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Sustainability in the fashion industry: what it really demands

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Inspired by the 2021 Earth Day theme, Restore Our Earth, “Well + Good is launching a month-long series called ‘Planet Hope’ with expert-led content focused on food, clothing, sustainable living and daily activism. Check back for some practical advice on how to incorporate each goal into your life on an ongoing and meaningful basis.

Writing about sustainability in the fashion industry is my passion and focus 365 days a year, so I’m always on the lookout for innovative brands that try to make things a little better. But in early March, emails start to come in from brands wanting to tell me about their collections that will soon launch in honor of Earth Day on April 22: branded organic cotton t-shirts, cotton hoodies. recycled plastic and cotton, and sunglasses in biobased polymers. These efforts are the environmentalist equivalent of phoning them.

Buying a piece from an Earth Day-inspired capsule collection is a totally inadequate way to deal with the overlapping global crises of fashion production. We need to think bigger, and we are overdue for a second environmental revolution based on the same energy and ferocity of political organization that led to the founding of Earth Day and the creation of Earth Day. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

First celebrated on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was founded to “bring about a national manifestation of concern for the environment so great that it would shake the political establishment from its lethargy.” according to its creator, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who wanted to “place this issue permanently on the national political agenda”. It was inspired by Rachel Carson Silent spring, a lyrical 1962 tale of what we were losing to environmental degradation: Rivers were so polluted they could catch fire, and the overuse of pesticides like DDT endangered our national emblem, the eagle bald head.

It worked. Millions of Americans walked, gathered, and learned of the myriad of looming environmental threats. In July of the same year, the EPA was created, and the hard work of cleaning up our rivers and the air had begun. And it is high time that we re-engage these efforts in a real way.

While rivers, air, and soil in the United States may have benefited from this initial clean-up push, it has in fact only reassigned many pollution-generating habits overseas, particularly in this regard. which concerns the fashion industry. Take, for example, the Clean Water Act of 1972, which forced many leather tanneries in the United States to close shop (many toxic effluents pumped – or wastes released into the environment – into water sources). Leather tanning then flourished in Bangladesh, carrying on the tradition of poison soil and water with heavy metal chromium (III) sulfate, sulfuric acid, surfactants, degreasers, ammonium sulfate and other toxic chemicals.

Also consider viscose rayon, which requires a toxic chemical called carbon disulfide that can cause delirium and long-term chronic neurophysiological changes in factory workers, among other effects. It is no longer made in the United States, but a survey conducted in 2017 by Changing the foundation of markets found that viscose suppliers in Indonesia, China and India were dumping toxic effluents into rivers and poisoning their local communities. The story is the same with a myriad of other fad processes, including the use of toxic dyes, the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers to grow cotton, and the operation of factories from generators. dirty diesel and coal-fired electricity.

There is also the question of fashion contributing to global waste: Californians sent 1.2 billion tonnes of textiles to landfill in 2014, while the average household in New York throws about 120 pounds of textiles per year. Much of what we choose to donate instead is sent overseas to developing countries, where it spills out of markets and into landfills, gutters and rivers. In Ghana, which has a roaring second-hand market, it is estimated 40% of the 15 million items that arrive at its port each week end up as waste, much of which has burned, releasing its toxic finishes and dyes into the air and water. And we only recently discovered the existence of synthetic microfibers – an estimate 176,500 tons of them are released into the environment each year.

Finally, we must tackle the looming threat of climate change. A 2018 report found that the fashion industry was responsible for an estimate 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, or 4% of the world total. (For the background, the biggest offenders are transport at 28% and electricity at 27%.) So how do we change that and put the question of fashion’s impact on the international political agenda?

Governments should force brands to stop greenwashing or outright lying. This can be accomplished through two equally important types of legislation.

Tania Array, political organizer and co-founder of Fashion of tomorrow, an advocacy organization focused on improving the fashion industry, call for the government to start by funding research to quantify the impact of fashion on the environment and to propose innovative solutions. This research can then form the basis of international agreements and standards for safe and clean fashion production everywhere.

Additionally, the United States and other governments should force brands to stop greenwashing practices (embellishing the ecological intention or impact of an initiative or product) or outright lie. This can be accomplished through two equally important types of legislation: transparency and due diligence.

Thanks to transparency legislation, brands would be required to list all their suppliers and share measures on their environmental footprint. Right now, many brands are making big promises, without having to share evidence of progress.

Due diligence legislation makes a brand legally responsible for what its suppliers do, whether they source from sweatshops or allow the use of chemicals on their clothing that are banned in Europe and the United States. currently working through the German government it would hold German companies accountable for human rights and environmental violations in their supply chain, and it could provide a test case or model for similar legislation elsewhere.

For all the work that needs to be done at the government level, however, there is an equally enjoyable, convenient, and nourishing way to delve into sustainability in the fashion industry, and that revolves around maintaining curiosity. When you check out the different materials – from the stiff 100% cotton denim found in those vintage Levi’s perfects, to the plush chunky silk in a kaftan, the soft merino wool for odor-resistant athleticism, and the linen in a button that looks like a cold drink on a hot day – you reconnect to the Why of fashion. This serves to keep us warm, cool or dry, but it can also help us feel and appreciate life much more deeply.

Finding your favorite brands and rewarding their quality with your loyalty is one of the most lasting things you can do.

Understanding how these fabrics drape over your body, knowing your measurements, finding your favorite brands, and rewarding their quality with your loyalty is one of the most enduring things you can do. This saves you the insane emotional expense and waste of filling your digital shopping cart with fast fashion pieces that rarely, if ever, satisfy for very long.

When you learn about fashion traditions – the knitting and weaving methods of all cultures, patterns and colors and their meanings, adornments and celebrations – you can have fun with fashion and let it speak for you. while avoiding degradation linked to the history of fashion. the exploitation of resources and bodies.

We can’t get away from the issues with fashion and its intersection with sustainability – and certainly not by buying an Earth Day graphic t-shirt. But we can engage fully in the many facets of fashion – as a political tool, as a powerful system to reform, and as a means of expression, to name a few. The fashion industry connects people with other people, places and traditions – it’s time we used that power for good.

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