Photographed by William Lords
This is the month we have all been waiting for, as world leaders and organizations from all over the world met in Glasgow for the COP26 summit to decide our fate.
Why is this the only thing we should be talking about? Well, let’s start with the earth and its ecosystems, because that is where we must begin all our conversations. We are in a dual crisis: a climate and a nature crisis. As UN secretary-general António Guterres put it so well, this is code red for humanity.
Alberto Candiani, president of Candiani Denim, inspecting spools of cotton
In ecology there exists the concept of the sliding baseline. It’s a tragic term coined by the oceanographer Callum Roberts. Every generation takes their current ecological circumstances as their reality. They don’t know that they should enquire about the birds and the butterflies and the flowers that were there before but are now lost. Each generation inherits a more degraded version of nature. This speeds up. Eventually we are left with nothing.
The fashion and textile industry is an ecosystem too. It has been consistently degraded until we can’t remember how much we’ve lost. Occasionally we get glimpses, and we remember that this could and should be an ecosystem of producers, designers, and manufacturers, working within the limits of nature. We are reminded that human livelihoods and social sustainability are as important as technical plans to decarbonize. But most of the time we accept a degraded and degrading system as reality.
Make the Label Count
What are the solutions? From supporting young leaders or emerging designers to researching new business models or ways to make our clothes less polluting, while also insisting on living wages and social justice across the supply chain, each month I try to give you a glimpse of what our sustainable fashionscape could look like. And this month I would like to stress how important it is that we get educated about the clothes we wear, starting from the fibers our clothes are made of. We have long argued that people who buy fashion – I do not like the term consumers, as it is reductive – should have more information and be more strongly connected to the garments they buy. Labelling is part of preventing that slide into complacency. Done right, it could be much more. Through regenerative agriculture and better science about the production of natural fibers, we should be able to reflect this ambition with labels. Fashion doesn’t have a labelling system like food, and this is why, last month, I supported the launch of a campaign called Make the Label Count, because we really can, but only if we base all the underpinning methodology on science – real, fact-based evidence.
Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, where tons of disposed fast fashion ends up
We are in danger of doing the exact opposite. Today, the pressure is on building that label on a base of misinformation and skewed science and, at this point, it would be unforgivable. It could potentially unleash billions more items made of non-biodegradable petrochemical plastic polymers onto a patchy global waste system that is already unable to cope. We must correct course, and we must do it now. We have seen poor, incomplete, and skewed science promising the world solutions before. We all remember the distorted information used in the automotive emissions scandal and in the case of green biofuels. These are not just ugly chapters, they double the workload elsewhere. It can take a generation to get back on course. We do not have the time. There is an epidemic of greenwashing in our industry. Overclaims on sustainability are damaging all of us because we will simply fail to deliver on the cuts we need to ensure a liveable planet. We need to check where our clothes are coming from, who made them, what they are made of, and if the claims are actually true. We must insist that brands do better and are more transparent with their processes.
This is what the science tells us. We don’t negotiate with the science, we don’t distort the science, we just use it to form our pathway. We need to use cutting-edge science as our mandate; innovation as our tool; and knowledge as our superpower. Remember, actual sustainability is simple. It’s just a fancy word for change. And I fundamentally believe that not only must this change come from each one of us, but that, as citizens, we must wear our superhero clothes well.
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Originally published on November issue of Vogue Arabia
Photographed by William Lords
The figures are damning – the garment industry is still one of the biggest threats to our global environment. Vogue Arabia asks what needs to change, how soon, and what we can do about it – before it’s too late.
Sustainable fashion brand Brock Collection. Photographed by Marcus Cooper
“I personally believe that globalization was the end of humanity,” states Eric Ritter of sustainable Beirut-based fashion brand Emergency Room. And he says it just a little too casually. For such an earth-shatteringly apocalyptic statement one usually expects a little more drama. But for Ritter, this belief is part and parcel of what he does and is simply a fact of life.
“The industrialization and globalization of production and the economy enable multinational companies to produce in one country and sell in another, and this is how fast fashion brands produce very cheap clothes. The problem is that they are not the people who choose the minimum wage – it’s the governments of those countries. You can’t tell these brands they aren’t doing it properly because on paper they are abiding by all the rules. So really it’s just about morals. But it’s very difficult to regulate that,” says Ritter with a weak smile.
When it comes to the morality of the fashion industry, the numbers speak for themselves. As the second most polluting industry on the planet – usurped only by oil production – fashion has a lot to answer for. Climate crisis and the human misery it creates in turn is the price we are increasingly paying for our thirst for what’s new, now and next.
According to UN figures, it takes almost 8000 gallons of water – what one person drinks in seven years – to make one pair of jeans. And when those jeans are discarded, they join the 21 billion tons of textiles that end up in landfills each year. Of 100 billion items produced yearly, 14 for each human on the planet, three in five will be discarded within the year. And the Environmental Audit Committee found that 15% of all clothing fabric is wasted at the cutting stage of production, before it even has a chance to get into stores. During Fashion Revolution’s 2021 Fashion Revolution Week it emerged that 200 million trees are felled each year to make cellulosic fabrics, 35-40% of those coming from old growth woodlands. When it comes to pollution of water supplies, abuse of workers and damage to the environment, the statistics are endless. All in all, making clothing is a dirty business.
“The transition to change the way it works is too slow,” says Dr Rima Trofimovaite, Head of Certification (Interim) for Planet Mark, a sustainability certification that aims to help companies strengthen their environmental strategies. “Without immediate action, the fashion industry will fail to meet the global targets set in the Paris Agreement, limiting global warming to 1.5 °C. And as in any business, legislators and consumers are the most powerful drivers for change. It is in consumers’ hands to drive the change to a more sustainable fashion industry.”
“It is critical that consumers can identify which businesses have adopted authentic sustainable practices through transparency, from the manufacturing process to marketing. The fashion industry needs to shift from linear to circular product lifecycle models and there is a lot of work that needs to be done to achieve that. This shift in manufacturing model would support conscious customers, increase efficiency and result in significant financial gain,” adds Dr Trofimovaite.
Greenpeace estimates that $500billion is lost each year because of under-wearing and failure to recycle clothes. The State of Fashion Report 2021 from management consulting firm McKinsey notes that companies with a focus on sustainability will drive profit from socially conscious consumers – two thirds of apparel shoppers say that sustainability is more important to them today than it was before the Covid-19 crisis.
2020 Vogue Fashion Prize winner, Mohamed Benchellal. Photographed by Michel Takla for Vogue Arabia
“As consumers increasingly become more conscious of where they spend their money and which brands and businesses they support, the fashion industry must adapt to these shifting behaviors in order to be competitive and resilient,” says Dr Trofimovaite. “Companies that understand this shift from conscious consumers will need to demonstrate their sustainability credentials in a transparent and robust way.”
These credentials include disclosing manufacturing details, right down to the origin of raw materials – where they have the most impact, both in terms of environmental and human cost. According to the Fashion Transparency index, only seven percent of surveyed brands will reveal those details. However, a new generation of emerging designers are increasingly in agreement with changing fashion from top to bottom.
“It’s not just about the clothing being sustainable; the whole business model in the industry isn’t sustainable,” says Mohamed Benchellal, winner of the 2020 Vogue Fashion Prize, Powered by NEOM. “The world needs to head in that direction of change. To quote my mother, whoever doesn’t want to listen will have to live with the consequences. I’m doing my part, I hope others will too.”
For Benchellal, a shift in desirability and a return to true exclusivity could ultimately be a turning point for the industry.
“As I work with industry leftovers and dead stock materials, when that material is done, it’s done,” he says. “You can’t reproduce items and in a way that’s very challenging but also very interesting. It makes the pieces that you produce available in limited editions, very unique, and I believe in that concept. It’s interesting for the industry; not to be thinking of thousands and thousands of pieces per design, but what materials are available and to make limited editions as a result.”
Just as before Eric Ritter’s dreaded globalization took place clothes were mostly handmade in the home, perhaps a shift in fashion will see style localize once more – and there are plenty of emerging designers who would welcome the change and the challenge.
Fast fashion by numbers
• 20% of global water waste is caused by the fashion industry• 1 in 6 people in the world works in a fashion job• 80% of fashion workers are women• 93% of surveyed fashion brands do not pay their workers a living wage• 20-35% of ocean microplastics come from the fashion industry
To know more, make sure to tune into Vogue Arabia’s Future of Sustainable Fashion digital event on June 28 at 4pm UAE time/3pm KSA time. Click here to register.
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