Clothing is one of our most vivid avenues for self-expression, and this is true for Puritans as well as peacocks.
Clothing is one of our most vivid avenues for self-expression, and this is true for Puritans as well as peacocks. Whether we dress with a love of style or with complete indifference to it, those of us who have the luxury of making such choices are communicating something about our values and priorities to the world.
It all adds up: in producing around 100 billion garments a year, with revenues estimated at $1.55 trillion in 2021, apparel is the world’s fourth-largest economic sector and accounts for as much as 10 percent of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, the apparel industry also has a big appetite for resources; it’s the world’s second-largest consumer of water, and accounts for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides.
Rounding out our complicated relationship with clothes, the industry is fraught with concerns about working conditions, child labor, living wages, animal welfare, diversity, the promotion of harmful self-images and has a reputation for profligate waste.
Because of this heavy social, environmental and climate footprint, and because our sartorial choices are so complex and emotionally charged, the apparel industry is particularly vulnerable to the deceptive spin of greenwashing, designed to create the illusion of environmental responsibility and social conscience. The more aware we become, the more the “sustainable fashion” claims seem to proliferate.
This past March, the Netherlands-based Changing Markets Foundation, dedicated to providing unbiased information to help consumers make informed choices, published a detailed analysis of the best known among the more than 100 voluntary textile sustainability certification protocols. The study reveals deep flaws in certification programs, which boast ambitious goals but few enforceable standards, and are at best ineffective and at times actively misleading.
Many of the programs are funded by member manufacturers and retailers, which can create an inherent bias for member companies’ processes and practices. For example, a certification standard can stack the deck by focusing selectively on a few stages of the manufacturing process, instead of the full life cycle.
The report found that many certification schemes promote synthetic fibers like acrylic, nylon and polyester, which make up more than two-thirds of all textiles. By ignoring the environmental impact of fossil fuel extraction, refining and processing into the polymers used to make synthetic textiles, and the damage associated with microplastics and microfibers, some protocols—notably the Higg index, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Cradle to Cradle (C2C)—actually claim that synthetics are a better environmental choice than natural fibers like linen, wool and organic cotton.
Some certification schemes distract by focusing on positive, but peripheral, actions like reducing plastic in packaging or switching to LED light bulbs in corporate offices, while failing to address overproduction, product end-of-life, and the feasibility of scaling up the recycling of fibers.
What can a caring consumer do? One sure-fire way consumers can act on their environmental concerns is to just buy less. Ironically, our yen for sustainable fashion has not translated to this simple strategy. While the pandemic created a temporary dip in global clothing purchases, Changing Markets also notes that the number of garments purchased per consumer has more than doubled since 2002, and is on a trajectory to rise by 63 percent by 2030.
Unfortunately, the number of times a garment is worn before it is discarded has declined by almost 40 percent over the past 15 years, a triumph for the concept of fast fashion, the constant, fad-driven churning of desire for cheaply made disposable garments.
The study concludes that self-regulation cannot deliver on industry promises of transparency and GHG reduction. Meanwhile China, the world’s largest exporter of textiles, has established a non-government organization that will require disclosure of GHG emissions from roughly 80,000 mills and factories. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is developing a similar strategy for publicly traded companies. And in New York, the “Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act,” currently in committee (S7428), would require large fashion manufacturers and retailers to disclose environmental and social impacts like GHG emissions, water use and chemicals throughout the supply chain.
But as with so many issues, I think the biggest, most immediate solutions lie within the power of each individual to work toward better choices. For now, I am opting to buy less, make things last, and research where a company’s goods are produced and whether they adhere to a verifiable living wage protocol. I look for natural fibers, especially linen, hemp and washable wool—and I’ve made my peace with wrinkled clothes. But we will each have to find our own ways, without judgment or virtue signaling and, I hope, without losing the morale-boosting pleasures of color and thread.
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