estimates differ as to how much is discarded. DEFRA says 1.1 million tonnes of textiles are thrown away in household bins every year, whereas a recent report by the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University put the figure higher, at 1.8 million tonnes. To put it in perspective, a single tonne of textiles fills roughly 200 black bin bags. Imagine 220 million black bin bags sent to landfill and you get an idea of why we should reduce our buying, reuse and recycle. According to Wastewatch, two million shoes are thrown in rubbish bins in the UK every week. Kick the habit. Reduce, reuse and recycle.
The future of fashion lies in the hands of the next generation of industry players: fashion and textiles students. Increasingly, undergrad and postgrad courses across the board, from Textiles Design to Retail Buying to Fashion Marketing, are tackling ethical and environmental issues, and more students are incorporating these into their work.
Fashioning an Ethical Industry (FEI), a Labour Behind the Label project, has compiled a database of eco/ethical elements in fashion courses in the UK: visit http://fashioninganethicalindustry.org/ethicalcourses
Courses with ethics and sustainability at their core:
• MA Design for Textile Futures , Central Saint Martins
• BA (Textiles) Design & Technology Management, University of Leeds
• MA Ethical Fashion, University College for the Creative Arts (Epsom)
• The Textile Environment Design (TED) project, Chelsea College of
Art and Design. A collective of eco-principled designers/educators.
• New: MA Fashion and Environment, London College of Fashion
(will be proposed for validation in 2008)
• London College of Fashion is founding the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF), scheduled to launch in April 2008, to promote sustainability across the entire fashion sector supply chain.
Triple Bottom Line
People, Planet and Profit: that’s the triple bottom line. A sustainable business doesn’t put social or environmental issues above profits – it combines strategies that meet the business’s financial realities with protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources needed in the future. Consultants A.T. Kearney’s January 2007 survey of 25 companies found that CEOs believe sustainability is a ‘top line’ opportunity: as a revenue driver as consumers increasingly search out ethical clothes, and as a help in building brand and communities and improving employee morale. A report by Goldman Sachs found that companies that are leaders in implementing environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies to create sustained competitive advantage have outperformed the general stockmarket by 25 per cent since August 2005, and 72 per cent of them have outperformed their peers over the same period.
The costs of doing nothing, on the other hand, can be high. Companies that don’t implement sustainability measures have higher waste disposal, energy, fuel and input costs (e.g. packaging, chemicals, water). These issues involve companies throughout the supply chain. Being sustainable also means protecting brand value and managing investor concerns. The percentage of companies that have deselected suppliers for failing to meet sustainability criteria rose from 17 per cent in 2002 to 60 per cent in 2007 – a trend that A.T. Kearney predicts will increase.
Recycling textiles saves energy and, if no recolouration takes place, it can save water and chemicals, too. In the case of 100 per cent wool fabric, for instance, the recycling process uses only half as much energy as it takes to produce a fabric from virgin fibre. However, when textile fibres are recycled, they are downgraded almost immediately into low-quality end-uses such as wiping rags or mattress filling. Most recycling is therefore ‘downcycling’, because it reduces the quality of the product over time. ‘Upcycling’ is reuse whereby the item’s quality remains the same or is increased, for example by refashioning into another garment. Research is being carried out in this area. For example, Rebecca Earley at Chelsea College of Art and Design, initiated a Textiles Environment Design (TED) project called ‘Ever and Again: Rethinking Recycled Textiles’; interim outcomes will be exhibited in the College’s Triangle Gallery, from 19–25 October.
Vegetable Tanned Leather
At least 90 per cent of leather worldwide is chrome-tanned. However, chrome may be carcinogenic and studies have shown higher cancer rates in leather industry workers. Although it is an ancient process, vegetable tanning makes up only a very small percentage of tanned leather. It is done by immersing cleaned animal hide in vats of tannin (hence the name ‘tanning’), plant polyphenols found in tree bark and other vegetable matter, gradually absorbing these and developing a brown colour. Traditional veg-tanned leather is stiff, and has been used for horse saddles, harnesses and boots for the Queen’s guard; but current generation veg-tanned leather is supple and soft.
Wash Less, Wash Green
The only way to really have a green wardrobe is to buy less and wash less. Buying fewer but better-made clothes may be more expensive initially but will serve you much better in the long term. And as consumers, we can also drastically reduce the global climate-change
Washing green means:
• Washing at lower temperatures: 30°C instead of 40°C or 60°C
• Air drying instead of tumble drying
• Ironing only if necessary
• Using eco-friendly washing detergents, with fewer
or no phosphates
impact of our clothes simply by changing the way in which we wash and care for them. A typical T-shirt, if washed at 60°C, tumbledried and ironed, will lead to the release of 4kg of C0² in its usable lifetime.21 That’s the same as a 17-mile/27km aeroplane flight. But if you wash that T-shirt at a low temperature, don’t tumble dry (which uses around 60 per cent of the ‘use phase’ energy) and don’t iron it, you will be reducing the global climate change impact of the garment by around 50 per cent. So it ain’t (only) what you wear… it’s the way that you care for it!
Export Processing Zones
Export Processing Zones (EPZs), also called free trade zones, are industrial parks offering tax holidays, duty exemptions and investment-allowance reductions. They offer benefit-free, union-free and flexible labour as an incentive to investors – virtually the only thing that companies need to pay is worker wages. In 2000, Naomi Klein helped to expose EPZs in her book No Logo. At the time, there were around 1,000 EPZs in the world, employing roughly 27 million workers. Despite the revelation of the awful conditions at these places, they continue to exist. And not only that – their numbers have expanded. By 2005, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, there were more than 5,000 of them, employing more than 50 million workers globally, and they are a ‘fast spreading phenomenon’. EPZs were promoted as a way to help poor economies way back in 1964, when the UN Economic and Social Council adopted a resolution endorsing the zones as a means of promoting trade. Now, according to both the World Bank and McKinsey, a leading business consultancy, the incentives EPZs provide rarely work, as they set national and provincial governments bidding against each other, giving away many of the gains from trade to be had for workers and for long-term development.
On 11 January 2001, a bomb exploded at the home of Ezequiel Antonio Palma Jimenez, a former leader of the workers’ union of the municipality of Yumbo, Colombia. Murder, kidnap, harassment, sacking and mistreatment are everyday realities for those defending workers’ rights in many countries. Colombia is one of, if not the worst, places in the world for murders of union members – 84 in 2006. The CUT, Colombia’s main union confederation, estimates that 500 people have been assassinated since 2002 – despite Colombia having ratified several freedom of association conventions, and reporting to the International Labour Organization (ILO) supervisory bodies. Estimates are that fewer than 10 per cent of garment workers worldwide are unionised.23 One of the most effective ways to improve workers’ situation is to encourage collective bargaining and unionisation. Yet research suggests that only 15 per cent of retailers’ audits even take freedom of association into account. At best, workers are not informed of their labour rights. At worst, there are systematic terror campaigns to discourage union activity. Figures compiled by the International Federation of Free Trade Unions reveal that in 2005, nearly 10,000 workers around the world were sacked for their trade union involvement, almost 1,700 were detained, and 115 trade unionists were murdered.
‘The day that a big brand endorses eco principles and makes it a selling point will be a prized moment for planet fashion and planet Earth.’ So said the doyenne of the fashion press, Suzy Menkes, in the International Herald Tribune in April 2006. Well, just over one year later, in June 2007, Suzy Menkes headlined a story on Italy’s prestigious Pitti Immagine Uomo fair ‘Green is good – by customer demand’, in which she stated that the ‘burgeoning demand from a concerned public is creating a change in the fashion climate’. Notably, the long-established premium clothing company Ermenegildo Zegna – often referred to simply as Zegna – had created a solar jacket that can recharge electronic gadgets using nature’s energy, as well as a collection of leather accessories using non-chemical production. Gildo Zegna has said that the long-term focus of the Zegna family is ‘green, clean and environmentally friendly’. So was this the prized day for planets fashion and Earth??
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2008